The Orpheum Theater
From opening night to “Resurrection”
The Orpheum Theater advertising the 1947 movie Dead Reckoning. Two years later a ’49 renovation added wood flooring, new seats, improved A/C, a new box office and a new flashing marquee. The original terra cotta exterior was replaced partially with maroon colored structural glass and stainless steel trim. A subsequent renovation in ’89 restored the theater to close to its original terra cotta look on the exterior, expanded the lobby and removed the large theater marquee, replacing it with a more historically accurate one.
The Charles L. Franck Studio Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection, acc. no. 1979.325.5893
In 1918, a new vaudeville theater was planned to replace the 19-year-old Orpheum Theater on St. Charles Avenue. Opened on February 7, 1921 at 129 University Place, the new Orpheum was one of the most modern theaters in the United States, and the only one in the South with an elevator. The unusual vertical seating arrangement ensured that no seat in the auditorium was more than 60 feet from the stage. An elaborate heating and cooling system was powered by ice and fans in the summer and a furnace in the winter.
The décor included an elaborate proscenium arch with luxurious draperies in gray and orange, a blue circle at the top of the ceiling dome decorated with stars, and a general color scheme of gold, blue and pinks. Brown leather chairs were placed flanking taupe carpet aisle runners.
Opening night featured headliners “Singer’s Midgets,” with a cast of 30 people, 35 ponies and three elephants. Other acts in those first years included plays, music, dancing, medical marvels and animal performances; tanks were built in the basement to accommodate travelling seal acts. Helen Keller, Harry Houdini and Mickey Rooney graced the stage, among many others.
By the 1930s, vaudeville was losing out to the lure of motion pictures, and the theater transitioned into a movie house. After years of decline in movie and neighborhood quality, the Orpheum was threatened with demolition in ’79. The New Orleans Symphony Orchestra stepped in as tenants, the Louisiana Legislature provided renovation funds and the building was saved and added to the National Register of Historic Places in ’82.
Severe water and wind damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was followed by a series of owners who did little more than board up a few windows, until new investors purchased the property in ’14 and restored it to its original grandeur. The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra returned in time for its ’15-’16 season, opening with a performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection.” The theater once again hosts a variety of performances, including a return to movie showings.