Orpheum Theatre (1st)
195 South Main Street,
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On September 22, 1890, Memphis patrons flocked to the opening of the new Grand Opera House, called the ‘social event of 1890’. It was designed by J.B. McElfatrick & Sons, a prominent architectural firm specializing in theatres, which built several theatres on Broadway. The opening bill was Miss Emma Juch and her Grand English Opera Company, numbering about 125 performers. The event had generated so much enthusiasm that the management decided to auction the sale of tickets. After the prime seats went at auction the remainder were sold to the public. The opening night opera was “Les Huguenots”. Memphis society filled every seat, and reviews were glowing.
The theatre was constructed on the site of a coal year owned by C.B. Byron & Co. at S. Main Street and Beale Street. It was a large parcel of land so the building was not restricted by a lot of surrounding structures. Twenty-five gentlemen purchased the land for $75,000. The theatre’s final cost was £200.000.
It was a four-story building faced with Blue Bedford stone from Indiana. There was an entrance on S. Main Street and one on Beale Street, but it is not known if there was a colored balcony. It seated over 2,000 in comfortable rows. The stage was 50 feet deep, 82 feet wide and 80 feet high. Areas were frescoed, gilded, tiled, carpeted, draped and lavishly furnished. Both the ladies and gentlemen’s retiring rooms were furnished elegantly. The theatre could be lit by both gas and electricity. The only interior photos which remain are of the club rooms of the Chickasaw Guards which give an idea of the decor.
The Grand Opera House featured melodrama, opera, plays and occasional specialty acts. Famous actor Otis Skinner played the first season. Though, in later years, boxing would be looked upon as second to vaudeville, Jim Corbett sparred with John L. Sullivan during the second season at the Grand Opera House, drawing capacity crowds.
The next several years saw opera star Adelina Patti-Nicoli, pianist Jan Paderewski, Lillian Russell and John Phillip Sousa performing. The Royal London Lyceum Players were allowed through a temporary quarantine to open the season of 1896.
In 1899, John D. Hopkins purchased the Grand Opera House and made it over, installing new all-electric lights. Lower ticket prices (no more than 50 cents) and increased matinees brought greater revenue. The theatre now had a stock company and the name ‘Hopkins’ twinkled on the new electric sign.
In 1902, the entertainment was changed to ‘high class vaudeville’ and another renovation took place in 1903. In 1906, Mme. Sarah Bernhardt played two sold out performances.
In 1907, Hopkins passed his theatrical circuit over to Martin Beck with the Orpheum Circuit. Another renovation of the theatre took place and the new sign read ‘Orpheum Vaudeville’. The first recorded feature film at the theatre was in the summer of 1914, “Indian Wars”. Ruth (later known as Gracie) Allen, Fanny Brice and Houdini all had their time on the Orpheum Theatre stage. In 1917, movies, cartoons and newsreels became a standard part of the vaudeville program. Helen Keller was the best-remembered celebrity of 1921, and Houdini returned in 1923. The program for the week of October 15 of that year was headlined by Blossom Seeley, Bernie Fields and Bert Lahr. After the theatre closed for the night of October 17, 1923, a fire was reported. The Tri-State Manufacturing Company, a clothier, had leased the three stories of the commercial space in the front of the building where the fire had started. A story was told that some of the patrons in the balcony had complained about the heat, although it was October. Once the fire was visible, it could not be controlled. Everyone who could get to the backstage tried to quickly salvage whatever they could. Stage hands risked their lives to save Miss Seeley’s wardrobe, but were met by a cool ‘Thanks’ from the actress. An elaborate puppet act was completely destroyed, but no lives were lost. One of the largest crowds in its history gathered to watch the Orpheum Theatre burn.
The land was finally cleared in 1927 to build the new RKO Orpheum Theatre, the current structure by architects Rapp & Rapp, which opened on this site almost exactly 5 years later.
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