Although the Orpheum Theatre had its 90th birthday last year, technically it’s the “new” Orpheum. A performance hall called the Grand Opera House was built in 1890 on the corner of Beale Street and Main, over the site of a former coal yard. When vaudeville arrived, the venue was sold to the Orpheum Circuit, a national chain of theaters specializing in touring specialty acts, and the name was changed in 1907.
“In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Memphis was an important stop for theatrical companies and concert tours because of the Orpheum,” says Memphis historian Wayne Dowdy. “Legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, comedian Milton Berle, escape artist Harry Houdini and composer and band leader John Philip Sousa all performed at the Orpheum.”
The good times came to an end – or at least a pause – in 1923, when, after a performance by actress and singer Blossom Seely, the Orpheum burned to the ground. The fraternal architecture firm of Rapp and Rapp designed the replacement theater, along with 400 other venues across the country.
Unfortunately, the rebuild was followed shortly thereafter by the Great Depression, and the Orpheum had to come up with novel ideas to bring in entertainment dollars. One of these was essentially a trivia contest … with a twist.
“In June 1937 a stenographer named Mamie Rae Brooks attended a program where she answered ‘Paris’ to the question, ‘What city has the greatest number of art treasures in the world?’ The Orpheum management claimed that the correct answer was Florence, Italy, and refused to pay her the $300 cash prize,” says Wayne. “However, the real reason was that they didn’t have the money to pay the prize, so they simply closed the theater for the rest of the year.”
The cultural shift from vaudeville to movies came at the perfect time. While built for live entertainment, the theater made an easy transition to becoming a grand film palace.
“When [Malco founder] Michael Lightman was looking for a flagship theater for his chain, he bought it in 1940, and it became a pure, single-screen, big, downtown movie theater,” says current Orpheum CEO Brett Batterson.
At that point in the Jim Crow South, however, even the universal pleasure of movies was segregated. One distinctive trait of the Orpheum is that the separate entrance and lobby designated for African-American guests is still intact, although currently an inactive part of the theater. Brett hopes to renovate the space as a living history exhibit to provide youth with a real-life example of this difficult chapter of the city’s — and nation’s — history.
“If we restored the lobby with some videos of people who remember going into that entrance, and seeing the difference between it and the main lobby, they can make that juxtaposition and the Jim Crow laws can become more real,” explains Brett. “It’s really about having an opportunity to help educate kids.”
The theater quietly introduced integrated seating two years before it was required by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but the Orpheum still suffered from the downturn experienced throughout Downtown Memphis in the 1970s. When Malco prepared to sell the building in 1975, the most interested group was the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which prompted another local group to consider the theater as well.
“The Memphis Development Foundation [now Orpheum Theatre Group] was involved in a restaurant around here that had a liquor license, and you couldn’t have a liquor license within so many feet of a church, so what actually motivated them to think about buying the Orpheum was to protect their liquor license,” says Brett. “All of the people involved at the time were terrific people with the right motivation — it might have been the liquor license that made them first look into it, but they did it for the right reasons … to save the theater.”
The Orpheum’s rebirth followed that civic investment, but the ghosts of the past still linger. Literally. The theater is reportedly haunted by seven spirits, the most famous of whom is an 11-year-old named Mary. Brett Batterson’s wife Veronica has even met her personally.
“We were at Jerry Seinfeld, and we’re sitting in the first box closest to the stage, and my wife’s chair was next to open air, space,” he explains. “She was sitting in the chair that’s called Mary’s Chair. She kept thinking someone was behind her, and she looked around and nobody was there — she felt a tapping on her shoulder through the whole show while she sat in Mary’s seat.”
There are also stories of a young man trapped in the theater after his efforts to return Mary to “the other side” failed, as well as a despondent woman named Eleanor often heard moaning with sadness in the balcony. The theater’s first production of A Chorus Line was even sidetracked by its mysterious guests, when an actor’s intentionally off-key singing of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” was interrupted by a child’s voice joining in from backstage … perfectly on pitch. To prevent it from happening again, the entire cast was gathered together off-stage the next night … but the same thing happened.
“Mary would have known that song,” says Brett, who also points out that no one has ever been harmed by an Orpheum ghost, and he doesn’t find them difficult to work with.
As the Orpheum moves forward, the space has adjusted to the increasing grandeur of touring productions and the needs of its changing audiences. In 1997, the back wall was blown out to make way for Broadway-sized sets. The Halloran Center next door was completed in 2015 to provide a smaller performance space and increased room for educational programs and events. Even the beloved Wurlitzer organ, one of only 11 classic theater organs in the country still in its original building, is getting some spa time in Chicago so it can come back sounding just like it did on opening night.
Regardless of upgrades, the Orpheum maintains its distinctive character and embraces its role in Memphis.
“We’re not the right space for every single performance. We’re able, as an organization, to look at how we can help the city, how we can supplement the city — what is right for the Orpheum, and what is right for FedExForum and the Landers Center and Graceland and the Cannon Center and GPAC and Minglewood Hall. We can all work together in the city to make it a very rich tapestry for culture. That’s a big part of running a historic theater, especially one as important to the city as the Orpheum is,” says Brett. “Everybody in this town wants to see the Orpheum succeed.”
The Orpheum is located at 203 S Main St., Memphis, Tennessee 38103. Learn more at orpheum-memphis.com.