History

Vaudeville House and Movie Palace

The Orpheum’s Historical and Architectural Significance

historic Orpheum Photo Triptych

Orpheum Theatre | Eberson-Wolfsonian Archives

The Orpheum Theatre in Wichita, Kansas represents one of the finest remaining examples of atmospheric school of theatre architecture which was developed during the first part of the 1900′s. There were two major schools of design: the standard school derived its form and decoration from nineteenth century opera houses and the vaudeville theatre traditions. The atmospheric school concentrated on creating interiors that could provide the patron with the feeling he inhabited a landscape setting.

John EbersonThe architect for the Orpheum, John Eberson, was the creator of the atmospheric school. In his book, The Picture Palace, Dennis Sharp has classified the Orpheum’s style as “pre-atmospheric”. However, further research indicates that the Wichita structure is in fact an authentic atmospheric with all the accoutrements associated with the style. Opening on September 4, 1922, it was the first atmospheric theatre in the United States. The Majestic in Houston, Texas was the second The Orpheum was conceived as a garden of old Andalusia. Its entire design was that of a Spanish garden or court “made festive by music and torchlight.” The Orpheum had a fully developed decorative theme and the sky and star projections properly associated with the atmospheric theatre. The magnificent proscenium arch is the main feature of the auditorium which originally contained 1,700 seats. The sidewalls of the auditorium were accented by niches with mock tile roofs and grills and wooden lattice work arches across the ceiling to create a courtyard effect. The theme of a Spanish courtyard was continued in the decoration of the balcony. The stairways to the mezzanine are ornamented with the original plaster moldings and arched doorways. On the stage in the flyout hangs the theatre’s original fire curtain. It is a hand executed painting on asbestos, designed specifically for the Orpheum by John Eberson and rendered by Fabric Studio of Chicago. This curtain is quite valuable in its own right.

The Orpheum Theatre was originally conceived by a group of local investors and when construction completed it was leased to Carl Hobitzelle, the operator of a $6,000,000.00 theatre chain. The initial construction cost of the theatre was $750,000.00. Opening on Labor Day, 1922, it was an integral part of the famous “Orpheum Circuit” and in its heyday virtually every major star of vaudeville graced its stage, including such luminaries as Eddie Cantor and Fannie Brice. During its vaudeville period, more than 17,000 acts appeared with the playbill changing three times each week.

At the time the Orpheum was built, modern sound enhancements were not available and the architects of the period had to be skilled acoustical engineers. John Eberson was one of the best and, to this day, the quality of sound within the auditorium, with or without amplification, is exceptional.

The Orpheum Theatre has significant associations nationally and internationally with the development of a whole new concept and style of theatre architecture. In 1980 the Orpheum was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1984 it was gifted to the Orpheum Performing Arts Centre, Ltd., a non profit corporation which is dedicated to the preservation, restoration and ongoing utilization of this important part of our cultural and architectural heritage.

To the greatest extent possible, it is the intent of the Orpheum Performing Arts Centre, Ltd to restore this beautiful theatre to the design that John Eberson initially conceived and constructed.

The foregoing summary of theatre history was excerpted, in part, from the National Register of Historic Places – Nomination forms prepared by Julia A. Vortman, Architectural Historian, and Dale Niss, Historic Preservation Department, Kansas State University Society.

References:

  • Sharp, Dennis, The Picture Palace (New York; Frederick A. Praeger, 1969)
  • Hall, Dan M., The Best Remaining Seats (New York; C. W. Potter, 1961)
  • Valerio, Joseph M. and Freidman, Daniel, Movie Palaces Renaissance and Reuse (New York Educational Facilities Laboratories Div. Academy for Educational Development, 1982)
  • Yoklavich, Ann, John Eberson\’s Theatres in Texas (Texas: University of Texas at Austin, Master Thesis 1987)
  • Theatre Catalog 1948-49, 7th Annual Edition, the Works of John and Drew Eberson Architects (Pennsylvania, Jay Emmanuel Publications, Inc. 1948-49)