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Most cities of any size that have at least some semblance of sensitivity for historic preservation still have an Orpheum Theater. My hometown of Omaha, Neb. is one such city, although the Orpheum here came perilously close to being razed at one point. Omaha’s track record for historic preservation is rather spotty, although it’s gotten somewhat better over time. I wrote the following article shortly after the local Orpheum was renovated for the second or third time and had come under new management. I will soon post a second piece I did around this same time, for another publication, that takes a different angle at the Orpheum and its opulent place among the city’s entertainment venues. For the first half of my life I only knew the Orpheum by catching occasional glimpses of its exterior during downtown shopping excursions with my mom or dad. Mainly though I heard about it through reminiscences by my mother and aunts, who frequented the theater as girls and young women, when it was still a movie palace. They made it sound so grand and special that I was always enthralled by their descriptions. I was actually well into my 20s before I first stepped foot inside. Right out of college my first job, albeit it a part-time gig, was as a gofer for a now defunct arts presentation group, whose programs were held at the Orpheum. I was supposed to be doing PR work but all I ever seemed to do, much to my frustration, was to fetch coffee for the haute woman in charge, or pick up poster orders or transport visiting artists, et cetera. But there were perks, particularly getting to see a string of world class performances, including Marcel Marceau, Twyla Tharpe, and the Guthrie Theatre. I’ve gone on to catch dozens of programs there — touring Broadway shows, operas, ballets, movies, you name it. I try to convey some of that wide-eyed excitement in my story, which originally appeared in the New Horizons.
Omaha’s Grand Old Lady, The Orpheum Theater
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
More stars than there are in the heavens.
That’s how the great lion of Hollywood movie studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, described the galaxy of stars under contact to MGM during cinema’s Golden Age. Omaha may be far removed from the bright lights of Tinseltown but for 75 years now one enchanted place — the Orpheum Theater — has been a magnet for some of the brightest stars of the big screen, Broadway, the concert circuit and the recording industry.
This grand old lady, fresh from a $10 million facelift applied last summer, opened in 1927 to a varied program featuring comedian Phil Silvers, violinist Babe Egan and her Hollywood Redheads and the silent film, The Fighting Eagle, starring matinee idol Rod La Rocque. From the start, the opulent Orpheum has seduced us with its eclectic attractions and extravagant motifs. The French Renaissance Revival style theater is a monument to Old World craftsmanship in such decorative flourishes as gold leaf glazings, marble finishes, velvet coverings, framed mirrors, crystal chandeliers and ornate Venetian brocatelle and damask-adorned chairs. The grand foyer is dominated by a circular French Travertine marble stairway that winds its way to the mezzanine and balcony levels.
The City of Omaha-owned theater, saved from an uncertain future in the early 1970s before undergoing a major overhaul, is now under the purview of the Omaha Performing Arts Society, a non-profit headed by Omaha World-Herald publisher John Gottschalk. The society, which will also manage the Omaha Performing Arts Center to be built across from the Gene Leahy Mall, has signed a 50-year lease with the city for the Orpheum’s use and will share, with the city, in any operating losses the next 10 years. Money for this most recent renovation came from private donations culled together by Heritage Services, a fundraising organization headed by Walter Scott, Jr. and other corporate heavyweights. These new developments are the latest efforts to reinvent the Orpheum over the past 107 years.
The present theater is actually forged from the facade and foundation of an earlier building on the very same spot. What began as the Creighton Theater in 1895 became the Creighton Orpheum Theater when it joined the famed Orpheum Theater Circuit in 1898. The original Orpheum operated until 1925. Then, when Orpheum officials decided a grander edifice was needed to support a growing Omaha, $2 million was spent extensively enlarging, altering and gentrifying the site.
Matching the Orpheum’s lavish decor, is a rich lineage of legendary performers who have appeared there, including many identifiable by only one name. From Crosby to Sinatra, crooners have made fans swoon and sway there. From Ella to Leontyne, divas have held court there. From Channing to Goulet, luminaries from the Great White Way have made grand entrances there. From Lucy and Dezi to Hope and Benny to Cosby and Carlin, comedians have made audiences titter with laughter. Magicians, from Blackstone to Henning to Copperfield, have bedazzled patrons with their wizardry. Classical musicians, from Stern to Pehrlman, have moved crowds with their sublime playing. Big band leaders, from Kaye and Kayser to Dorsey and James, have got the place jumping.
