Unearthed: Memphis

Unearthed: Memphis

Episode Ten: The Orpheum Theater

December 23, 2020

The Orpheum we see today is not actually the original building. The original theater was not even called “The Orpheum” - that name wouldn’t appear on the front of the building until 1907. The original theater, built in 1890 on the southwest corner of Main and Beale, was known as the Grand Opera House. It was well known among theater-goers, and it was touted as the fanciest theater outside of New York City. It was managed by Frank Gray, a gentleman that had come up in theater, beginning his career as an usher. Mr. Gray was well-respected in the theater community for reliably booking only the best shows available, and was even nicknamed the “Dean of Southern Theater Managers.” 

Grand Opera House

In 1899, the Grand Opera House was purchased by John D. Hopkins, already a theater owner in St. Louis and Chicago, who had a background in vaudeville and minstrel shows. The theater was renamed Hopkins Grand Opera. Hopkins immediately began making improvements to the theater, replacing the gas lamps with electric lighting and brightening the drab interior even further by repainting it in grey and gold. Even though vaudeville was the theater’s main focus, they also hosted more refined acts such as the great French stage actor, Sarah Bernhardt, during one of her world tours.

Unfortunately, sophisticated acts like Sarah Bernhardt merely acted as a facade for some of Hopkins’s seedier dealings. He was involved in a lawsuit around 1906 because of his plan to sublease the theater to the Eastern Burlesque Wheel. This was not a popular idea among the theater community, and Hopkins drew so much harsh criticism that it prompted him to try and sell the theater. He had no such luck until more than a year later, when the theater changed hands to the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit. Hopkins died, presumably from kidney failure, just more than two years later. In the New York Times’s public announcement about the theater changing hands, a phrase was used to hint at what kind of theater fare the patrons could expect, and also to appeal to a more elite clientele…  this phrase delights me to no end…  After the functional portion of the announcement, telling about renovations and the name change, it says, “Advanced vaudeville will be served.”  

So finally we’re in 1907, and we have a theater in Memphis called “The Orpheum.” The theater saw great success with its vaudeville acts for nearly two decades. In 1923, a fire broke out either during, or just after (depending on the source) a striptease performance by the famous singer and recording artist, Blossom Seeley. Blossom is credited with playing a pivotal role in bringing jazz and ragtime to the mainstream in the US. Fortunately, no one was harmed in the fire, but the theater was a total loss - it burned to the ground.

Fire of 1923

The site sat dormant for about 4 years, before ground was broken on a new theater, on the foundation of the old building, but the new building was twice as big, with a much more luxurious appearance. The new theater was designed by sibling architects named Cornelius and George Rapp. Their architecture firm, Rapp & Rapp, has quite the list of well-known buildings that they designed… enough so that they deserve for us to briefly tangent into their works.Rapp & Rapp were known to be the foremost designers of early 20th century movie palaces, having designed more than 400 theaters in their time. Here are some of the buildings that were designed by Rapp & Rapp. 

The Central Park Theater in New York CityThe Chicago Theater in - well, ChicagoThe Paramount Building in Times Square - that’s the one with the giant four-faced clock on topThe Nederlander Theater in Chicago, formerly known as the Oriental Theater (the name was changed in 2019).