The Orpheum Theatre
The entrance is deceptively narrow. A dozen casual
steps along Granville Street and youve gone by. But millions
have not always gone by, they have gone in.
For nearly 80 years the Orpheum has been luring showgoers inmillions
upon millions of them. They have walked through its richly ornamented
concourse, up its sweeping carpeted staircases, past opulent wall
decorations and tall columns and into the great domed auditorium
where nearly 2,800 seats curve in great arcs beneath a huge and
beautiful crystal chandelier. Surrounding the chandelier, a sprawling,
colorful ceiling mural celebrating the musicians and other performers
who have strutted their stuff on this gorgeous theatres stage.
They dont build them like this anymore.
In one of the great rescue operations of the last century, the
people of Vancouver came to the defence of the Orpheum when the
grand old entertainment palace was about to be gutted and turned
into a hive of smaller movie houses.
Now the people own it, and it is a treasure. In fact, it has been
designated a National Historic Site.
Priteca, the Orpheum's architect
Youll learn more about that treasure when
The History of Metropolitan Vancouver is published in 2009and
about the gifted man who created much of it. He was architect Marcus
Priteca, a Scot who revolutionized theatre design in North America,
devising a style that was, in truth, an extravagant melange of styles,
borrowing from a dozen traditions and creating buildings that, in
some cockeyed and wonderful way, work. Spectacularly.
Among the cast of characters in the Orpheums story is the
showy Joseph Langer, a Vancouver businessman who was able in 1927
to pony up $1 million to build the Orpheumand who was in deep
financial trouble three years later. The cast also includes artist
Anthony T. Heinsbergen, who gave the theatre much of its colorful
uniqueness in design in 1927, and then came back 50 years later
and did it all over again.
A battalion of famed vaudeville performers danced,
sang, capered, joked and made magic up there on the Orpheums
stage. There were convulsive changes to their world initiated by
the movies, changes that threw an entire generation
of performers out of work at the same time they opened up vast,
and vastly rewarded, opportunities for a new breed of entertainer.
Ackery, with two cartoon pals, from Ivan's book Fifty Years
on Theatre Row
As important as anyone to this astonishing theatre
is the astonishing Ivan Ackery, the theatres manager for decades
and a promotional genius, a man who could pack this big house even
for movies that didnt deserve such audiences.
Every room in this multi-roomed entertainment palace
has a history: theres Ackerys old office where he dreamed
up his promotional stunts and where the sink was damaged by Frank
Sinatra (practising his golf swing); over there was the animal
room where elephants and trained dogs and seals and snakes
and tropical birds once waited their hour upon the stage; behind
that nondescript door is the mighty Wurlitzer organ that purred
and hummed and thundered accompaniment to a myriad of entertainment
attractions, and is even now the focus of another rescue campaign;
in the upper reaches of this cavernous building is a symphony
rehearsal hall where no symphony ever rehearsed. Down those
aisles, her flashlight glowing to guide movie-goers, once walked
young Orpheum usherette Yvonne De Carlo who, a few years
later, would be a star up on its big silver screen.
Norman Young, the retired theatre arts professor who for years
conducted tours through the theatre, always points out the jaw-droppingly
intricate and beautiful (and big) Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier
suspended above the heart of the auditorium and tells of the hotel
that offered $65,000 for it and was turned down. (Hell also,
with somewhat less enthusiasm, point out the ornately painted blank
spots on the theatres colonnade walls where four mirrors once
hunguntil they were stolen.)
All around the theatre, on every floor, are ornamental grace notesmurals,
paintings and other art work, decorated wall fabrics, tiling, fancy
balustrades, gilded mirrors, ironwork, ornate chandeliers, sconces,
corbels, tapestries, plush carpeting, varied and exotic architectural
embellishmentsa never-ending feast for the eye.
And, above you and below, all the hidden mechanisms that make it
work: the ropes and wires and counterweights, lighting appliances,
control panels, speaker systems, rehearsal rooms, storage spaces,
catwalksand all the men and women in the building who labor,
most of them unseen, to make it all happen.
And, unseen but present all around you, a million memories: of
slapstick comics, and dewy-eyed soubrettes, nimble magicians and
world-famed musicians, wise-cracking jugglers and sweaty acrobatic
teams, standup comedians and dignified divas, and the fabled names
of the movies: Garbo, Gable, Bogart, Bacall, Hepburn, Monroe, Olivier,
Gielgud, Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Bette Davis, Jack Benny, Alec
Guinness . . .
This is a great building, with a long and colorful history.
For theatre goers themselves the Orpheums
history began with a soft opening on November 7, 1927.