The Orpheum has been the home to the symphony, opera and ballet, the place where Broadway touring productions play and the eclectic venue-of-choice for everything from school graduations to Berkshire Hathaway stockholder meetings to movie premieres to appearances by top orchestras, renowned repertory theater companies and elite dance troupes.
The plush theater has been adaptable to changing tastes, beginning as a vaudeville house, evolving into a movie palace and lately functioning as a performing arts hall. During the Depression and war years theaters like the Orpheum were great escapes for people just wanting a break from the real world or just to find relief from extreme weather. In the vaudeville era several shows played daily, from noon to midnight.
When movies lit up the marquee, a typical program included a line of girls, a pit band, a newsreel and a first-run feature film. The theater’s Wurlitzer organ was a staple for sing-a-longs and silent movie accompaniment. When the big band craze hit, live music moved from the pit to the stage. If a hot band packed the house, it became the main attraction. If a big movie drew long lines at the box office, it took center stage. Trying a little something of everything, the Orpheum even ran closed circuit TV broadcasts of championship fights.
In its heyday its flamboyant manager, Bill Miskell, was known as “a show doctor” and “master of ballyhoo” whose advice could help a sick act get well and turn a sow’s ear into silk. Under Miskell, the Orpheum ran grandiose promotions — like the time the lobby was dressed as a railroad station for the 1939 world premiere of Cecil B. De Mille’s epic Union Pacific. In 1953, it became the first Midwest theater to project a Cinemascope picture — the religious extravaganza The Robe. From the 1950s through the ‘60s, the theater operated almost solely as a movie house.
Ruth Fox, a veteran usher and backstage volunteer, said the theater has a one-of-a-kind appeal. “It’s elegant. It commands dressing up. It makes you feel like putting on a long gown. What could be more regal?” Patron Mark Brown said, “I’m amazed by the splendor of the grand architecture and the acoustics. I don’t think it can be matched today.” Al Brown, a former on-site Orpheum manager, calls it “the crown jewel of the Midwest. It’s majestic.”
Former Omaha Public Events Manager Terry Forsberg, goes even further by describing it as “the cathedral of the performing arts as far as Omaha is concerned.” Indeed, the sheer grandeur of the place sets it apart.
Impresario Dick Walter, presenter of hundreds of shows there over the years, said, “Visually and mentally, you have to be moved when you see the size of the lobby and the theater. It takes your breath away a little. It’s like going into any of those grand palaces in London or Vienna or Berlin. And there’s an aura when you walk in the same space that so many scores of great performers of the past performed in. It’s the implicit tradition and the magic of the theater with its history. I don’t want to sound religious, but it’s semi-sacred.”
The Orpheum evokes many memories. Omaha musician Preston Love recalls getting his groove on there to the swinging sounds of jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, all idols for the then-aspiring sideman. “All the big names who toured theaters played the Orpheum,” he said. “Suffice to say…the Orpheum was top stuff, man. It was unbelievable.” He saw Count Basie there in ‘43, and three weeks later he auditioned for and won a seat in the band and ended up playing the Orpheum with Basie in ‘45 and ‘46, as family and friends cheered this favorite son’s every lick on the saxophone. He noted that a rolling stage utilized then carried featured acts to the lip of the stage. If it was a band, like Basie’s, those jamming cats really cut loose when they made it out front. “Boy, you started rolling down in front and that band would just be on fire,” Love said.
Dick Walter has a long relationship with the theater, first as a child lapping-up the antics of vintage comedy teams like Olsen and Johnson, than as a young man spellbound by big name entertainers and later as a presenter of performing arts programs, including everything from Camelot to The National Chinese Opera Theater. “When I was going to Omaha University I enjoyed cutting the Friday afternoon class to go down and see the first show of that week’s vaudeville show,” Walter said. Among the performers he caught then was the magician The Great Blackstone.
