THE SOUTHWEST’S GRANDEST THEATRE
It all began with two men and a dream. The dream – to build the finest theatre in Phoenix, Arizona.
Designed by architects Lescher & Mahoney, the theatre was built for $750,000 by Jo E. Rickards and Harry Nace. Construction of the Orpheum Theatre began on June 1, 1927 with theatre opening on January 5, 1929 to rave reviews.
Built in a Spanish Revival style of the Spanish Baroque architecture style, intricate murals and moldings were an integral part of the design, all meant to give patrons the impression that they were enjoying the shows “al fresco”. In other words, as if patrons were sitting in the open air theatre complete with starry skies, garden walls, and “bubbling glittering fountains”.
With the best of the best, the Orpheum Theatre was equipped for every known form of entertainment. The theatre even had a special room for the animal actors.
The first year brought a large variety of shows in “picture, talkies, and stage”. It also brought new owners when Rickards and Nace sold interest in their Arizona theatre empire to Publix Theaters, Inc, a Paramount Pictures company, in November of 1929.
In July of 1946, the Orpheum Theatre was billed as a Nace Paramount Theater with the name officially changing to the Paramount in 1950. Harry Nace continued to manage the theatre, but took on a much smaller role due to his quest to bring baseball to Arizona.
James Nederlander of the Nederlander Theatrical Corporation purchased the Orpheum Theatre in April of 1968 to add it as a stop on the Broadway circuit. During the Nederlander years the theatre was known as Palace West.
Over the years, the theatre played host to many Hollywood and Broadway greats including Mae West, Mary Martin, Henry Fonda, and Lauren Bacall, to name a few.
But by 1983, it seemed the best of the theatre’s days were behind. Showing mainly Spanish speaking films and hosting the occasional concert booked by promoters Feyline Presents Inc, the tired, worn, and outdated theatre was well on its way to being razed for a parking lot.
Fortunately, the theatre was spared from the wrecking ball when the City of Phoenix purchased the building in 1984 and with the help of the Junior League of Phoenix in 1985, the theatre was placed on the National Register of Historic Places .
In February of 1991, the theatre’s original name of Orpheum was restored when the Historic League took over to begin the restoration. On April 22, 1990, with only one center chair remaining, the Orpheum Theatre went dark in preparation for its $14.5M restoration.
After 14 years of planning, the Orpheum Theatre reopened in January of 1997 with a performance of Hello, Dolly! starring Carol Channing. After the performance, Ms. Channing, still in costume but out of character, thanked the audience for “not turning this beautiful theatre into a parking lot!”
Today the Orpheum Theatre hosts live performances and the occasional silent movie with live accompaniment on the Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ.