Orpheum Theatre

842 S. Broadway,
Los Angeles, CA 90014

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Orpheum Theatre - Los Angeles, CA

The Orpheum Theatre was opened February 15, 1926 as a vaudeville theatre. Actress Ruth Chatterton topped the bill appearing in a stage presentation of “The Conflict”. Also on the bill were British comics Nervo & Knox and the latest Pathe News was shown on screen. It was the fourth and final Orpheum Theatre to be opened in downtown Los Angeles. The first was the Grand Opera House/Grand Theater, 110 S. Main Street (1884-1937), Los Angeles Theatre/Orpheum Theatre/Lyceum Theatre, 227 S. Spring Street (1888-1941) and Orpheum Theatre/Palace Theatre, 630 S. Broadway (1911-current). (all theses have their own pages on Cinema Treasures). Again favored architect of the Orpheum circuit G. Albert Lansburgh designed the 1926 Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, his last contract for the company as he had a falling-out with them during its construction. The 12-story office building fronting it is just that, an office building devoid of any decorative features, but the theatre does have an enormous roof sign on top, which before other tall buildings were built downtown, could be viewed from a great distance. The wide, open lobby entrance has a high vaulted ceiling, hung with chandeliers, and originally the bronze double pay-box was located against the back-wall.

Through the entrance doors and into the main lobby which is quite small for the size of the theatres' capacity. But it is highly decorated in a French Renaissance style with white marble wall finishes up to the mezzanine level, where there is an open balcony with arches surrounding the area on three sides. Five huge bronze & crystal chandeliers hang in the ceiling and large statuesque figures in bronze of bare breasted women holding a flambeaux are located at the stair-ends. Beneath the lobby is a large waiting lounge which in days gone by also doubled as a tea lounge. It is decorated in oak panels with a mock stone fire-place, although the space has now been stripped of its plush oak tables & chairs.

The sumptuous 2,350-seat auditorium is again decorated in a French Renaissance style with two huge bronze & crystal chandeliers hanging from the highly decorated ceiling which is surrounded by a hidden lighting trough. Three boxes on each side of the 54ft wide proscenium arch step down the side-walls from the single balcony, which is supported underneath by Gothic fan vaulted columns; Above these boxes are the intricate designs on the organ screens hiding the organ chambers on either side. The drapes over the arches and the pelmet draperies within the top of the proscenium opening are the original ones installed in 1926. Under the balcony are great round stained glass panels that are illuminated from within to provide atmospheric lighting to the area which is decorated in gold leaf and stencil designs. The stage is 29 foot deep

The Orpheum Theatre was opened as a two-a-day vaudeville house and featured top stars of the day, and it was one of the most lavish theatres on the Orpheum Circuit. Just over two years after the theatre was opened, a Wurlitzer 3 manual 13 ranks organ was installed, first played by organist Newman R. Alton on 8th April 1928. (Later a Post Horn was added to the instrument making 14 ranks). It was operated by Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) from 1929 and full time vaudeville was discontinued when the theatre was equipped for showing movies to supplement vaudeville acts on the stage. A projection booth was installed at the rear of the balcony at this time. On December 25, 1929 the World Premiere of the RKO movie “Hit the Deck” starring Jack Oakie was held at the Orpheum Theatre. The vertical Orpheum sign was installed on the front of the building in 1930. But the Depression was starting to hit deeply and the theatre closed down in 1932. The ‘dark’ theatre was taken over by Sherrill Corwin in September 1933 and his dream was to present high-class stage shows with movies. The company he formed was Metropolitan Theatres, who operated the theatre until 1964. The original marquee was taken down in 1941 and the spectacular neon lit marquee we see today was installed. The design of the new marquee was attributed to the Pantages Circuit architect Benjamin Marcus Priteca.

