Did You Know: Orpheum Theater In Phoenix Was A Vaudeville House

June 06, 2014

(Courtesy of City of Phoenix)
Mae West was among the artists who performed at the Orpheum Theater in Phoenix.
(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez - KJZZ)
The Orpheum Theater in Phoenix today. This is a view of the 1,364 seats from the 4,747 square foot stage.
(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez - KJZZ)
The Spanish Baroque style murals of the Orpheum Theater in Phoenix. The center mural was covered with black paint when movie houses owned the Orpheum. During the restoration, experts removed the paint and restored it.
(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez - KJZZ)
These flower vines are found throughout the rear walls of the balcony seating area.
(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez - KJZZ)
During the restoration experts discovered there were murals underneath two black-painted walls on each side of the Orpheum. The mural has been restored and now hangs in its original form.

There are only two if its kind in Arizona — one in Flagstaff, the other in downtown Phoenix. The entertainment venue was initially created as part of a national entertainment circuit in the 1920s.

The Orpheum Theater in Phoenix is one of more than 15 Orpheums across the U.S. Did You Know this was among the last major construction projects in Phoenix before the Great Depression?

“The Orpheum was originally built in 1929," said Cynthia Weaver of the Phoenix Convention Center and Venues, the agency that manages the theater. “And at the time it was constructed to follow the latest amenities of the day and the era back in the 1920s.”

It cost $750,000 to build the Spanish Baroque style three-story venue. It can accommodate more than 1,300 people. Inside the theater are paintings and murals that depict the Spanish outdoors, with balcony windows and vines. All to give the impression one is watching the performance in a garden. And even back then, performances could be watched in this air-conditioned space — well, sort of.

“There was a pretty large water pool underneath the theater and they had large fans blowing cool air over the chilled water and it would come up through the floor grates," Weaver said.

The Orpheum Theater was originally a vaudeville house. Weaver says well-known performers like Mae West and Abbott and Costello played here. It was also where silent films and talkies were shown. 

“Over the years it changed ownership and became movie theaters, the Paramount, the Palace West and then in 1977 the Corona family who owns Corona Ranch leased the venue so that they could show Spanish-language movies,” Weaver said.

In 1984 the city of Phoenix purchased the Orpheum Theater. It underwent a $14 million restoration. The Orpheum re-opened in 1997 and the theater was brought back to its original form. The red velvet covered seats, lower level fireplace, and walls and flooring were restored, even the Wurlitzer pipe organ used during the silent film era was refurbished.                                                                          

“We still show silent films at times. Phantom of the Opera runs here periodically, and that is a part of the original talkies,” Weaver said.

There are gold medallions over the stage proscenium arch. Two of those medallions depict a dancing flapper with a ribbon wrapped around her. A similar medallion hangs over the mantle at Tovrea Castle in east Phoenix. Weaver says Castle owner Alessio Carraro allowed the artisans working at the Orpheum to use his machine shop to create the ornaments. In appreciation the artisans re-created the dancing flapper medallion for Carraro’s place. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been modified to reflect the original cost to build the venue was $750,000.

Updated 6/9/2014 at 9:29 a.m.