Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Welcome to Omaha's Orpheum Theater!

Omaha's celebrated Orpheum Theater is home of the finest in local and national performing arts. Located in downtown Omaha, the Orpheum underwent a major $10 million renovation in 2002 and the ornate splendor of this magnificent theater was enhanced to better serve patrons and artists. In 2004, the Orpheum Theater Skylink was added for increased convenience and accessibility to the Orpheum. The 200-foot-long elevated, enclosed and climate-controlled walkway connects the OPPD parking garage to the Orpheum Theater.

The 2,600 seat proscenium theater was originally built in 1927 as a vaudeville house. Today, the Orpheum hosts programs best served by a more theatrical setting, including the Broadway In Omaha series and Opera Omaha.

The Orpheum Theater 1927-2002

Sinking into the plush seats of the newly renovated Orpheum Theater, one can feel more than 100 years of social and cultural history resonating from the site. In the late 19th century, the Withnell Building, erected by pioneer contractor John Withnell, became the headquarters for the U.S. Army “Department of the Platte.” Formed after the Civil War, this military designation stretched from the Missouri River into Montana, and from Canada to Texas. When the Army headquarters were moved to Fort Omaha, the opportunity to develop Harney Street between 15th and 16th Streets emerged. In 1895, John A. McShane organized a stock company to build the Creighton Theater on the Withnell site. Demolition and construction of the new facility took only five months. The Creighton Theater was named after "Count" John A. Creighton, whose portrait decorated the proscenium arch above the stage. His title was honorary, given to him by Pope Leo XIII, making him a Count of the Papal States.

The original building was designed by Fisher & Lawrie, Omaha architects who designed several other Omaha buildings now on the National Register of Historic Places. The theater, which seated more than 800, shared the block with the impressive mansard-roofed mansion of mining magnate C.E. Balbach (northeast corner of 16th and Harney). The theater's first managers and lessees were Billy Paxton, Jr. and W.J. Burchess. Burchess managed Salt Lake City's Walker Theater, but moved to Omaha where he purchased Boyd's Opera House and the Grand Opera House, all three of which burned to the ground during his management in the early 1890s. The Creighton's inaugural performance on August 22, 1895, was a drama "The Masqueraders" by Charles Frohman's company. It was reported to have been "a gala social event, with a full house, especially in the saloon."

By 1898 a widening national recession forced the Creighton's owners to sell to the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit, and the theater was renamed the Creighton Orpheum (the Creighton name was quietly dropped by 1906). Omaha was then in the prestigious company of eight other cities on the Orpheum circuit--Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans, Denver, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento. Matinees were held every day at 2:15 PM and evening shows at 8:15 PM. Admission was 10¢ for children and gallery, 25¢ for adults main floor matinees, and 50¢ for adults main floor nights. Fred and Adele Astaire played a week in December 1908 at the same prices as ten years earlier. In 1910 City National Bank built Omaha's first skyscraper on 16th and Harney, west of the Orpheum. It was a 16-story steel-framed, masonry building designed by the firm of Holabird & Roche of Chicago, and its profile unfortunately overshadowed the smaller Orpheum.

By the 1920s vaudeville houses began to be converted into motion picture theaters. In 1926 plans were conceived for a newer and grander Orpheum, one that could accommodate both movies and vaudeville. At the "Old Orpheum's" final performance on April 24, 1926, people heard the Creighton University Glee Club and witnessed a presentation to the University of the John Creighton portrait, which had hung over the stage. Ernest Nordin conducted the Omaha Symphony in the overture "Goodbye Forever" and led the audience in the singing of "Auld Lang Syne." A bugler blew Taps as the final curtain descended. By the time of the grand finale nearly 16,500,000 people had attended the Orpheum in less than 31 years. Since a "season" lasted about nine months, an average of 13,600 patrons attended the Orpheum each week!

Demolition of the old Orpheum began immediately, and the new (present) Orpheum, designed by Chicago architects Rapp & Rapp, was constructed in 16 months and cost $2 million. The Sunday World-Herald headline on October 9, 1927 announced "New Orpheum, Opening Today, All Beautiful for Season of Triumph." The gala opening was attended by nearly 3,000 people, including the king and queen of The Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben, Dr. W.O. Bridges and Miss Dorothy Davidson, and the outgoing Ak-Sar-Ben king, Senator Gilbert M. Hitchcock and his wife. The program was filled with "laughs, tricks, antics, dances, comics and all the other things that go to make up a happy evening." "The Fighting Eagle," a motion picture starring former Omahan and Central High student Rod La Rocque, and Mack Sennett beauty Phyllis Haver was also on the evening's bill.

The new Orpheum was an "ensemble of elegance" in a French Renaissance style decorated in gold and ivory. Appointments included rose cavernett and red lavanti marble, mirrored walls, hand-carved and gilded consoles, and beautifully gilded davenports and high-back armchairs upholstered in "downy softness" according to the October 9, 1927 Sunday World-Herald. Genoese and Venetian brocatelles and damasks and gold and silver brocade adorned the walls. The draperies were of Vatican crimson brocatelle embellished with pessementerie art. M.H. Singer, president of the Orpheum circuit, referred to the new Orpheum in Omaha as a "boon to the ornamental glass and carpet industry of Czecho-Slovakia." The central chandelier, reminiscent of the Paris Grand Opera House, was 16 feet tall, 9 feet in diameter, weighed 4,500 pounds and cost $7,000. Quoted in the Omaha World-Herald of October 11, 1927, State Attorney General Ora Spillman said, "the beautiful building represents the progressive people in a progressive state. (…) You cannot overestimate the beneficial aspects of the clean and wholesome," he said, "as you cannot measure the dangers of the vulgar and questionable."

