The Magnificent Orpheum Theatre
THE HISTORY OF THE ORPHEUM THEATRE
The Orpheum Theatre opened its doors in 1926 on the corner of Hyde and Market streets in the heart of San Francisco. Over the decades, the theatre has shown remarkable adaptability, having presented everything from vaudeville acts to movie screenings to touring Broadway shows such as The Book of Mormon and the long-running HAMILTON. Here, BroadwaySF takes a look back at the Orpheum’s illustrious history.
The Orpheum Theatre got its start during the vaudeville era, when theatres across the country were outdoing themselves to become lavish entertainment palaces. Originally owned by impresario Alexander Pantages, the Orpheum (then call the Pantages Theatre) was one of the jewels in the crown of the Pantages Circuit, a chain of theatres in the United States and Canada that featured both film and live vaudeville acts.
Pantages wanted his new San Francisco theatre to be an opulent showplace and he commissioned renowned architect B. Marcus Priteca (who had worked on almost every theatre in Pantages’ circuit) to realize his dream. At the time, theatre designers often drew upon exotic locales for inspiration – such as Indian temples of Egyptian palaces – and Priteca chose medieval Spain for his Orpheum reference points. For the theatre’s facade and many interior flourishes, he evoked the Cathedral of León, a mid-13th-century Gothic masterpiece. Priteca was also deeply influenced by the Moorish architecture of the Alhambra, as seen in the theatre’s vaulted and domed lobby ceiling and intricately carved doors.
The 2,500-seat auditorium was Priteca’s tour de force. The breathtaking ceiling supported a central chandelier surrounded by more than 130 decoratively carved lions; the organ screens on either side of the 56-foot-wide proscenium resembled ornate altars; and the red velour house curtain, designed by Priteca himself, was adorned with an appliqued parade of crusaders and pilgrims who appeared to be marching across the stage.
The theater’s opening night on February 20, 1926, was a glittering affair, attended by members of San Francisco’s high society, city officials and A-list celebrities. For the next three years, the theater presented a mix of vaudeville shows and silent films but the entertainment landscape was changing rapidly and the demand for “talking” pictures would soon transform the industry. The Pantages Circuit was on its last legs and Alexander Pantages had become engaged in a scandalous trial that resulted in his financial ruin. By 1929, the year of the stock market crash, he’d sold his San Francisco theater to the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) company, and the venue was rechristened the Orpheum Theatre. By the mid-1930s, the theater had joined the ranks of the country’s leading movie palaces.
The Silver Screen
In the early 1950s, the Cinerama craze promised to be the next big thing in filmed entertainment. Theaters had to be retrofitted with wide, curved screens to accommodate the new technology, and the Orpheum, which became a Cinerama theater in 1953, underwent a number of significant alterations. The marquee was changed to promote the Cinerama logo, and much of the ornate plasterwork surrounding the proscenium was damaged during construction. On Christmas Day, 1953, the signature film This is Cinerama opened at the Orpheum, where it played an unprecedented 84-week run. Other much-promoted Cinerama films followed, including It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and How the West Was Won.
But by the 1960s, the novelty of wide-screen Cinerama had worn off, and the craze ended almost as abruptly as it had begun. Once again, theaters struggled to adapt to the changing times, with varying degrees of success. The Orpheum, unfortunately, was one of the theaters to fall into disuse. For a good part of the next decade, the theater was either dark of functioning as a bargain movie theater, showing 99-cent films – with one notable exception: In 1970, a production of the smash Broadway musical Hair was presented for a nine-month run at the Orpheum, signaling the revival of live performances on its stage after its many years as a film house.
Live Theater Returns
A major turnaround for the Orpheum occurred in 1976, when the Civic Light Opera Company (CLO) decided to make the Orpheum its local home. To adapt the theater to its new role, the CLO hired noted architect Richard McCann, a one-time associate of the original architect B. Marcus Priteca.
“In addition to the restoring of the general ornamental character, many additions for public comfort and safety were provided to make the theater comply to modern standards as a performance facility,” McCann wrote of his goals for the multimillion-dollar reconstruction. Among the many enhancements he made were improvements to the sound and electrical systems, new carpeting and light fixtures, and expanded backstage facilities.
In 1977, the CLO presented its first production at the renovated Orpheum: Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, starring Debbie Reynolds. Over the next few years, the CLO filled the Orpheum’s stage with megastars such as Lena Horne, Liza Minnelli and Jackie Gleason. However, the CLO era was short-lived; in 1981, the company closed its San Francisco operations at the Orpheum to focus on its Los Angeles productions.
But the Orpheum proved to be a survivor, and its fortunes changed once again with the arrival of a visionary new owner.
The company now knows as BroadwaySF acquired the Orpheum in 1981 with the goal of making it a premier venue for touring Broadway shows. Under this new management, the Orpheum presented world-class production including The King and I with Yul Brynner, Sugar Babies with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, and Hello, Dolly! with Carol Channing.
In 1998, BroadwaySF launched a multimillion-dollar restoration, enlarging the stage to accommodate larger touring shows. An extensive team of architects, designers, subcontractors and vendors was brought in to complete the project, which included expanding the stage; installing new flooring, light fixtures and carpeting; and restoring the resplendent auditorium ceiling.
“The key to the project was moving the proscenium arch forward without destroying the distinctive plaster niches and figures on the theater walls supporting columns,” The San Francisco Chronicle wrote in 1998. “Project designer Roer Moran and Korth Sunseri Hagey Architects accomplished that by rotating the huge columns outward and rebuilding the stage opening. The theater’s capacity is smaller. Three hundred seats were removed from the main floor and mezzanine. The mezzanine’s ‘rake,’ or slope, was changed to adjust sight lines.”
With these carefully considered changes, the Orpheum was ready to host the most-demanding Broadway shows. Over the past decades, it has presented Beauty and the Beast, Miss Saigon, Chicago, Rent, and the U.S. premiere of Mamma Mia!, among countless others.
In early 2019, history was made yet again at the Orpheum. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash-hit musical HAMILTON arrived at the theatre for an unprecedentedly long run, playing to sold-out houses night after night for more than a year (HAMILTON had also played at the Orpheum for several months two years earlier, as part of its first national tour). Thanks in part to the passion that HAMILTON stirred in theatergoers, the Orpheum remains the don’t-miss theatrical venue in San Francisco.
Of course, the Orpheum’s story is still unfolding. More changes will certainly come, but the beloved theater has proved itself to be invincible, continuously adapting as tastes and trends evolve – and always coming out on top.