Orpheum Theatre (Seattle)

  • By Eric L. Flom
  • Posted 12/12/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4267
Fondly remembered as a fixture of Seattle’s downtown, the Orpheum Theatre at 5th Avenue and Stewart Street opened on August 28, 1927. Originally designed to showcase vaudeville and film, the venue was a motion picture house for much of its life, save for a brief period in which it served as the home of the Seattle Symphony. When it was torn down in 1967 to make way for a hotel, the Orpheum was one of the last 1920s-era venues to be destroyed without an outcry from local preservationists, who were just beginning to recognize the cultural and historical significance of such buildings.

A Celebration on Two Fronts

The 1927 opening of Seattle’s new Orpheum coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, originally founded in 1887 by Gustave Walter of San Francisco. Although the new Orpheum was undoubtedly Seattle’s most famous house of that name, it wasn’t the first. That honor went to the original Orpheum, built at 3rd Avenue and Madison Street in 1911 and still in operation at the time, albeit known as the President. And before even the original Orpheum was completed, Orpheum circuit vaudeville could be seen at the Coliseum at 7th Avenue and Union Street, a former roller-skating rink that had been renovated for stage entertainment in 1908.

Seattle’s newest Orpheum was designed by renowned theater architect (and Seattle resident) B. Marcus Priteca (1889-1971), famous for his work designing houses for showman Alexander Pantages (1876-1936). In typical Priteca style, the building was a multi-purpose structure. The street level had space not only for the theater’s entryway and box office, but for other businesses as well, including (when the building opened) a cigar shop and a Bartell Drug Store. Office space occupied the upper floors. The venue carried a high price tag -- estimates put the cost at anywhere between $1.25 and $3 million.

With seating for 2,700 patrons, at the time the Orpheum was the largest theater in the Pacific Northwest. (The distinction was short-lived. The Paramount, then known as the Seattle Theatre, opened six months after the Orpheum and seated neaarly 4,000.) Unusually, the house contained no box seats whatsoever; instead, Priteca designed a pair of small alcoves with no function other than decoration.

The venue was managed by Carl Reiter, previously manager of the Moore Theatre, and before that manager of the original Orpheum (beginning with its opening in 1911) and the Coliseum.

As part of the opening celebration, Reiter announced to the press some of the coming attractions for the Orpheum’s 1927-1928 season, which was chock full of acts and personalities that were Seattle favorites. One such performer was African American dance man Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949), identified by the Times as “the ‘Dark Cloud of Joy’” (“Orpheum to Bring Varied Talent Here”). Robinson is most famously remembered today for the six films he completed with Shirley Temple (often in the role of a butler), particularly the staircase dance he performed with the child star in the 1935 film The Little Colonel.

Awash in Splendor

Patrons were overwhelmed by the Orpheum when it debuted to the public on August 28, 1927. Priteca had utilized a Spanish Renaissance design that gave the entire house an aura of sophistication, drawing frequent comparisons to the famous opera houses of Europe. “That dawning era, according to historical record, plunged art into a world of compromise,” wrote one paper of the Spanish Renaissance period. “The old ideals of medievalism were clashing with the new ones of the great cultural awakening. Genius had no pattern to follow, so it created one” (“New Orpheum’s Artistic Beauty is Unsurpassed”). The fact that there was no pattern to follow may have been a blessing -- Priteca’s design was reportedly hampered by the venue’s limited space.

A total of four windows stood ready to dispense tickets to eager patrons. Once inside the venue, audiences were met by the richly carpeted entrance lobby with marble walls and stone columns supporting the roof 40 feet overhead. (The balustrades were of Northwest stone, a departure from the formal look of earlier theaters but which added a Northwest touch to an otherwise European-looking venue.) Topping this lobby was a chandelier “of unusual grace and beauty” that reportedly took six months to construct (“Lighting of New Theatre Looks to Spectacular”). This was one of the 131 chandeliers hung throughout the building.

