Orpheum Theater Phoenix

The Orpheum Theater in Phoenix – A Gorgeous Landmark of the City

Standing in the center of Downtown Phoenix, the historic Orpheum Theater, over 90 years old, is one of the main landmarks of the city. Built in 1929, it was the pride of Phoenix, then just a small town, as the only venue between Los Angeles and Denver able to host the vaudeville shows traveling through the area.

Today, ninety+ years later, the theater still stands, hosting different shows, but still some of the best in the Valley. Looking at it now, it’s hard to imagine that a few decades ago, it was almost turned into a parking lot.

The Orpheum Theater’s History

Opened in January 1929, almost demolished in the 1980s, then restored in the 1990s, the Orpheum’s history closely intertwines with the history of the city. Built when Phoenix just grew out of a farming community, the Orpheum was one of the major accomplishments of the new city.

Designed to give the audience the impression of sitting in a courtyard of a Spanish villa, the Spanish Baroque style murals and moldings enhanced the shows that changed weekly. The lobbies were no less ornate, with colorful murals decorating the walls around the arches and niches.

The Theater Changes Hands and Names

Over the years, the theater hosted films premieres, and Hollywood and Broadway celebrities. It also changed hands and names a few times. Paramount Pictures owned it between 1940 and 1968, and renamed it The Paramount. Later, in the 1970s, the Nederlander Theatrical Corporation owned. They changed its name again, calling it Palace West. Throughout all these changes, the theater was a stop on the musical Broadway circuit.

But by the mid-1970s and the early 1980s, it proved to be too small to host Broadway shows. So they leased it to the Corona family, who used it as a Hispanic movie house. At one point, they painted the colorful interior moldings and decorations black, to fit in with the new style of the days. But this probably had another reason, to hide areas that looked too old and outdated. But by then, time started to take its toll; the building was deteriorating, ready to be demolished and turned into a parking lot.

The City of Phoenix Saves the Orpheum

The city of Phoenix recognized the building’s historical value and bought it in 1984 and started work on restoring it. The project, based on the original architect’s drawings, took 12 years to complete, and it cost the city about $14 million. But by the end of this time, the Orpheum was back to its former glory. In the meantime, in 1985, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Decorations of the facade of the Phoenix Orpheum Theater
Decorations of the facade of the Phoenix Orpheum Theater

When the Orpheum first opened, the Arizona Republican advertised it as “The Playhouse for grown-ups who love to wander in the world of make-believe.”

Since it reopened in January 1997, it still has the same feeling of a home for adults who “love to wander in the world of make-believe,” hosting great local and guest shows of music and dance, theater and ballet.

Home of the New Phoenix Opera

In 1997, the Orpheum Theater became the home venue of the newly formed Phoenix Opera. Arizona’s best opera company, the Phoenix Opera traditional operas and the setting of the Orpheum Theater brings out the best in every show, with its setting and great acoustics.

Phoenix Ballet at the Orpheum Theater

When Phoenix Ballet’s Artistic Director, Slawomir Wozniak, moved to Phoenix in 2007, he set his eyes on the Orpheum Theater as a venue for his future ballet shows. The cozy atmosphere of the theater and its elaborate design later proved to be the perfect setting for his choreography. At the time though, as the owner of a small ballet school with few students, it only seemed like a dream to those of us who just met him. For him, it was a reachable goal.

A few years later, in 2010 his school performed its first Nutcracker show at the historic Orpheum Theater. To put on the professional-level show, he brought world-class dancers into the Valley who performed alongside the school’s students. Building the sets with the help of a few parents volunteers, Wozniak brought to life one of the best shows the Orpheum hosted.

Orpheum Theater Phoenix
In the audience of the Orpheum Theater. Waiting for the show (Snow White of Phoenix Ballet)

Since then, Master Ballet Academy and later the newly formed Phoenix Ballet has been performing at the Orpheum every year. Besides the yearly production of the Nutcracker, they perform shows at the end of the season, both the school’s recitals and now, full-length ballet shows, like Snow White, their latest one.

