RKO Orpheum Theater

941-945 East McMillan Avenue,
Cincinnati, OH 45202

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The Orpheum Theater was owned and built in 1909 in the Peebles Corner section of Cincinnati by Colonel Ike Martin of Chester Amusement Park reknown. The Orpheum was erected to deliver high class vaudeville to the city without being affiliated with a major vaudeville chain until William Morris joined forces with it a few years later.

This was the only “double theater” built in Cincinnati during the early days of filmdom. Though the Orpheum Theater started as a single screen theater in 1918, it added a second screen on the sixth floor of its parent structure. In the early silent days both organs in the theaters were connected so that one organist could play on the first floor and it would be repeated musically on the slave instrument five floors above.

The second auditorium on the sixth floor was serviced by a passenger elevator and the side walls and roof of this cinema were built of large glass panels which could be opened to capture any passing breezes in the hot sticky summer months. The theater was known as the “sky theater”, something like an interior airdrome theater.

Contributed by hanksykes

Recent comments (view all 13 comments)

hanksykes
hanksykes on August 16, 2007 at 12:20 am

This glass theater called Sky Theater was decorated with false vines ,Japanese lanterns ,and its glass panels were controlled by electric motors which allowed this house to be snugly warm in winter. Walls were also decorated by intricate lattices,but because The Sky was on the roof it must only have been used at night?

hanksykes
hanksykes on August 18, 2007 at 10:44 pm

Two Wurlitzer organs were in use at the Orpheum Th. with the master on the first floor and a slave unit on the sixth floors Sky Th. An organist could play a selection on the main instrument and it would be repeated five floors above, but both of these theatres showed different length films at simular times so this system rarely worked to their advantage. Although Orpheum was built as an independant live theatre in 1909 it did add films and was finally taken over by RKO in the 1930’s.

Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois
Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois on March 5, 2008 at 1:57 pm

ARCHITECT C.C. & E.A. Weber

A Mighty WurliTzer Theater Theater Pipe Organ, Opus 7, was shipped to an unknown location in Philadelphia, Pennsylania. It was reposesed and rebuilt as Opus 61 a 2 Manual/6 Rank and shipped to this theater on June 4, 1915. Another Console was added on January 18, 1916. This matches exactly with the above comment of hank.sykes “Two WurliTzer organs were in use…with the master on the first floor and a slave unit on the sixth floors Sky Th.”. It is not known what happened to these organs.

Another WurliTzer, Opus 1922, Style 1903M was shipped to this theater on July 31, 1928. It is know what happened to this organ, sit down for this, (I hope this is an eror) it was junked!

If you know anything about the organs, please email us!

Gee Dad, it “WAS” a WurliTzer/WurliTzer!"

WayneC
WayneC on December 8, 2011 at 3:46 pm

In 1945 my mother was a manager at this theatre. It’s curios that no one has commented that Tyrone Power, about 1932 or 1933, had been an usher here. The hey-day of theatre going was slowing down, (TV, demolished in 1952) and the theatre was barley able to stay open. I remember that they start having various orphanages around the city come in and enjoy a live variety stage show with the like Harris Rosedale and others. I had access to all parts of the building at that time, and was able to make off hour tours. I was able to actual see the background equipment for the Wurlitzer Organ that was located in the side boxes on the first and second floor of the auditorium. Some other features of the building: A bowling alley on the third floor; There were two balcony levels in the main auditorium; Of course the skylight theatre at the very top of the building; The skylight theatre about 1946 was converted into a TV manufacturing plant for Muntz TVs – lasted about 2 years or so; there was a swimming pool under the main stage stage, that was used as an aqua show during the 1920-1930s; there were at least 20 dressing rooms throughout the building; there were at least 5 elevators; the building was funished with marble through out the pedestrian areas; and on and on. Too bad it was demolished.

hanksykes
hanksykes on February 29, 2012 at 1:10 am

Hello Wayne C. ,thanks for some fresh new info on the Orpheum! In the 1940’s were you also an usher? Were the 5 elevators on only one side of the building?Were the organ pipes still in their first and second story chambers? Were any of the Martin Family members still working there? Was the bowling operation still being used in the l940"s? What was your Moms first and last name? Sorry to be so nosey, but this theate fascinates me! Love to hear more of your rememberances!

WayneC
WayneC on March 3, 2012 at 6:50 pm

To answer Hank Sykes questions – I was not an usher, to young, however did work in the concession stands and with the cleaning up of the auditorium.

About the elevators – what I can remember was there 2 or 3 in the main lobby, 2 near the boxes in the main auditorium, and I think there or four in the main back stage area.

Tthe organs; yes, they still had there pipes, and as I recall these were located on the right side of the main auditorium. The boxes on the left and right, both floors, also had various other musical devices, such as cymbals, bells, violins, sort of like a calliope, in that all sorts of musical sound would be emitted. Must have been quit something in the early 1900’s.