Other features of the lobby area included some of the eight paintings by artist Clairin Checa obtained by the Orpheum. The paintings, which formerly hung in Chicago’s Majestic Theatre, were purchased for the sum of $25,000. In addition, a special grandfather clock was commissioned for the lobby, and took craftsman three months to complete.

Steps down from the entrance lobby took one to the smoking rooms, restrooms, and nursery. Here, according to the Times, female patrons of the new Orpheum were treated like royalty. “Three retiring lounges, one to each floor of the auditorium, have been dedicated to the lip-stick, the rouge, the powder puff and the eyebrow pencil,” went one account. “Mirrors, stretching the full length of the wall already are waiting the piquant vanities of Seattle’s Miss Petticoat” (“Regal Rooms Await Women”). (Lest they pander only to female vanity, the Times was also quick to point out that these retiring rooms had a more practical function: they were an excellent place for women to smoke, away from disapproving eyes.) The furniture in the women’s retiring rooms was said to be French in “lineage,” and along with the draperies displayed a mauve color scheme. In addition, several crystal vases with freshly cut flowers dotted the room.

Returning to the lobby, a stairway led upwards to the middle balcony area, although the house was also equipped with a 50-person elevator that saved this climb for some patrons. The hallways of the middle foyer area were lined with furniture, much of it in small alcoves that afforded pockets of privacy in an otherwise public space.

A Look on the Inside

The auditorium itself, like the rest of the house, was adorned with chandeliers and draperies, each continuing the Spanish motif invoked throughout the house. Three colors of indirect lighting in the auditorium could be controlled (along with the stage lighting) from a large master switchboard. The first of its kind in the Northwest, the mechanism allowed for up to five pre-programmed lighting schemes that could be put into effect at the flick of a switch. The lighting system also included a “throw-over” switch, installed so that power could automatically be transferred to one of three backup systems in the event of an outage to the theater’s main power source.

The auditorium’s heating and cooling system was no less elaborate and cost in the neighborhood of $100,000 to install. This system pulled in air from outside, ran it through a filter, then circulated the "purified" air throughout the venue. With a complete change of the building’s air every three minutes, the system was “pronounced ideal by the United States Bureau of Mines and Dr. Ellsworth Huntington of Yale University ... The air which patrons of the new Orpheum will breathe is actually healthier than the air in their own homes or outdoors” (“Playhouse Has Artistic Appeal Second to None”).

The backstage facilities for actors and musicians was said to be as good as those found in the city’s finest hotels. Most of the 14 dressing rooms, for instance, had private baths. This was in addition to a separate music room, a pair of auxiliary rooms, and large shared rooms for chorus members and extras.

Along with its trademark marquee out front, the Orpheum building was topped by a large sign that perhaps became its most distinguishing feature. Standing 65 feet high and 55 feet wide, this signage originally read “Orpheum Vaudeville and Photoplays,” but was leased to other advertisers as the years wore on. For many years it was an advertisement for Almond Roca candy.

In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb

Despite a glamorous opening in late August 1927, the venue never did well financially, particularly once the Great Depression hit. When the Orpheum circuit’s parent company, RKO, ran into financial difficulties in the early 1930s, the Seattle Orpheum was closed for nearly a year. It was eventually reopened in 1934 by local film exhibitor John Hamrick (1876-1956), who at the time was also attempting to revive the ailing Music Hall Theatre just a couple of blocks away.

Hamrick engaged film comedians Bert Wheeler (1895-1968) and Robert Woolsey (1888-1938) for a personal appearance at the Orpheum, a popular move that helped revive the house’s fortunes, however briefly. In one respect it’s too bad the Orpheum never did well, since one of the boasts when it opened was that it held the largest theater vault in the world, containing “a money chest weighing 1,500 pounds that would put Treasure Island pirates to shame” (“New Orpheum Theatre Will Open Doors Today”).

From the mid-1930s on the Orpheum primarily showed motion pictures as its main attraction, although the venue did a short stint as the home of the Seattle Symphony during the 1940s and 1950s. In the early 1960s the Orpheum stage was bricked off from the rest of the house, marking a formal end to its days as anything other than a movie house. In 1964, it was purchased by the Seattle-based Sterling Theatres motion picture chain.

