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The Dazzling Story of the Orpheum Theatre

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Wed, Jan 16, 2013 at 3:15 AM

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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."

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