On May 15, 1911, the Orpheum Theatre at 3rd Avenue and Madison Street opens to the public with an evening gala that’s the toast of Seattle society. With business and political leaders past and present on hand, manager John W. Considine (1868-1943) formally opens what is billed as a “made in Washington” structure, an entertainment venue lauded for its extensive use of Northwest materials and Northwest craftsmanship.
Opulence In and Out
The official groundbreaking for the Orpheum project occurred over a year prior to the opening, on April 9, 1910, when John Considine turned the first spade in the company of numerous business and political luminaries, including Chamber of Commerce President J. D. Lowman. At that point, Seattle’s home for Orpheum circuit vaudeville was the Coliseum, a former rollerskating rink at 7th Avenue and Union Street that had been renovated in 1908 to support theatrical entertainment. Following the groundbreaking ceremonies for the new Orpheum, Considine and his party headed up 2nd Avenue to a special luncheon at the New Washington Hotel.
Designed by architect William Kingsley, the Orpheum cost roughly $500,000 to construct. Unique was the fact that the theater was touted as being “made in Washington” -- virtually all the materials and services obtained to construct the building came directly from Washington state, to the extent possible. “When materials were required which were not produced within the state,” The Seattle Times reported, “they were obtained through houses or agents having their headquarters in Seattle” (“Newest Orpheum Showiest House America Affords”). Up to 87 percent of the materials and craftsmanship came directly from Washington suppliers, according to estimates.
A decorative wrought-iron canopy extended from the Orpheum box office to the curb out front, a detail that would become a fixture of the 3rd Avenue landscape for years. The interior was no less impressive. Pulling from classical Greek and Italian architecture, the lavishly decorated theater (and particularly its main foyer) was awash in marble, onyx, and glass. Impressive though the foyer may have been, opening day found much of it obscured by rows and rows of flowers sent to mark the occasion, including large bouquets sent by the Frederick & Nelson Department Store, local jewelers Hugh Harrison and S. Friedlander, and large displays from virtually every other theater in town (as was custom when a new venue opened).
The actual auditorium of the Orpheum was as lavish as the foyer, with murals depicting classical or mythological themes decorating the walls and ceilings. Selections included scenes from The Iliad and The Odyssey, Aesop telling his fables, and the 12 Muses. The main floor of the auditorium had 1,000 seats, yet the venue could have easily been equipped with more -- John Considine boasted that fewer seats were installed to provide wider aisles and more legroom for patrons. Six individual boxes (with six seats each) lined the sides of the auditorium.
The overall effect of the new house would be deemed pretentious by today’s standards, but not so at the time. The Post-Intelligencer, showing no little bit of civic pride, openly claimed that the Orpheum had usurped the title of America’s most luxurious theater from the New Amsterdam in New York City (“Seattle’s New Playhouse – The Orpheum”).
And Up Goes the Curtain
An impressive cross-section of Seattle society gathered for the May 15, 1911, opening of the Orpheum. The audience included assorted members of the Chamber of Commerce, City Council, and Board of County Commissioners, along with several representatives of state government as well. (Prominent figures from Spokane, Tacoma, Vancouver, San Francisco, and Victoria also traveled to Seattle for the opening.) Everyone in attendance that evening received an opening night souvenir booklet featuring illustrations of the new house on decorative stationery.
As was typical of such occasions, several speakers preceded the actual performance, with events starting promptly at 8:30 p.m. The first up was Seattle Mayor George W. Dilling (1869-1951), who was introduced by a predecessor, former Mayor John F. Miller (1862-1936). Dilling was indeed impressed by what he saw as a civic improvement in the lives of Seattleites:
“The building of a theater like this is of interest to the people of Seattle, not only because $150,000 has been lavished upon this magnificent structure, not because $300,000 has been expended on the purchase of this site ... more vitally than all this is the fact that each week 25,000 of our citizens will pass through these doors.
“Each year a great portion of our present population will sit within these walls and will laugh and perhaps weep. They will take out of its presence a little less of care and a little more of joy; a little less of criticism and a little more sympathy for human kindness” (“Gala Audience Attends Opening”).
Dilling was followed by Judge Thomas Burke (1849-1925), representing the Seattle Chamber of Commerce (with whom Considine had worked closely to get the Orpheum completed). Judge Burke gave a 15-minute oration to the crowd, lauding in particular the decision to feature the work of local artisans and contractors in the Orpheum’s construction. “In this beautiful temple of art in which we are gathered tonight, we have a striking and instructive example, not only of faith and loyalty to this city, but to the way in which to uphold and push forward the fortunes of Seattle,” went one account of his remarks (“Orpheum Opens to Brilliant Audience”).
John Considine was urged by the inaugural crowd to make his own remarks, but he would not, opting to stay in his private box and beam his thanks to the gathered audience. (The unstinted praise may have been bittersweet to the owner. Just a decade before the opening of the Orpheum, Considine -- then with a reputation for gambling, amongst other sins -- was put on trial for the shooting death of Seattle’s former police chief, William Meredith [1869-1901]. Considine was eventually acquitted in the incident, sparked by a personal feud between the men, though not before Seattle’s citizens were bitterly divided over the sensational crime. One local daily, the Seattle Star, even editorialized that the theater owner be run out of town regardless of the jury’s verdict [“Drive Considine Brothers Out of Seattle”]).
From Speeches to Stage Play
Reviews of the Orpheum bill that evening were good, though not quite as glowing as the comments heaped upon the building itself.
Edgar H. Thomas of The Times felt that the entertainment portion of the evening was one of the better offerings seen in Orpheum bill in several weeks. (Orpheum circuit vaudeville had moved to the new venue from the Coliseum.) The performance opened with a demonstration of strength and agility, although the reviewer felt it was “a trifle too French for Americans to appreciate or like.”
Other acts included Master Gabriel, a child actor who performed in a comedy skit entitled Little Tommy Tucker; a Jewish-themed comedy sketch entitled Nearly a Soldier; a Japanese acrobatic troupe; the comedy musical offerings of Isabelle Darmond and George Moore; a blackface song and dance act by Moore and Haager; and ventriloquist Tom Edwards. Inexplicably dressed as though he were part of an English hunting party, Edwards performed with a dummy in the likeness of a small boy, and at the end of his act pretended to put the child down for a night’s rest. According to Edgar H. Thomas, Edwards was apparently doing fine with his act until, “flushed with his success,” he attempted a line of comedy that pushed the boundaries of good taste. Thomas gave no indication of what Edwards may have said, but noted that “he was promptly rebuked for the same by a death-like silence from those before the footlights” (“Orpheum Opens to Brilliant Audience”).
Gone, and Nearly Forgotten
The Orpheum at 3rd Avenue and Madison Street stood as the city’s most impressive vaudeville house until 1916, when Considine rival Alexander Pantages (1876-1936) opened a brand-new vaudeville theater several blocks north at 3rd Avenue and University Street. Shortly thereafter, vaudeville shows at the Orpheum were transferred to the Moore Theatre, a larger venue, after which the Orpheum alternated between showing live entertainment and motion pictures.
By the time the Mission Building, which housed the Orpheum, was torn down in 1949, the venue had spent many of its final years as nothing more than a storage facility.