In contrast to the turmoil created two decades later when the nearby Music Hall Theatre was slated for demolition, the demise of the Orpheum in 1967 brought warm remembrances of the past, not a battle of preservation versus progress. Times columnist Don Duncan was one with fond memories of the venue:

"My best memory of the Orpheum was taking a girl friend (later my wife) to see a young, knee-high Negro drummer named 'Sugar Chile' Robinson.

"'Sugar Chile' was precocious, all right. But a rather modest talent actually. There was, however, a young Negro man on the program whom we immediately tapped for eventual stardom. He sang, danced and did imitations. The audience went wild.

"And darned if Sammy Davis, Jr. didn’t go on to make a name for himself" (Duncan).

In June 1967, Greenfield’s Auction Galleries organized a two-day auction of the Orpheum’s materials on behalf of the Clise Agency, which held the rights to the building and its contents even after selling the actual property to Western International Hotels. Everything was up for grabs, said auctioneer Jim Greenfield -- anything that could be “unscrewed, chiseled or blasted loose or otherwise detached from the theater building, up to and including the marquee and the wrought-iron fencing along Fifth Avenue” (“Orpheum Auction Set June 26, 27”).

The auction’s first day, June 26th, featured the house’s old equipment and fixtures, including projectors, lights, plumbing, and wiring. Day two was slated for the house’s remaining art objects, including furniture, paintings, and sculptures. Even the marble paneling on the walls and floors was sawed apart and auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Demolition of the theater formally began in August 1967, taking more than 10 weeks to complete (much longer than anticipated) due to the Orpheum’s sturdy construction. Once this was completed, work began on the construction of the Washington Plaza Hotel, known today (in 2005) as the Westin Hotel.


Sources: “Orpheum Theatre -- Seattle, Washington,” Puget Sound Pipeline website accessed May 19, 2003 (www.pstos.org/instruments/wa/seattle/orpheum.htm); “Orpheum Celebrating Its Fortieth Birthday,” Seattle Star, August 27, 1927, p. 8; “Orpheum to Open on Sunday,” Seattle Star, August 27, 1927, p. 9; “Playhouse has Artistic Appeal Second to None,” Seattle Daily Times, August 28, 1927, p. 14; “Orpheum Theatre Signs Attract Wide Comment,” Ibid., August 28, 1927, p. 14; “Orpheum to Bring Varied Talent Here,” Ibid., August 28, 1927, p. 15; “New Orpheum Provides Spacious Office Room,” Ibid., August 28, 1927, p. 15; “Regal Rooms Await Women; Every Comfort for Milady,” Ibid., August 28, 1927, p. 15; “Lighting of New Theatre Looks to Spectacular,” Ibid., August 28, 1927, p. 15; “New Orpheum’s Artistic Beauty is Unsurpassed,” Ibid., August 28, 1927, p. 16; “Special Clock is Built to Fit Into Theatre’s Foyer,” Ibid., August 28, 1927, p. 16; “New Orpheum Theatre Will Open Doors Today,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 28, 1927, Stage & Screen Section, pp. 1, 4; “Fine Talent for Opening of Orpheum Bill,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 28, 1927, Stage & Screen Section, p. 3; “New Orpheum Wins Praise; Theatre, Acts are Lauded,” Seattle Daily Times, August 29, 1927, p. 8; Ernest S. Cowper, “Pretentious Picture and Stage Bill Opens New Orpheum,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 29, 1927, p. 8; Harry B. Mills, “Orpheum Marks a New Standard in Theaters,” Seattle Star, August 29, 1927, p. 3; Don Duncan, “Last Attraction: ‘Death of the Orpheum,” The Seattle Times, February 13, 1967, p. 27; “Orpheum Auction Set June 26, 27,” Ibid., June 13, 1967, p. 19; “Onstage -- ‘The Death of a Theater,’” Ibid., August 29, 1967, p. 1; James R. Warren, “Theater Built in 1927 Defied Wrecking Ball,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 28, 1982, p. C-7.

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