In the early days Jack Benny was the MC of the stage shows which attracted such stars as; Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Will Rogers, Burns & Allen, the Marx Brothers, Olsen & Johnson, Edger Bergen, Red Skelton, Josephine Baker, Lena Horne & Sammy Davies Jr. plus many of the big bands of the 1940’s such as Count Basie & Duke Ellington. During this period special ‘Star Nights’ were a popular event every Monday evening, when a star of the feature film was introduced to the audience from the star box at the side of the proscenium. The stage show & movie policy lasted until 1952 when stage shows were dropped in favor of double feature movies. The 17-piece orchestra was made redundant and the Wurlitzer organ was rarely used and eventually became unplayable. The stage was used on occasions in the 1960’s when the Old Vic Company came over from London, England to present Shakespeare. Franco Zefferelli mounted a pre-movie production of “Romeo and Juliet” and the D'oly Carte Opera Company came over from England with some Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Following a production of the Richard Rogers musical “No Strings” starring Howard Keel, the stage went dark and the six floors of dressing rooms became storage areas.

In the mid-1970’s the theatre began a policy of showing general release films dubbed into Spanish. Work commenced in 1979 to restore the Wurlitzer organ by dedicated volunteers of the Los Angeles Theatre Organ Society and it was de-dedicated on 21st February 1982 with a concert by organist John Ledwon. In 1989 The Friends of the Orpheum Theatre was formed to help promote the theatre, organise special events and keep it maintained. The Orpheum Theatre can be seen in many films which have used it as a location over the years which include: Barbra Streisand in “Funny Lady”, Arnold Schwarzenegger “The Last Action Hero”, Val Kilmer “The Doors” and Johnny Depp “Ed Wood” and the Austin Powers movie “Goldmember”. TV movies filmed here include; “Murder She Wrote”, “Hart to Hart”, “Return to Oz”, “The Jackson Family Story”, “The Frank Sinatra Story” and Bette Midler in “Gypsy”. The stage was also brought back to use with productions by the “Moscow Dance Theatre”, “The Joffrey II Ballet” and concerts by chamber orchestras from Vienna, Amsterdam & Prague. All this was happening in the theatre as well as its usual continuous daily screenings of movies in Spanish with English sub-titles until on 31st December 2000 the theatre was closed for an extensive $3 million refurbishment funded by the owner since 1964, Steve Needleman of ANJAC Fashion Buildings. It reopened in November 2001, with the rooftop sky-sign refurbished and re-lit after many years being unused. There was still more work to be done and a $4 million restoration in 2003 completed the job.

Today, the theatre’s auditorium, lobby and foyers are matched by its expansive balcony. Stunning at every turn, its downstairs wood panelled foyer recalls a more elegant time when going to a movie theatre meant going out on the town. Audiences again can thrill to the delights of this most beautiful theatre and listen again to the sounds of the mighty Wurlitzer organ, the only one in Los Angeles still playable in its original location. The organ console has now been moved from its orchestra pit elevator and is stored when not in use in a room off stage.

The Orpheum Theatre is a venue for concerts and legitimate theatre and for the Los Angeles Conservancy’s “Last Remaining Seats” classic film series held every summer.

Contributed by Ken Roe

Recent comments (view all 178 comments)

coweyhere
coweyhere on November 7, 2010 at 3:57 am

A photo of the rooftop neon sign from March 2010:

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Ross Care
Ross Care on November 23, 2010 at 9:02 am

I add to this album of vintage theaters and memorabilia from time to time:
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Trolleyguy
Trolleyguy on April 3, 2011 at 1:32 am

The theater marquee is prominently featured in the movie “Hop” which opened this weekend.