Decades later, in a “remarkable” bit of fate, Walter found himself presenting the famed illusionist’s son, Harry Blackstone, Jr., a great illusionist in his own right, in performance at the Orpheum. From the 1970s through the ‘90s, this local showman brought a diverse array of acts to the Orpheum, including scores of Broadway road shows. “Although I made a lot of money and I had great pleasure in presenting big-time musicals with big-time stars, I also enjoyed bringing the off-beat. I had some successes I certainly didn’t deserve and I had some failures I certainly didn’t deserve. Fortunately, I guessed right most of the time.” Although officially retired, he still dabbles in show business by presenting his long-running travel film series at Joslyn Art Museum and bringing occasional shows, such as “A Celebration of World Dance” and the Russian State Chorus, to Joslyn this fall.
As Walter can attest, show business is a series of highs and lows. For all the standing ovations and packed houses, he can’t forget the times when things went a cropper. “The biggest glitch ever was when I was presenting Hello Dolly with Carol Channing,” he said. “We had played a week when about a half-hour before the Saturday matinee show the entire electrical system went out. The emergency system came on, but it was too dim to do a show. It was a sold-out house, all of which had to be refunded. Miss Channing was really upset because she had never missed a performance. I said, ‘What are you worried about? This performance is missing you — you’re not missing it.’”
With Channing mollified and the power restored, the second show went on without a hitch. In his many dealings with stars, Walter has found most to be generous. However, as “they’re pestered a lot,” he said, “all of the big people build a wall around them. They have no private life. Now, when you brought some of them in a few times, the wall broke down and the next thing you knew you were out eating dinner together after the show. A lot of them were wonderful with people coming up to them for autographs…and they should be — that’s part of their job. On the other hand, if people were a little pushy, they didn’t like that.” Among his favorites, he said, were comic musician Victor Borge, conductor Arthur Fielder, band leader Fred Waring and actor Hans Conried. “These people were special.”
Regarding Waring, Walter recalls, “The last time I had him was his ‘Eighth Annual Farewell Tour.’ I used to kid him about that. He just kept going on as long as he could. That last time we had him he gave a wonderful show and, when he came off, he was literally so exhausted he just fell into my wife’s arms backstage, catching his breath. But seconds later he was back on stage thanking everyone. That’s show business. That makes a performer.” When it came to Conried, who headlined a straight dramatic play for Walter, the actor so enjoyed a repast at the Bohemian Cafe that whenever he hit the road again “he’d drive up, give me a ring and say, ‘Let’s go to the Bohemian.’ He thought this was heaven.”
Ruth Fox recalls going as a little girl with her mother to the Orpheum and being awe-struck by the great hall. “I was so impressed with the mirrors and the chandeliers.” she said. “Oh, that was something to behold.” A lifelong theater-lover, Fox began ushering and working backstage at the Orpheum in the 1970s. “I started to usher for the symphony, the opera, Broadway touring productions and whatever else came.” It’s something she continues today. She enjoys being around theater people and the hubbub surrounding them.
“I find it thrilling.” As an opera guild member, she joins other ladies running a backstage concession for cast and crew. “We fix homemade food. Matzo balls, deviled eggs. You name it, we have it. We have a real thing going. We spend time with the performers. We take care of their needs…and they’re so nice to us. Once in a while you get a stinker, but most are wonderful.” She takes great pride in her role as an usher, too. “We, who usher, really are ambassadors to the city. There are so many people who come from out of town who have never been to the Orpheum before. It’s their introduction, you might say, to Omaha…and we have to make a good impression.”
Despite the theater’s prominence, its future was once uncertain. By the end of the ‘60’s it languished amidst a dying downtown. Ownership changed hands — from the Orpheum Circuit to several movie theater chains. As business declined, the theater fell into disrepair and, following an April 29, 1971 screening of Disney’s The Barefoot Executive that played to a nearly empty house, the place closed. At first, there was no guarantee the theater would not follow the fate of another prominent building in Omaha, the old post office, and be razed. Its prospects improved when the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben bought the theater and donated it to the city, which agreed to steward it.
The city formed the Omaha Performing Arts Society Corp. (no relation to the current management group) for raising revenue bonds to underwrite a renovation. Local barons of commerce contributed more dollars. Everything was on the fast-track to preservation until the city learned it had inherited a $1,000 a month lease for use of the lobby from the City National Bank Building, which the Orpheum abuts. With the rental issue gumming-up the works, the theater — then lacking any protective historic status — became a white elephant and, some say, a likely candidate for the wrecking ball. It was saved when the Omaha Symphony bought out the lease and deeded the lobby to the city.