For the next 43 years, the era's finest performers and films would entertain Orpheum patrons. Original "Funny Girl" Fannie Brice was among the performers during the first season, along with "Fortunello and Cirillino, European Tumblers (and) Toto, Famous Clown" (The Omaha Bee-News, October 5, 1927). W.C. Fields, Al Jolson, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller, Woody Herman, Lawrence Welk, Stan Kenton, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Lucille Ball would follow in years to come. The Orpheum thrived for its first twenty years, but with the coming of television, vaudeville's popularity waned. The Orpheum eventually became solely a movie house. By the late 1960s, movie theaters were becoming smaller and sparer in order for film companies to maximize profits. Due to declining attendance and deteriorating conditions, the theater closed on April 29, 1971. By that time plastic sheets hung from the ceiling to protect patrons from falling plaster. In March of 1972 Mayor Gene Leahy and Harold Andersen, president of Downtown Omaha, Inc., announced that the city was a step closer to restoring the Orpheum. The conversion idea, based upon the Orpheum Theater Corporation donating the building, was to be part of a larger plan to expand the Civic Auditorium into a "convention center" by renovating the Music Hall and incorporating it into the larger Arena.

In December of that year the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben presented to the city a check for $135,000 to purchase the Orpheum, stipulating that it be renovated into a performing arts center for the Omaha Symphony, Opera Omaha and Ballet Omaha. Renovation costs would be covered by $1.5 million in revenue bonds and $500,000 in contributions from local businesses. Interest increased the total cost of the project to $2.4 million. An eleventh-hour crisis nearly killed the deal when it was discovered that the city would need to pay City National Bank $1,000 a month to use the bank-owned lobby access to the theater. Then-mayor Edward Zorinsky planned to veto the renovation plan until the Omaha Symphony Association agreed to purchase the lobby. They eventually gave it to the city. Renovations stretched through 1974 and included adding 30 feet of width and 15 feet of depth to the stage, installing new stage rigging, air conditioning, electrical and lighting, enlarging the orchestra pit, installing new seats and carpeting, and generally restoring the interior to its original beauty.

Leo A. Daly Company of Omaha was the architect for the renovation. Principal advisors included Ed Wylie, Music Hall House Manager, and Bill Matthews, technical director for Opera Omaha, and Al Brown, Orpheum House Manager from 1973 to 1995. Both Wylie and Matthews accompanied a Leo A. Daly architect to observe renovations of Powell Hall in Saint Louis and Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh. Matthews, who was involved throughout the entire project, was able to ensure that Opera Omaha's particular technical needs were met. The Orpheum's grand re-opening on January 7, 1975, starred comedian Red Skelton. In February of that year Opera Omaha performed on the Orpheum stage for the first time, with soprano Beverly Sills in the title role of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, a production which also featured the young baritone (and Colby, Kansas native) Samuel Ramey. Prior to 1975 Opera Omaha had performed in various venues, including the Joslyn Concert Hall, Boys Town Music Hall, Technical High School, Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum, and the Civic Music Hall. The Orpheum has remained Opera Omaha's primary venue since 1975, with occasional use of the Joslyn's Witherspoon Concert Hall, the Rose Theater and South High School. Other than basic maintenance, only two major projects were undertaken at the Orpheum between 1975 and the 2002. In 1989 the "new lobby" on the main floor was opened after the Orpheum Tower Apartments developers (CF Realty Investors, Inc., ComFed Capital Corp., XLand Inc., and Redevelopers, Inc.) donated 3,800 square feet of space. In 1996 a $225,000 remodeling of the public areas resulted in a renovated box office, a new marble concession area, and a handicapped-accessible restroom. In 1997 the Omaha Symphony commissioned a large-scale Orpheum facilities study, and in 2001 the newly-formed Omaha Performing Arts Society (formed to address the city’s performance venue needs) announced plans for a $10 million renovation of the Orpheum and a new $90 million concert hall to be built on a site just north of the Eugene Leahy Mall downtown. In 2002 the city of Omaha granted OPAS a 50-year lease to manage the Orpheum Theater.

Today the Orpheum Theater sparkles anew following completion of the $10 million renovation in the summer of 2002. Patrons on the main floor enjoy new larger seats and more legroom, improved stage views and double doors from the lobby for sound and light barriers. Other upgrades include refurbished seats on all upper levels, additional restrooms, mechanical system upgrades, many backstage improvements, and enhancements by world-renowned Kirkegaard Associates from Chicago, Illinois. Particularly noticeable is the elimination of the "eyebrow" which formerly blocked full view of the glorious proscenium arch. The eyebrow, located above the orchestra pit, was installed by acoustical engineers during the 1974 renovations, and is no longer needed due to the more modern acoustic improvements added in 2002.

The Orpheum Theater is Omaha's "golden palace", a historic Midwestern landmark that has hosted renowned performers and performances, and will continue to serve as home for the finest in the performing arts.

Article reprinted from the Opera Omaha October 25, 2002 program book, researched and written by Steve Grupe and Heike Langdon