Wichita's Orpheum Theatre History
“In the 20’s and 30’s, there were more than 150 operating Orpheum Theatres in the United States. The Orpheum Circuit. Today, 18 of those theatres remain in only 17 cities. So Wichita is one of only 17 cities in the United States that saved their historic Orpheum Theatre. That makes us very special,” said Diana Gordon, President of Wichita’s Orpheum Theatre.
Construction began on Wichita’s Orpheum Theatre on August 1, 1921 and it opened on Sept. 4, 1922.
At the time the Orpheum opened its doors, theatre performances and vaudeville shows were among the most popular entertainment options available.
Movie Palaces like the Orpheum and it’s early rival in Wichita, the Miller Theater, were a home away from home for their audiences, who would go to the theater several times a week.
A registered historical site at both the State and the National level, the Orpheum still entertains Wichitans to this day.
The First Atmospheric Theatre
Wichita’s Orpheum was designed by John Eberson, a great in the movie palace design industry. It was with this theatre that he debuted what would later become an iconic design in theatres worldwide: The atmospheric theatre.
The atmospheric theatre presented a unique concept. Where traditional theaters seated the audience in a formal setting with ornate domed ceilings, crystal chandeliers and marble accents, the atmospheric theatre transports the audience to exotic, European gardens.
Balconies, arches and trellises made up large parts of the design, surrounding audiences to make them feel as though the were actually in a garden.
In addition, plants and trees were used to drive the point home. This design was intended to further involve the audience in the story by taking them to an imaginary place where they could be completely removed from the stress of the world outside.
Wichita Orpheum Design
Wichita’s Orpheum was designed to resemble a Spanish courtyard, with visible Spanish influences in its architecture, tiling and ornate, hand-carved and hand-painted details.
The Orpheum’s ceiling was designed to imitate the appearance of a starry night sky complete with small twinkling lights that resembled stars. Several of the architectural styles used in the design of the Orpheum were widely used in several European countries.
Delmar Klocke, a member of the Orpheum’s Board of Directors suggests that these architectural styles likely made many of Wichita’s early European immigrants feel at home.
The Orpheum Circuit
Wichita’s Orpheum was part of The Orpheum Circuit, meaning that it drew many big-name acts that performed tours that stopped at Orpheum Theatres across the country.
Over the years, the Orpheum boasted performances by Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope and many, many more.
In 1939, The Orpheum held the Kansas premiere of “Gone With The Wind”. The premiere was attended by Wichitan Hattie McDaniel who portrayed Mammy in the film. She would go on to win an Oscar for her performance, making her the first African-American to receive the award.
The Orpheum Closes
The Orpheum continued to be one of Wichita’s most popular places to see live performances and new films from the depression through the 1950’s. As the entertainment industry evolved, however, the Orpheum struggled to survive. The next two decades would prove a challenge. The Theatre closed and sat empty for two decades.
Empty and exposed to the elements, the once-grand building had certainly seen better days. It nearly faced the wrecking ball, a fate suffered by its early rival, the Miller, in 1972.
Thanks to a group of devoted Wichitans, however, the Orpheum’s fate was not sealed. Instead, the theater was saved by the efforts of this group, made up of civic-minded individuals who worked together to prove that Wichita’s Orpheum was worth more than the ground it was built on. The building was structurally sound but in serious need of repair.
Theatre Saved from Demolition
According to the Orpheum’s history video, a deed signed in 1985 transferred ownership of the building to a nonprofit organization who intended to repair and renovate the theater. When this process began, it was not a light undertaking.
There were no seats in the theater and the building had no running water. The roof would need to be replaced, and pigeons and squatters who had taken up residency in the building had to be removed. Much of the renovation expense went into stabilizing the building.
These were the necessary repairs that needed to be addressed before cosmetic fixed could take place. Labeled “Phase one”, things like roofing, gutters and brickwork were among the first projects tackled.
Now, even more repairs have taken place. The restrooms have been redone, featuring a much more functional design. The women’s has seen the most change, moving from a total of three water closets to a much more reasonable number for a facility of the Orpheum’s capacity. The back lobby, snack bar area and stairs to the mezzanine have also been renovated, including not only pain on the walls, but also hand-painting of the moldings.
Growth of the Theatre
The Orpheum saw its first full year of service in 2000, where it saw a total attendance of 8,100, according to the video. By 2005, the annual total jumped to 40,000.
Fast forward another 10 years and the Orpheum continues going strong. Now, at the ripe age of 94, the Historic Theatre hosts concerts, film screenings, comedians and more. Continued renovation plans are in the works, including adding new seating that is both comfortable and representative of the Orpheum's original time period.
Wichita is very fortunate to have preserved its Orpheum Theatre, something many other cities overlooked.
Check out the Orpheum's events below.