The Dazzling Story of the Orpheum Theatre
The Orpheum Theatre has six floors of dressing rooms, a film projector, a world-class sound system and one of the only surviving Wurlitzer theater organs in the country. It's also one of the last independent venues in the city. Ninety years in, it continues to thrive after more than 85 years thanks to its enthusiastic leader, Steve Needleman whose family has owned the building since 1964.
It opened in 1926 as the final theater included in vaudeville master Gustav Walter's chain of revue theaters, each called the Orpheum. It was the number one place to see Hollywood's biggest names, at a time when live variety shows reigned supreme. Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr. and Judy Garland -- who was discovered at the Orpheum performing under her true name Francis Gumm -- all performed there.
The Orpheum was designed in its entirety by top Los Angeles architect G. Albert Lansburgh, who did The Wiltern, El Capitan Theater and The Shrine's interior. Following the 1900s French style of Beaux-Arts architecture, The Orpheum's design included grand marble staircases, shiny brass doors, gorgeous chandeliers, plush silk wall panels and an incredible attention to detail on the façade and sculpted ceiling.
The grandeur of Landsburgh's blueprint for the Orpheum was so awe-inspiring that near-carbon copies of the venue's luxurious interior began to pop up all over the country in the early '30s. It has been featured in films including Barton Fink, J. Edgar, Dreamgirls and The Artist.
When popular entertainment shifted to motion pictures, the Orpheum adapted, and in 1928, a 13-rank, three-manual Wurlitzer organ was installed inside the theater to accompany silent pictures. With the permanently installed metal and wooden pipes blending perfectly into the gilded walls, the organ could re-create around 1,500 orchestral sounds including car horns, thunder, animal sounds and gun shots, due to its 300+ sound effect tabs and revolutionary electrification, thanks to British inventor and Wurlitzer partner Robert Hope-Jones.
The organist would add flare to showings by playing the organ's six different keyboards at once; sometimes not even seeing the film before sitting down.
Steve Needleman, the Orpheum's current owner, speaks with great pride about the Wurlitzer organ. "It's a very unique instrument to personally own; I just wish that I had the talent to play it myself!" he says. "We've been lucky enough to have a couple of nationally renowned organists perform here during our special silent film performances."
Even when films got sound and television became popular, people still came. Musicians Aretha Franklin, Little Richard and Stevie Wonder performed there in during their prime in the '60s. Meanwhile, when the organ fell into disrepair, Eugene F. Davis assembled a large crew of volunteers worked to fix it, including replacing all of the pipe connections and restoring the gorgeous and choral tone. Needleman sings the praises of the organ's current maintenance crew, made up of volunteers led by John Koerber, who play the instrument every two weeks to ensure a full and rich sound.
At the turn of the 21st Century the Orpheum changed management, closed as a movie theater and undertook $3 million worth of renovations. A decade after it reopened as a performing arts center, Needleman has noticed an encouraging change in the demographics of his patrons.
"Over the past few years we've noticed that we are attracting the younger generation for silent film screenings, organ recitals and pop concerts. Once Staples Center opened, people are finally coming out and exploring downtown L.A. again. People are coming back to 9th and Broadway!"
Having rebranded itself as a performing arts center, the Orpheum has recently hosted acts ranging from Lady Gaga to Wilco, Ray Davies, and tUnE-yArDs, not to mention the reunion of The Adventures of Pete and Pete cast. They're also a major venue for Outfest.
"The Orpheum is one of the last independent music venues in Los Angeles," says Needleman. "This theater is based in live performances; we've had Bob Hope and Jack Benny on the same stage as Maroon 5, Van Morrison and The Beach Boys. You get top entertainment with an old time feel."
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