The Evolution of a Cultural Center
Sinking into the plush seats of today's Orpheum Theater, one can feel the resonance of over 100 years of social and cultural history. Here are some highlights:
Before the Theater
The Withnell Building, erected by pioneer contractor John Withnell, served as headquarters for the US Army's "Department of the Platte," stretching from Canada to Texas. In 1895, the Army headquarters moved to Fort Omaha near 30th and Fort streets, and the opportunity to develop Harney Street between 15th and 16th streets emerged.
The Creighton Theater
The Creighton Theater, named after "Count" John A. Creighton, seated more than 800. The Creighton Theater opened on August 22, 1895 with a drama, "The Masqueraders," by Charles Frohman's company. It was reported to have been "a gala social event, with a full house, especially in the saloon."
Omaha and the Orpheum Circuit
By 1898, there was a widening national recession, so the Creighton Theater was sold to the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit, and the theater became The Creighton Orpheum, shortened to simply The Orpheum by 1906. Omaha was then in the company of eight other cities on vaudeville's Orpheum Circuit. Shows were held each day at 2:15 and 8:15 p.m. Admission ranged from 10¢ for children or gallery seats to 50¢ for adult main floor seats in the evening.
The "New" Orpheum Theater
The owners of the original Orpheum lost two of their additional theaters in Omaha to a fire. Facing growing audience demand for vaudeville, they decided to replace their last standing theater - the Orpheum - with a new and larger building. This is the Orpheum Theater still standing today, built in 1927 for $2 million and constructed in 16 months. A Wurlitzer Style 235 Special pipe organ, which became an integral part of the hall, was installed for the first performance. The gala opening on Monday, October 10, was attended by nearly 3,000 people, including the Mayor of Omaha and the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben. The program was filled with "laughs, tricks, antics, dances, comics and all other things that go to make a happy evening." The Fighting Eagle
, a motion picture starring former Omaha Central High student Rod La Rocque, was shown.
The Golden Palace and the Silver Screen
The Orpheum thrived for its first twenty years, but with the coming of motion pictures, vaudeville's popularity waned. Omaha's Orpheum transitioned into a movie house that gradually faced declining revenues, finally closing on April 29, 1971. It showed its last film to an empty house. The theater's Wurlitzer pipe organ's popularity had also changed. Designed to be played during silent movies and used in local broadcasts throughout the 1930s, the organ eventually fell into disrepair as "talkies" grew in popularity.
Restoring a Cultural Treasure
The Wurlitzer organ was restored to operational condition by the Omaha Theater Organ Society, Inc. in 1965. By 1972, the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben purchased the Orpheum, to be used as a performing arts center for the Omaha Symphony, Opera Omaha, and Ballet Omaha. An eleventh-hour crisis nearly killed the deal - until the Omaha Symphony Association purchased the lobby and gave it to the City of Omaha. Renovations included adding depth to the stage, new stage rigging, air conditioning, electrical and lighting upgrades, enlarging the orchestra pit, updating seats and carpeting, and restoration of the interior's original beauty.
The Grand Reopening of the Golden Palace
Comedian Red Skelton graced the stage for the Orpheum's grand reopening on January 17, 1975. Opera Omaha performed on the Orpheum stage for the first time that year, with soprano Beverly Sills in the title role of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.
Following renovations in 1989 and 1996, a large-scale Orpheum facilities study was commissioned by the Omaha Symphony in 1997.
2001 and Beyond:
Omaha Performing Arts takes over
The next evolution of the Orpheum Theater took place in 2001, when Omaha Performing Arts announced plans for a complete renovation of the Orpheum. In 2002, the City of Omaha granted Omaha Performing Arts a lease to manage the Orpheum Theater, and thanks to the generosity of private funders, the ornate splendor of this magnificent theater was enhanced to better serve patrons and artists. Improvements included everything from larger and refurbished seats to a new stage that could accommodate the largest productions, new dressing rooms, a heating and cooling system and improved acoustics.
Since then, additional improvements have been made by Omaha Performing Arts, including a skylink between the theater and the parking garage, a new elevator and stage door, a beautiful patron room - the Anne Thorne Weaver Lounge
- new rigging in 2012 and an extensive restoration of the Wurlitzer pipe organ
in August 2013.