LouRugani
LouRugani on July 13, 2011 at 11:41 pm

SCORE INJURED IN EXPLOSION IN THEATER – (February 7, 1931 – AP) – Panic In Audience of 2000 At Los Angeles Averted By Actor; Screen Star’s Honor ………Thirty persons were injured, several seriously, and a panic in a theater audience of more than 2,000 was averted when an explosion in a power main in front of the Orpheum theater shook the building late last night. So terrific was the blast that several persons standing in front of the theater were lifted into the air and others were hurled against store windows. A portion of the street was torn up and windows smashed. A brilliant first night audience, augmented by the presence of more than 1,000 motion picture players, packed the theatre for the premiere of ‘Cimarron’. Many film stars were on the stage making personal appearances when the explosion shocked the theater. Robert McWade, veteran stage and screen actor, averted a panic. “Don’t get excited folks,” McWade cried. “That was just part of the celebration in my honor.” The audience laughed and grew calm. The show goers filed out in an orderly manner later, when squads of police and firemen took charge of the situation. The blast was due to an accumulation of gas in the power main, according to H. E. Walker, member of the fire prevention bureau, attending the performance.

LuisV
LuisV on September 7, 2011 at 12:58 am

This theater looks great in the photos. Alas, I was only able to peer from the gate on the outside and couldn’t see anything. I was taking my first tour of downtown LA’s Historic Theatre District and I was both elated and greatly disappointed by what I saw. First the good. There is a tremendous amount of stunning architecture in downtown Los Angeles and it appears that a great number of the older office buildings have, in fact, been converted to residential. That said, I saw precious little effect of all of those new residents' effects on the area. Except for some cafes and restaurants on Spring Street the area’s retail is decidedly low brow. Sadly, large parts of the area smelled of urine. The theaters of Broadway (even the supposed restored ones) had a look of utter abandonment. I think there is a lot of potential, but I just don’t see the effort. I lived through the bad old days of Times Square in the 70’s and 80’s and witnessed it umprobabe transfomation into the Disneyland that it has become today. No one ever thought that could ever be accomplished, but it was because the city put its full force and resources behind it. Police presence was increased, the homeless were moved out, porn stores closed, office buildings built, tax incentives for residents put in place. The change happened pretty much within 10 years. I don’t see LA putting the same effort behind it and more importantly, local residents supporting it. Can some local Angelenos convince me otherwise? I hope so. I think downtown has the bones. It needs the flesh. The clothing will follow on its own.

zabriskie
zabriskie on January 27, 2014 at 6:11 am

January, 2014. Check out downtown Los Angeles now. It’s on fire. Apartments going up everywhere. Whole Foods coming soon downtown. 7th St. at Grand is restaurant row. Hot downtown restaurants at 4th and Main (Baco Mercat, Bar Ama, Orsa & Winston)The Arts District is booming with construction and restaurants, huge One Santa Fe mixed use, coffee bars. Best of all, the Ace Hotel just opened on Broadway with the old adjacent United Artists Theatre restored, marquee lit and being booked for events and performances. The Rialto Theatre next to the Orpheum was taken over by Urban Outfitters but the marquee was restored to its neon glory. New Broad Museum opening soon. Upscale retail slowly opening around Broadway and 9th by the Orpheum, United Artists, Rialto axis. More new hotels, retail, housing, transit coming and the theatres slowly, steadily being restored or re-used. LA loves those 12 theatres on Broadway.

Mikeoaklandpark
Mikeoaklandpark on March 17, 2014 at 8:23 pm

Does anyone know if this was the actual theater the Glee Nationals episode was filmed? They showed the outside and the inside was beautiful .

rivest266
rivest266 on August 8, 2016 at 10:31 pm

Feb 15th, 1926 grand opening ad in photo section

davidcoppock
davidcoppock on November 1, 2019 at 9:42 am

Tom Hanks used this theatre as a substitute for the Orpheun Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for his film “That thing you do”. Used in the music videos for November rain(Guns ‘N’ Roses) and You were meant for me(Jewel). Used for LA auditions in “So you think you can dance” and “American Idol”, and the early elimination rounds on “American Idol” too.

HowardBHaas
HowardBHaas on August 16, 2020 at 6:40 pm

Kudos to Ken Roe for hugely expanding the Intro and for adding his beautiful 2002 photos!

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