Orpheum Theatre

203 S. Main Street,
Memphis, TN 38103

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Orpheum as the Malco or possibly Malcom in the late `50's.

The Grand Opera House opened on the corner of Main Street and Beale Street in 1890, and was touted as the finest opera house outside New York at the time. Originally used for opera and plays, Col. John D. Hopkins continued the tradition beginning in 1899 and put his name on the theatre sign. The Grand Opera House soon was featuring vaudeville acts, and in 1907 became part of the Orpheum circuit. It was renamed the Orpheum Theatre that same year. In 1923, a fire broke out and the old Orpheum Theatre was burned to the ground. Luckily, the theatre was empty at the time but the largest crowd in its history gathered to watch. (The first Orpheum Theatre has its own page on Cinema Treasures.)

Five years later, on the site of the old theatre, a new Orpheum Theatre was built at a then-staggering cost of $1.5 million. Twice as large as the old theatre, and much more ornate and luxurious, decorated in the style of Francois I, the Memphis Orpheum Theatre was beyond anything the builders of the old opera house could have ever dreamed. It was the last and largest of the Memphis movie palaces.

The Orpheum Theatre opened on November 19, 1928. The auditorium, which originally seated 2,600, was decorated in shades of gold, red and cream, and included a huge stage, orchestra pit, three balconies(one originally a separate ‘colored’ balcony) and domed ceiling. The Orpheum Theatre also owns a Mighty Wurlizter 3-manual 13 rank organ. The grand lobby was the most spacious in Memphis with its twin staircases, enormous crystal chandeliers and gilded plasterwork. During the 1930’s the Orpheum Theatre operated under several managements after the Orpheum circuit bowed out. Entertainments included black performers such as Jimmie Lunceford, films and the occasional girlie show. It challenged the Sunday Blue Laws by serving sandwiches in the lobby with a movie as a bonus and contributed to the laws being overturned.

In 1940, the Orpheum Theatre was purchased by the Malco(M.A. Lightman Co.) chain and switched to a movies-only format. Special events continued to take place there, the organ was maintained and it became the place to see horror movies and Disney films. It survived a threat during the 1960’s of being replaced by an office building, happily during the run of “Goldfinger” when lines were around the block. Two stage shows played the Malco Theatre in 1972 and people began to see the theatre as a potential stage venue. The Malco Theatre continued top run first-run films until it closed in 1977.

In 1977, the Memphis Development Foundation acquired the Orpheum Theatre and began booking a variety of events on stage and screen. In 1982-1983 a $5 million renovation project brought the palace back to its 1928 glory after decades of decline. The Orpheum Theatre now contains a patron lounge called the Broadway Club, created when the old commercial spaces on either side of the lobby were connected in the 1983 renovation.

In January 1984, a grand reopening ceremony was held. A second renovation in the early-1990’s expanded the stage so that the most complex touring shows could play there.

Today, the Orpheum Theatre is Memphis' premier venue for touring Broadway shows. The Orpheum Theatre has hosted more touring Broadway productions than any other theatre in the US. In addition to its stage shows, the Orpheum Theatre hosts concerts and everyone from the Vienna Boys Choir to Patti LaBelle to Harry Connick, Jr. have graced the stage. It is also the home to two of the city’s finest local arts organizations, the Memphis Ballet and the Memphis Opera. Classic movies are screened on a regular basis. The Orpheum Theatre was the cornerstone of the rebirth of Beale Street, and remains a busy, profitable landmark.

Contributed by Bryan Krefft, Vincent Astor

Recent comments (view all 31 comments)

Patsy on October 2, 2007 at 8:50 am

The May 1 interior photo is beautiful…too bad Nashville doesn’t have a theatre like this…anymore!

Will Dunklin
Will Dunklin on October 13, 2008 at 8:23 am

LM Great picture! This last one really shows off the asymetrical layout. The red brick (middle left) would never have been seen from the sidewalk across the street. Now that there’s a park there, it, unfortunatly, is visible (It’s a little pocket park with a statue of Elvis) The house left side of the upper gallery (the former segregated blacks only area) only has 4 rows and a cross aisle. The right side has 11 rows (if memory serves). The other two balconies are symetrical with the odd shaped spaces made up in stairways and restrooms. It’s an amazing plan to see on paper and then walk the halls and realize how subtly the architects (Rapp & Rapp) worked out the odd shapes they had to work around.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on October 13, 2008 at 11:06 am

The old Grand Opera House in Memphis, on the site of which the Orpheum was built, is listed in the 1897-98 edition of the Julius Cahn Official Theatrical Guide. It was under the management of Staub, Jefferson, Klaw and Erlanger. Admission prices ranged from 25 cents to $1. There were 747 orchestra seats, 582 balcony seats and 1000 gallery seats, total: 2,329. The proscenium opening was 38 feet wide X 42 feet high, and the stage was 65 feet deep. The theater was on the ground floor and there were 9 members of the house orchestra. There was also a New Lyceum Theatre in Memphis which had 2,010 seats. There were 4 newspapers, the Commercial, Scimitar, Times-Figaro and Herald, and 5 hotels for show folk, the Gayoso, Clarendon, Arlington, Fransioli, and Peabody. The 1897 population of Memphis is listed as 100,000.

TLSLOEWS on February 9, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Nice history I do not like the marquee with its electronic lights.

kpdennis on May 3, 2010 at 3:31 pm

The Orpheum on a muggy summer day in 1996 – they must have been showing the original 1960 version of “Psycho”, as the remake came out two years after this photo:
View link

DavidZornig on August 16, 2011 at 9:32 pm

I added a pic I found on the net of the Orpheum as the Malco in the late `50’s. Elvis appears to be getting a ticket in front.

TLSLOEWS on August 17, 2011 at 10:32 am

Great photo David,The Loews State can be seen in the background also.

vastor on June 21, 2013 at 8:52 am

That is a very interesting photo of the Orpheum, have not seen that one before. Whatever is on the marquee has been carefully retouched out. Note Milton Slosser’s name on the reader board.

vastor on June 21, 2013 at 8:54 am

If you haven’t seen it already, the Memphis Orpheum is on both front and back covers of this quarter’s Marquee magazine from the Theatre Historical Society.

DavidZornig on July 8, 2020 at 1:39 pm

Here is a Historic Film Row link, related to the film vault photo I just added to the gallery.


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