New Orpheum Theatre opens in Seattle on August 28, 1927.

  • By Eric L. Flom
  • Posted 11/22/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4260
On August 28, 1927, the new Orpheum Theatre opens at the intersection of Stewart Street and 5th Avenue in Seattle. The new Orpheum replaces the city's original Orpheum, constructed in 1911 at 3rd Avenue and Madison Street, which in 1927 was operating as the President Theatre. The new Orpheum Theatre is designed by local architect B. Marcus Priteca (1889-1971) and remains a downtown fixture until 1967, when it is demolished to make way for a hotel.

A Red-Letter Opening

As with the opening of any new entertainment venue, the first crowds to venture inside the new Orpheum were awed by its luxuriousness. "It's like some scene from the Arabian Nights," a Times reporter overheard one woman remark (she must have been oblivious to the fact that architect B. Marcus Priteca had chosen a Spanish Renaissance style). The plush carpeting, artwork, and period furnishings added a very sophisticated element to the new venue, although many of the lobby's finer details were obscured by hundreds of fresh flowers -- bouquets sent by local merchants to mark the occasion.

Grand openings such as the Orpheum's had become commonplace in the theater-building boom of the 1920s, so much so that members of the press often became jaded about such events. Even so, the new Orpheum seemed to rise above its contemporaries."Palatial is a word frequently applied loosely to describe new places of amusement," observed Ernest S. Cowper in the Post-Intelligencer, "but it seems almost inadequate in describing the impressive grandeur of the new Orpheum."

And Up Went the Curtain

The Orpheum's lineup of vaudeville acts on opening day was described as a "bill of super-merit." These included "Tiny" Burnett leading the house orchestra; the Luster Brothers, contortionists and tumblers who had the honor of being the first live act at the new theater; a comedy sketch by Ray Harrison; and a high-wire demonstration by Hal Hart, who managed to incorporate a good line of comedy into his act while walking a tightrope high above the Orpheum stage. The live bill was headlined by a Ned Wayburn song and dance act, Buds of 1927, but top critical honors actually fell to performers much lower on the card.

Singled out, for instance, were the efforts of soprano Yvette Rugel. "Rarely in vaudeville is it one's privilege to hear a vocalist of the attainments of Yvette Rugel," Cowper remarked in the Post-Intelligencer. "[She] is a soprano of quite unusual gifts and charms whose art is of the caliber seldom heard outside the concert hall or opera house" (Cowper). Perhaps the biggest hit, however, was a sketch called The Monologist. Not wishing to spoil the fun, reviews from the Orpheum gave few details. Even so, the comedy routine apparently involved a performer who took the stage and attempted to relate a story about his grandfather, a doctor in Ireland, but who kept getting interrupted by members of the audience -- all performers planted around the house to purposely disrupt the proceedings.

The live entertainment was followed by the feature film The Fighting Eagle, starring Rod LaRocque, which was based on a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. LaRocque played a dashing young man whose courage and braggadocio pegs him a fast-rising star in the French army, one whose exploits not only win recognition from his general (Napoleon) but also spark the jealousy of fellow soldiers. While it's unclear whether his gentle put-down was directed at LaRocque or his vehicle, Harry B. Mills of the Seattle Star made a special point of noting that the picture "was so much better than I expected that I was surprised" (Mills). Harold Windus accompanied the film on the Orpheum's new Wurlitzer organ.

A Dose of Fantasy, A Dose of Reality

In all likelihood the audience on that opening Sunday in 1927 would have predicted success for the new Orpheum Theatre, but veteran journalists such as Cowper and Mills knew to be cautious about such enthusiasm. "[T]here is not perhaps that feeling of at-homeness and intimacy that one experienced in the old theatre," Cowper was careful to note, "but this may develop as the season advances" (Cowper). Similar sentiments were expressed by Mills in his own coverage of the opening. "While Sunday was the first day, the real Orpheum opening will come tonight," he asserted in the Star's Monday edition. "The regulars will be on hand then. Sunday night's crowd was not vaudeville trained. They applauded loudly in the picture when the hero found the missing letter and let some wonderful dancing [in the opening live acts] go by 'sitting on their hands'" (Mills).

In fact, even though the new Orpheum spent almost four decades as one of downtown Seattle's most prominent buildings, historically speaking the guarded optimism expressed by Cowper and Mills played itself out over time. Despite the fact that the Orpheum was opening during the vaudeville circuit's 40th anniversary year, it was also opening just as vaudeville entertainment was beginning to wane in popularity, a demise hastened by the Great Depression. Within five years, the fabulous new Orpheum would be closed, with nothing to be seen on its stage for almost a year. After reopening briefly in the mid-1930s, it closed again before being resurrected as a motion picture house by local exhibitor John Hamrick (1876-1956).

The venue persevered through these ups and downs, but it never regained the glory of its first few seasons, when the house was a showcase for some of the country's best stage and screen entertainment. During the 1940s and 1950s, while confined to showing motion picture bills, the Orpheum doubled as the home of the Seattle Symphony. Later, in the 1960s, the stage was bricked off from the remainder of the house, marking a formal end to its once-glorious past. In 1964, shortly after the Orpheum underwent a separate renovation, the house was sold to the Seattle-based Sterling Theatres movie chain.

The Orpheum was demolished in 1967 to make way for a new hotel at the corner of 5th Avenue and Stewart Street -- the Washington Plaza, known in 2003 as the Westin.


Sources: "Orpheum Theatre -- Seattle, Washington," Puget Sound Pipeline Online (www.pstos.org/instruments/wa/seattle/orpheum.htm) accessed May 19, 2003; "Fine Talent for Opening of Orpheum Bill," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 28, 1927, Stage & Screen Section, p. 3; "New Orpheum Wins Praise; Theatre, Acts are Lauded," Seattle Daily Times, August 29, 1927, p. 8; Ernest S. Cowper, "Pretentious Picture and Stage Bill Opens New Orpheum," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 29, 1927, p. 8; Harry B. Mills, "Orpheum Marks a New Standard in Theaters," Seattle Star, August 29, 1927, p. 3; "Onstage -- The Death of a Theater," The Seattle Times, August 29, 1967, p. 1; James R. Warren, "Theater Built in 1927 Defied Wrecking Ball," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 28, 1982, p. C-7.

Related Topics:   Buildings | Film | Music & Musicians | Theater & Dance

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