RKO Orpheum Theater

941-945 East McMillan Avenue,
Cincinnati, OH 45202

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looking east from peebles corner

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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 renown. It opened December 19, 1909. The Orpheum Theater 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 17 comments)

hanksykes on February 28, 2012 at 5:10 pm

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 on March 3, 2012 at 10:50 am

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 on March 7, 2012 at 3:54 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 on March 8, 2012 at 7:16 am

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.


hanksykes on March 14, 2012 at 5:45 pm

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 on March 14, 2012 at 5:46 pm

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

Otto18 on July 24, 2014 at 9:25 am

I grew up around Peebles Corner in the late30’s and 40’s, attended Assumption church and school on Gilbert ave…..my dad, Earl Graham, managed the Orpheum in the late 40’s…..never missed a double feature there ….walked across the street to the Paramount for big Technicolor shows with B etty Grable, Alice Faye et al. Harris Rosedale and wife Roberta ran a local dance studio….occasionally staged an amateur show 0n the Orpheum stage.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on December 25, 2014 at 8:03 pm

To rather belatedly respond to hanksykes question of March 14, 2012, regarding the Century Theatre, I found this item in the November 11, 1916, issue of The Moving Picture World:

“Exit Cincinnati’s Century Theater.

“Cincinnati, Ohio. — The Century theater at Peebles corner, which has been at various times used with some success as a picture house, with interims of vaudeville, is to be turned into a public market, according to plans which have been perfected by local interests with capital behind them. The Century has been idle for the past two years, in spite of its apparently fine location, right at one of the busiest suburban corners in the city, its proximity to the popular Orpheum being largely responsible for its failure to prove a success. It was built in 1909 for use as a moving-picture house by John J. and Edward Ryan.”

dickneeds111 on January 21, 2016 at 12:57 pm

To Hank Sykes. The sound Scanner as you referred to it is wrong. In my days as a projectionist it was always called an EXCITER LAMP. You always had to have spares because if it burnt out you could just take it out and put in a new one. Then when Cinemascope came along with 4 track stereo on the film there was a magnetic reader like a tape player installed to read the magnetic stripe. If your theatre did not have stereo the film was played optically from a track on the film.

dallasmovietheaters on February 25, 2016 at 4:00 pm

The Orpheum launched December 19, 1909 and the Orpheumscope with moving pictures was a part of the opening bill.

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