The Martin family, I don’t think I met any of them, perhaps more information would ring a bell or two. I do remember E. J. (Earl) Graham as the top manager at this location.

I’m not sure when they shut down the bowling alleys, but they were not in operation from 1947 onward.

In the late ‘40s, early ‘50s the Orpheum would occasionally have some type of special showing, something with particular theme, such as Westerns. They were having a Western showing – which was for about a week or so. One of the displays they had was a set of western style pistols. Must have been 15 or 20 of them.

Since I, as well as my brothers and cousins, had access to the entire theatre facility, we each took a pistol and went about chasing each other around the entire place, playing cowboys (and sheriff)! How dangerous was that? We ran around throughout the entire place, in the balconies (there were 3 levels), basement, back stage, down in the dressing rooms back stage, and the dressing rooms which encircled the entire back stage area, there must have been about 15 or so. Quiet and experience.

hanksykes
hanksykes on March 7, 2012 at 11:54 pm

Hello WayneC,What a terriffic place to play at Cowboys and Sheriff with real guns. Did you have passes to all the other RKO Theaters in Cincinnati?Maybe the near by Paramount Th.? Do you still live in the Nati area?Have you visited the Peebles Corner Area to see what the vast changes are?Where was the projection booth located? Were there opening and closing curtains and were there more than one set of drapes?Was there any stage scenery left from the earlier days?Could you tell us about Mr. Earl (J.)Graham (the manager), I found an obituary about Earl (A.) Graham from the Enquirer of Nov. 7,2001 he was aged 87, but I doubt that this is the same man. Did you remain in the cinema business? Did you ever get to hear the Wurlitzer at the Paramount Th?Your recall if splendid hope you can tell us more.

WayneC
WayneC on March 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm

To answer more of Mr Sykes questions:

I could get passes to all of the RKO theatres in Cincinnati, although I didn’t use the perk all that much. Maybe to the Albee and quit often across the street to the Paramount.

I’m not quit sure what the ‘Nati’ area is to which you refer. I now live in Venice, Florida, but visit Cincinnati frequently. And yes I have noticed the Peebles Corner area. Quit a change from the mid to late 1940’s, but I guess that’s gone – forever, at least in my life time.

Relative to the project booths: I would visit these occasionaly, and what a magical place that was. This was when I learned that the film being projected had a sound track on the left side of the film. This would was ‘read’ by a lighted box – not sure what it’s called, and this would make the sound. When the film was passing through the projector it would flash various codes to the proejector operator signalling him when to swith to another projector. As the film was produced in reels of about 35-45 minutes in length, and they needed a way to switch to another reel once one was completed. They did this rather seamlessly (usually). Today they make the films in reels about 5 feer in diameter, and can usually get a full length movie on one reel.
There were located on the second balcony.

Yes, there were opening and closing curtains. There were rather massive – I would say 20feet by 60 ft., and there were 3 layers or so. They would open and close them between each picture showing. I sure they must have been used when there where vaudeville shows.

Not sure if the EJ Graham you mentioned was the same. Could have been.

No I no longer am with any cinema business. Would like to take the trip to TMC’s upcoming event in LA this spring.

Did not get to hear the organ at the Paramount. Remember that the one at the Orpheum was played once.

WC

hanksykes
hanksykes on March 15, 2012 at 12:45 am

Hello WayneC;The device on a film projector which reads the sound is called a sound scanner. Most old film prints ran about 20 minutes and the cues for the projectionist were printed in the right hand corner of the film print which was projected upon the cinema screen. This printed signal told the projectionist when to start the second machine to complete a smooth film changeover. Thats the little I have gleaned about film projection. The (Nati )I refered to was a shortened version of the word Cincinnati taken from a litter ad which ran on tv here encouraging people not to “Trash the Nati!” I’m guessing that AMC in L.A. stands for American Movie Classics? What goes on at that event? If you’re back visiting Peebles Corner a great local restaurant in that area is called (The Parkside Cafe)on McMillian Ave. Do you know anything about The Century Theater of 1914 on Gilbert Ave? As you mentioned Tyrone Powers was an usher at the Orpheum and Paramount Theaters ,he took his training at The Schuster-Martin School on Kemper Lane, which later became The Little Playhouse.Also the Twenthieth Century Th., in Oakley opened in 1941 with Tyrone Powers in “Blood and Sand”. You probably know that Mrs. Wurlitzer had the Paramount Th. built in 1931, but because Cincinnati was an RKO dominated town they took over her operation. So strange for a Paramount Th. to be affilated with RKO and not Publix Films which was their studio film distributor! Any more recall about your Orpheum days?

hanksykes
hanksykes on March 15, 2012 at 12:46 am

Wayne C ,I ment to say Turner Movie Classics not American Movie Classics,sorry. Hank

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