One of the most beautiful theaters in the South sparkles once more in downtown Memphis.
The Orpheum Theater creates excitement long before the show. In fact, the former vaudeville venue puts on a spectacular performance all by itself, a prelude to whatever play, movie, or concert takes the stage or screen. Even if you don't see a show here, visiting the Orpheum merits the price of admission.
The performing arts center, perched on the corner of South Main and Beale Streets, is a shrine of sorts, a grand old girl with glorious beginnings, a near-death experience, and then a miraculous restoration to her former beauty.
The Orpheum was born in Memphis in 1890 as the Grand Opera House. The name was changed in 1907 to the Orpheum, and the theater continued to bring in vaudeville acts for many years. A fire in 1923 destroyed the landmark attraction; a new Orpheum was built in its place in 1928, and it is essentially the three-story structure you see today. A massive restoration effort begun in 1983 returned the Orpheum to its former glory. Another renovation and expansion in 1996-97 extended the stage and made other structural modifications.
Pat Halloran's book, The Orpheum: Where Broadway Meets Beale,details the theater's saga. Pat is president of the Memphis Development Foundation, which operates the Orpheum. He's also participated in restoration efforts involving the theater. "The country lost so many of these architectural gems during urban renewal," Pat recalls wistfully. "Memphis took a building that looked like it should have fallen down and brought it back to its original beauty."
From the moment you set foot in front of the sparkling marquee and approach the entrance, your heart beats a little faster. Your pulse quickens when you see the bronze stars set into the sidewalk. Inscribed are names you know so well: Yul Brynner, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck. They've all performed here.
As you enter the Grand Lobby, you feel as if you've walked into a royal palace. Two massive crystal chandeliers, original to the theater, hang from the ceiling. Gold and silver leaf ornamentation on the walls and ceiling lends a regal air. Grand twin staircases lead up to the mezzanine. Ah, but past the double doors in front of you, and past the rows of red velvet seats, is center stage.
Hurry, there's just enough time to find your seat. You ask an usher to direct you, then snuggle into place. Before the houselights dim and the show begins, you take one last look at the sumptuous surroundings and smile in amazement. It is true. The show began the moment you saw the marquee.
Orpheum Theater: 203 South Main Street, Memphis, TN 38173; www.orpheum-memphis.com. For tickets call (901) 525-3000 or (901) 743-2787; for general information call (901) 525-7800, ext. 221.
Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.