Another Opening, Another Show

The curtain goes up on the landmark Orpheum Theatre's $14 million renovation

The last time you looked, the Orpheum Theatre was probably either boarded up or maybe hosting a concert by your favorite rock band, say R.E.M. But last week, after a 12-year-long, $14 million fix-up, the formerly run-down vaudeville house was reopened as a mirror image of its younger self. Its interior is a captivating cornucopia of gilded Italianette plaster and showy staircases, its exterior a stately merger of Spanish Baroque and Colonial Revival that provides a curious contrast to the ultramodern City Hall next door. Retrofitted with state-of-the-art audio and lighting systems and prepared, according to its massive media kit, to host any spectacle, this 1,400-seat venue must now prove that it was worth saving from the wrecking ball.

The restored show palace doesn't have a particularly illustrious past. Built in 1929 as a vaudeville house just before vaudeville bit the dust and immediately before the Great Depression, the Orpheum made its name as an ornate moviehouse. It was sold to the Paramount chain in 1949, and became the Palace West in the late '60s, when it was renovated as a live theater. In the late '70s, it became a Spanish-language cinema that also housed a record store and a hair salon. The building was purchased by the City of Phoenix in 1984 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places the following year. Initial funding for the restoration project came from a 1988 bond election, which authorized a $7 million budget; matching funds were collected from the Civic Plaza Building Corps and from private and corporate donations. Restoration began in earnest in 1991.

With the exception of a couple of minor details--the red-velvet stage curtain is a little flimsy, and the footlights appear to be standard GE bulbs--the revived structure looks like several million bucks. It doesn't sound bad, either, though the audio on opening night of Hello, Dolly! was slightly shrill. (Sources at both the venue and Theater League--the company producing Dolly!--insist that it was just a matter of tweaking that show's sound and not a proper representation of the chamber's acoustics.) The auditorium floor has been re-raked to enhance the audience's view of the stage. The new sightlines are nearly too good--seated stage right, I could, on occasion, see beyond the set pieces and through open doorways during entrances and exits. Admittedly, those are points most theatergoers won't notice or care about, and there's certainly plenty else for Orpheum visitors to gawk at. The interior is trimmed in a garish marriage of Hispanic and Mediterranean frills: gilded comedy and tragedy masks, cherubs, gargoyles, peacocks, plaster busts, starbursts, and enough bas relief and gold leaf to fill a dozen Roman stadiums. Landscapes by well-known muralist David Swing and a mobile projection of stars and clouds on the chamber ceiling are meant to replicate the courtyard of a Spanish villa. But this impressive pile of pomp is marred by some of the homeliest carpeting ever seen outside a rec room, though press materials contend it's a faithful copy of the Orpheum's original floor covering.

I'd already seen the interior on several previous visits, but it still distracted me from the palace's opening-night performance of Hello, Dolly!. The show is essentially a staircase and a big red dress or, in the case of the Carol Channing production, a chance to see a living legend carried from place to place by a lot of chorus boys. Carefully staging this creaky classic around the 74-year-old star, who's performed it nearly 2,000 times since 1964, meant this production lasted three long hours. After the novelty of watching Channing walking unassisted wore off, I found myself preoccupied by the proscenium arch, the gilded balconies, and the high, domed ceiling (the clouds-and-stars projector is turned off during performances).

Now that Channing and Dolly! have blown town, the Orpheum will open its doors to a long list of road shows and local events. The venue's first 16 months are nearly half booked; its big draws for the remaining season include the road company of Jackie Mason's one-man show, Direct From Broadway; a trio of pre-Broadway runs (among them the new Neil Simon play Proposals); and a tour stop by the percussive performance artists known as Stomp.

"The Orpheum can host larger shows than the Herberger and is more intimate than Tempe's Gammage Auditorium," explains Michele Irwin of the Orpheum Theatre Foundation. "This way we'll be able to attract more road shows than we have in the past, because Phoenix didn't have a suitable venue." That isn't necessarily a good thing: Before we had a place for them to stop, cheesy road companies of hoary old musical comedies passed us by. Now, with a shiny new playhouse that's just the right size for a two-week run of a bus-and-truck of Bye, Bye, Birdie, we may end up with one.

Representatives from neighboring playhouses are unconcerned about whatever impact these additional programs will have on their ticket sales. Peter Lesnik, executive director of Herberger Theater Center, expects another performance venue will bring more theatergoers downtown, a fact that will only boost ticket sales at his playhouse. "The more opportunities there are for people to come downtown, the more opportunities they have to discover what all is down here," he says.

The Orpheum is being touted by its backers as the jewel in the crown of our growing downtown theater district. Considering the number of playhouses already struggling to sell a season's worth of tickets, it remains to be seen what entertainment needs another playhouse will fill. "We expect the Orpheum to be very solidly booked," Irwin predicts. "The idea is that if we've built it, they will come.

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