The official opening was the next day.
Daytime admission for its 1,800 seats was 25 cents, children 15
cents. You could reserve a seat for 40 cents. Besides a movieperhaps
accompanied by the mighty Wurlitzer pipe organyour 25 cents
got you a vaudeville show. Prices doubled in the evening.
What were wages like at the time? Well, a newspaper
advertisement of the time seeking an organist and choir leader
offered $20 a month; lathmill men were wanted for 40 cents per hour
and better; someone in Point Grey (still a separate
municipality) advertised for a Capable girl, help housework,
one used to children, $15 a month, sleep in, other help kept.
So an evening ticket at the Orpheum would have cost that capable
girl a full days wages.
Overcoats were on sale at Clamans, normally $29, going for
$19.50. A mans suit was $27 at the Hudsons Bay. A new
electric gramophone did away with the need to wind the machine.
It cost $230. The winding kind were $190.
There was an ad for Thanksgiving Day on the
top of the world at Grouse Mountain. A full course turkey
dinner up there was $1.50. Bus to go to Grouse and back: $2.50.
The Province reported that a total of 9,000
people had enjoyed the three shows put on at the Orpheum that Monday,
running continuously from 1:00 to 11:00 p.m. What they saw and heard
was a mix of vaudeville, music and a movie. Tributes of admiration
were heard on every side, the paper reported, and Vancouverites
bore themselves (as they trod on the heavy-piled carpets and were
bowed to their seats by trim damsels in smart costumes and men ushers
with naval rankings on their sleeves) as to the manner born. Their
manner plainly said they had been used to this sort of thing all
their lives and had always entered vaudeville and picture houses
via noble staircases, under magnificently jewelled chandeliers and
handsome corridors adorned with well-chosen works of art, with palms
and flowers and well-cushioned seats . . .. The lavish surroundings,
in fact, created traffic problems during the theatres first
days as people leaving one show wandered around admiring the new
building and getting in the way of people coming in for the next.
There were five acts of vaudeville, and a movie,
The Wise Wife, with Phyllis Haver. For the record the vaudeville
acts included a musical performance by Marie White and the Blue
Slickers (one star being Jack Howe, King of the Kazoo);
Pat Henning and Co., a family act, in Versatility; the Beloved
Clown Toto; dancers Chaney & Fox; Ethel Davis in
Refreshing Song Chatter and Bee Hee & Rubyette.
There was a Pathe newsreel, too, and although we dont know
what 1927 events were covered in it, there were lots to choose from:
Chiang Kai-shek had taken Hangchow, Shanghai and Canton; U.S. President
Coolidge announced he wouldnt run again; there was the already
mentioned Lindbergh flight; the fossil remains of Peking Man were
discovered; Fords Model A was introduced; the first U.S. demonstration
of television was given; dancer Isadora Duncan died; Babe Ruth hit
60 homers, a record that would stand for 30 years . . . and the
Parliament Buildings in Ottawa reopened (they had been destroyed
by fire in 1916)
The theatre was packed to capacity for its three
shows the next day, Tuesday, November 8th as well, but this was
the formal opening and now there were dignitaries on every hand.
The ceremony ran from 7 p.m. to 11. Vancouvers trim little
mayor, Louis D. Taylor, congratulated Bill Barnes, the new theatres
manager, and the Orpheum Circuit for its faith in the future of
the city. Mary Ellen Smith, the first woman to become an MLA in
British Columbia (she represented Vancouver) and the first in the
British Empire to be a cabinet minister, delivered an appreciation
of the new theatre on behalf of the women of the province.
Many of the invited guests had names that will be
familiar even today to long-time residents of the city: Lieutenant
Governor Randolph Bruce was there, and so was William Sloan, the
provinces acting premier. The mayor of New Westminster, Wells
Gray, was on hand with his wife, as was Vancouvers chief of
police, Walter Long and Mrs. Long, and the chief of its fire department,
John Carlyle and his wife. R. J. Cromie, who had founded the Vancouver
Sun 15 years earlier, and had since absorbed the News-Advertiser
and the World and Mrs. Cromie rubbed shoulders with famed
journalist Roy Brown and his wife.
In the midst of this glittering array of Vancouvers upper
crust was one Joseph F. Langer, financier, whose smile may have
been the broadest of all. It was this flamboyant gentlemans
money$1 million of itthat had been used to build the
magnificent new theatre.
Youll learn more about the theatre and its people in my book.
(By the way, the photo of the Orpheum accompanying
this article can be dated to 1946. The movie Meet the Navy,
a filming of a wartime revue produced by the Canadian navy, was
made that year.)
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