A multi-million dollar renovation ensued — removing years of grime, repairing damage caused by a leaky roof and restoring deteriorated plaster and paint — before the Orpheum reopened as Omaha’s performing arts center in 1975, with Red Skelton headlining a glitzy gala. Later, it was designated an Omaha landmark and a National Register of Historic Places site. Over the next 27 years, the theater thrived but not without complaints about acoustics, amenities and overbookings. The theater also operated at a loss for many years.
Two men who know every inch of the theater and have spent more time there than perhaps anyone else are Al and Jeff Brown, a father and son who have made managing the Orpheum a family enterprise. Al, a tattooed Korean war vet, was on-site manager there from 1974 to 1996, during which time he saw the theater enjoy a renaissance. When Al retired, his son Jeff, who worked at the Orpheum as a stagehand like his dad before him, followed in his footsteps to assume responsibility for the day-to-day operation and maintenance of this heavily-used old building in need of faithful attention.
The hours on the job can be so long that Jeff, like Al did, sometimes sleeps overnight on a cot in the office. Jeff feels the work done to the theater this past summer, which tackled some longstanding problems, will be appreciated by performers and patrons alike. “The big thing is to keep both of them happy,” he said. “I feel with this renovation we’re going to better realize that goal because of the areas we’ve addressed…improved seating, enlarged and added dressing rooms, added women’s restrooms, a new heating-air conditioning system. Before, we did the best we could with what we had, but now it’s going to be much more user-friendly.” Keeping show people happy, whether local arts matrons or visiting world-class artists, means making sure everything behind-the-scenes “has to be the way they want it,” Al said. “Touring performers come into town and they’re tired. It’s a drag. Anything you can do to alleviate some of that, they appreciate it.”
He said temperamental stars become pussycats if a manager and crew are prepared and have gone the extra mile. Echoing his father, Jeff added. “If you do your homework before the show and you make sure that everything is clean and you have everything they ask for, they’re very pleasant to work with.” Something Jeff learned from his old man is “treating every show the same — it doesn’t matter whether it’s a school graduation or a dance recital or a big Broadway show. We do whatever we can to make sure they have the best show they can have.”
Jeff said the theater’s new management structure bodes well for the facility. “I feel it’s better because our budget isn’t affected by what happens at Rosenblatt or at the Auditorium. We’re our own separate entity now. We’re on our own and we know we have to make it on our own. It will be a challenge, but I think it will be good.”
The Orpheum, saddled with recent annual operating losses in the half-million dollar range, will more aggressively seek and promote high stature events and market the theater as a destination place. An Orpheum web site is in the works. It also means Orpheum performance seasons — complete with public subscriptions — may be in the offing. It’s all been tried before. But the performing arts society may be in a better position to pull it off than financially-strapped city government.
Terry Forsberg said, “Now that you have a private group and the financial backing of the business community, it can be done. The question will be how much of a profit they will have to show in order to keep it operating.” According to John Gottschalk, “The Orpheum will have an endowment, but we’re certainly in no position to absorb half-million dollar losses every year. So, we’ll need to operate effectively and efficiently. The best way to end the…losses is to have a diversity of performances and to have bigger houses more frequently…and we will be heavily employed to make sure this place is full and active.”
Everyone, it seems, holds the Orpheum in high esteem. For Gottschalk, its rich legacy makes it a vital touchstone. “In the first place, it’s an incredibly old symbol,” he said. “There’s been an Orpheum Theater here since the turn of the century. Its longevity is what makes it such an integral part of the fabric of the community.”
Showman Walter said “it’s great to be part of this theater and it’s wonderful heritage.” Omaha Performing Arts Society president Joan Squires calls it a real treasure for the city.” Theatergoer Marjorie Schuck describes it as “a very big asset for Omaha culturally,” adding, “It’s a highlight coming to the Orpheum…it’s been here a long time, it’s still here, it’s still going, and we expect it to continue.”
Perhaps thinking of the effect the planned downtown performing arts center may have on the Orpheum, volunteer Ruth Fox said, “I just pray they will not tear it down or change it.”
Pray not, indeed, for that would be too much to bear. As a program for the Orpheum’s 1927 opening noted, the theater “is a continuation not only of a place of amusement, but also a veritable civic institution.”