North Central News

Orpheum Theatre turns 90; take a free tour

Phoenix’s historic Orpheum Theatre, deemed “Arizona’s Most Beautiful Theater” by Architectural Digest, turned 90 on Jan. 5, 2019.

Opening in 1929 amid much fanfare, the Orpheum’s Spanish-baroque architecture, ornate features and atmospheric setting attracted visitors from near and far. In 1929, the theater offered 1,800 seats and an early form of air conditioning, which made it a place for entertainment and refuge from the desert heat.

Designed by architects Lescher & Mahoney, the theatre was built for $750,000 by J. E. Rickards and Harry Nace.  The last major construction project in Phoenix before the Great Depression, Phoenix’s Orpheum Theatre was the only theater between Los Angeles and Denver able to accommodate traveling vaudeville shows. Since opening, the venue welcomed some of the entertainment industry’s most notable celebrities including Mae West, Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall.

The iconic venue continues to play an integral role in Arizona’s arts and culture community. In recent years, notable celebrities to have graced its stage include Carol Channing, Jimmy Fallon, Lewis Black, Chris Botti, Kate Mulgrew, Barack Obama, David Feherty, Joe Jackson, Jerry Riopelle and many others.

Throughout its existence, Phoenix’s Orpheum Theatre changed names and ownership all while providing entertainment to various audiences in different capacities. Among its many uses, the venue had a long run serving as a Spanish language movie theater. By the 1980s, the theater needed major repairs and the city of Phoenix purchased the property and placed it on the National Register of Historic Places prior to embarking on a 12-year, $14 million restoration project.  Today the venue is downtown Phoenix’s oldest operating theater which regularly hosts events for Theater League, Phoenix Opera and Phoenix Ballet in addition to hosting off-Broadway touring shows and Silent Sunday movies featuring music provided by the mighty Wurlitzer piper organ.

Owned and operated by the city of Phoenix, the venue is still making headlines today, in addition to the Architectural Digest (AD) recognition, the Orpheum has received recent awards from Trip Advisor, Phoenix New Times and Best Things Arizona. The theater has been featured on HGTV, FOX10, KJZZ, Univision, PHXTV and other notable news outlets.

Free docent-led public tours of the Orpheum Theatre are offered on alternating Tuesdays; upcoming tours take place Feb. 26, March 5 & 19, and also on April 2. There are two hour-long, tours beginning at 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. Listen to stories about the performers who have graced the iconic theater’s stage, see the ornate architecture and hear music from the Wurlitzer pipe organ to experience the historic charm of downtown Phoenix’s oldest operating theater. Call 602-495-7139 to schedule a private tour for groups of 10 or more.

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