I was wondering what the history of the Orpheum Theater is? - FOX 42: Omaha News, Sports and Weather; kptm.com |

March 15, 2009

I was wondering what the history of the Orpheum Theater is?

For decades the Orpheum Theater has been a landmark in downtown Omaha: a place to see Broadway theatre, national performers, or even catch a movie.

"The Orpheum Theater was built in 1927," says Omaha Performing Arts President Joan Squires.  "It was originally a vaudeville house."

Squires says you may have noticed the name in Los Angeles, Memphis or even Sioux City.

"There are Orpheum Theaters around the country that were part of that vaudeville circuit," says Squires.  "So they got the biggest stars.  Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, they all played the Orpheum circuit."

In those days before television, a city's theater was a center of culture.

"The Orpheum was really the place to be," says Squires.  "Even today I hear stories about people coming here, they grew up here, they had their first smooch in the balcony here."

But what really sets Omaha's Orpheum apart is the history that remains inside.

"They're all original from 1927," says Production Manager Jeff Brown as he points out the crystal chandeliers.  "They all come from Czechoslovakia."

Brown says many theaters have had their chandeliers stolen or severely damaged over time.  At the Orpheum, 85 percent of the furniture, draperies and marble date back to 1927.

"My father started here back in 1973 with the first renovation," says Brown, who practically grew up in the theater and has a true appreciation of its history.

"A lot of times even when the theater's closed I'll have people come up and pull on the front door," says Brown.  "So I let them in and if it's just to even come in and look around the theater and say, ‘oh, you know, my wife and I this was our first date here' and you know back in the thirties or whatever."

While the theater has worked hard to protect its identity, there have been upgrades, including a new stage floor.

"Put in new English oak floor and then gave it three coats of staining and then sealed it," says Brown.

There's also computerized lighting and new dressing rooms.

"Which are very spacious," says Brown.  "New showers, everything."

"We've got wider seats, more legroom," says Squires.  "We did a lot of work in this building so people are comfortable, but they still get that feel of the old days of coming to great theater."

The Orpheum actually shut down in the early 1970s, but was able to reopen in 1975 thanks to money raised by the Knights of Aksarben.  Bill Cosby will be there next Saturday and in May the Broadway musical "Wicked" will drop in for a three and a half week run.

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