My Personal Connection to the Orpheum

A parent volunteer, and later studio and backstage manager for Master Ballet Academy, I spent countless hours at the Orpheum Theater for a few years. I got to see all the nooks and crannies of the building, and came to appreciate its gorgeous architecture, inside and out, its stage, dressing rooms, and studios. My daughters and I felt like the Orpheum was a home away from home at certain times of the year, especially during Nutcracker season, when we would spend full days at the theater.

I am no longer part of those productions, but a few days ago I stepped in the Orpheum Theater again, to watch Snow White, Wozniak’s newest production. It surprised me how much I missed the theater. I missed the feeling of being at home at the Orpheum.

Behind the Scenes at the Theater

I remember the first Nutcracker I helped with. We were still working on the costumes after the show started, finishing them minutes before the dancers had to put them on and go on stage. Sometimes, we improvised, holding costumes together with pins, sothey could wear them for the first show, and making them promise to bring them back right away so we could finish them for the next one. We always carried pins, needles, and threads in our pockets, and hanging from our jeans belt holders, in case we ran into someone who needed a last-minute fix on the costume.

Life at the Orpheum was never dull. I thought I lost my then-eight-year-old daughter in the theater once when she went off to explore the building with her best friend. Far from being lost, they went sat in the audience on the top balcony, watching the rehearsals while waiting for their turn. They thought they had a better view from there. Except they told no one where they went off to.

Watching the Shows at the Orpheum

And then sometimes, we all got to take turns and watched the shows. I’ve watched shows from backstage, from the wings, too, but the biggest treat was to see them from the audience.

Phoenix Orpheum Theater Auditorium- Wall decoration detail
Wall decoration detail in the auditorium of the Orpheum

Yes, I always watched with tears in my eyes when my daughter danced on that stage. But it wasn’t only about watching my child dance. There is just something special, about a Wozniak-show at the Orpheum that gets me emotional every time. It makes me smile, and it makes me tear up. Even after many years, and even when my child is not dancing in it. After so many years, I can see why this is the venue of Wozniak’s choice. The combination of the setting, choreography, costumes, and especially the dancers who bring it all alive, is magical, I have no other word to describe it.

And it’s the same about any show in this setting. There is just something special about old buildings, old theaters. It’s like all the shows they ever hosted live within their walls.

Outside the Auditorium…

The theater is just as elaborately decorated outside of the auditorium. The circular stairway leading to the balconies, and downstairs, to the basement lounge is decorated with a peacock motif.

Phoenix Orpheum - stairway
The elaborately decorated stairway leading to the balconies.

Zodiac designs on the lobby door panels, colorful murals, arches, niches and columns decorate the lobby and corridors. We enjoy walking through this area during intermissions, and spending time downstairs, in the basement lounge. It is part of the experience, part of the fun in watching a show at the historic Orpheum.

The Phoenix Orpheum Theater Hosts a Variety of Shows and Activities

But Phoenix Ballet and Phoenix Opera are is not the only companies that use the Orpheum. Though Ballet Arizona performs at the larger and more modern Phoenix Symphony most of the time, occasionally it uses the Orpheum’s cozier settings for some of its shows.

The historic theater also hosts guest concerts, Broadway musicals, and special events.

In the gorgeous basement lounge during the events called Downstairs at the Orpheum, local artists perform at certain times, charging a small donation.

The Afternoons at the Orpheum and Night at the Orpheum offer a special experience for those who could not afford to go to the theater otherwise.

On certain Tuesdays, once a month, the theater offers free tours, at noon and at 1 pm for those interested.

And then there are the Ghost Tours.

The Ghosts of the Phoenix Orpheum

Like any self-respecting old building, the Orpheum has its shares of ghosts, or at least ghost stories.

Having spent so much time at the theater, especially in the basement dressing rooms, even late at night occasionally, I expected to see at least one. But no such luck. Maybe they didn’t want to bother me, seeing I was busy.

Or they only show themselves to a few guests. Or, maybe, just maybe, they are only stories. Still, interesting stories. Fun for ghost searchers, maybe even for Ghostbusters. If you’re interested, sign up for a ghost tour. Yes, they have them.

From what I hear, the ghosts don’t always show up for these special tours, even though they are the guests of honor. But with or without them, the tours should be fun. Maybe I’ll try one next Halloween.

Orpheum Theater Phoenix
Orpheum Phoenix
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