Orpheum Quartet

Orpheum I (55 West Cordova): 1904-05

Opening of first Orpheum at the former Crystal Theatre. Province. 28 Sept 1904.

The first Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver opened on October 3, 1904. [1] It had formerly been the Crystal Theatre (1903-04) at 55 West Cordova (there is a parking garage there, today). The proprietors of Orpheum I were Evenson & Russell.

At the opening of the first Orpheum, vaudeville acts included the Anderson sisters (child comedians), The Rustics with a sketch titled “Fun on the Farm” which included “lifelike mechanical animals”, and vocalist Joe Bonner singing “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder” (Province 3 Oct 1904).

Little else is known of the Orpheum’s first location and as far as I can tell, no photos still exist. It ceased to operate as the Orpheum by the summer of 1905.

Orpheum II (805 West Pender): 1905-13

Crop of CVA 73-2-Vancouver, B.C., 1911, H. O. Dodge photo. Aerial image of Orpheum II at NW corner Pender & Howe. (Formerly People’s Theatre and Alhambra Theatre). This is where the Stock Exchange Building is located today.

In late 1905, there was a deal worked out between (Timothy D.) Sullivan & (John W.) Considine Vaudeville Syndicate and a rival syndicate, the Western Vaudeville Managers Association, whereby the former People’s Theatre (earlier, the Alhambra Theatre) at NW corner of Pender and Howe would become the ‘new’ Orpheum Theatre.

The name of the former People’s Theatre was not settled at that time, however. It was initially announced by Sullivan and Considine that the former People’s would be named the Grand Theatre. However, they ultimately changed their minds about that since another of their properties (on Cordova) was already so-named and they didn’t want to create confusion among the public as to which theatre was being referred. So, it was decided to name the Pender property the Orpheum Theatre (Province 11 Aug 1906). [2]

In March 1906, S&C announced plans to rip down the former People’s Theatre and to build a brand new theatre building for an estimated $100,000 (Province 16 March 1906). Considine announced that it would be constructed of steel, brick and concrete (as opposed to the wood frame construction of People’s) and that it would have a seating capacity of about 2000 (Province 16 March 1906). Considine optimistically claimed that with the new house “There should be no quibbling with the building inspector or the civic authorities…for it will be made just as thoroughly fireproof and as safe as modern ingenuity and [C&S architect] Mr. [J. J.] Donnellan’s long experience in designing buildings of this kind can suggest” (Province 15 March 1906). [3]

But sometime between March and August, S&C changed course. A decision was made not to demolish the former theatre and build a completely new one. A “bunch of contracts in connection with the remodelling of the Orpheum were awarded today by Architect Donnellan” (Province 11 Aug 1906; emphasis mine). Plans for the remodelling included no fewer than 15 exits from the theatre (not including fire exits), and seating capacity of over 1000 (Province 11 Aug 1906).

City of Vancouver Building Inspector, George McSpadden said at the time that he was “well pleased” with safety features planned for the theatre (Province 11 Aug 1906). But a month later, McSpadden had changed his tune. He complained the theatre was 5 inches out of plumb and that there was a significant bulge at the centre due to the removal of an iron tie rod (20 Sept 1906).

There seemed to be a growing personal rift between Donnellan and McSpadden, as it was reported days later that Donnellan was “impatient at the delay in opening the theatre, and says rather sarcastic things about Building Inspector McSpadden” (Province 25 Sept 1906).

These ‘shots’ from McSpadden and Donnellan were the first of many from S&C and the City for about 3 months. While there was much talk about fire escapes and the bulge in the Howe Street wall, the basic issue in my judgement seems to have been that the principals — McSpadden and Donnellan — rubbed one another the wrong way, thereby turning what should have been a ‘mole-hill’ into a ‘mountain’.

By early December 1906, the City decided it would allow the Orpheum to open conditionally upon the following (none of which, as far as I can tell was ever disputed by S&C):

  • installation of 2 iron posts; and a tie-rod;
  • substitution of an iron fire-escape for a wooden one;
  • a promise that the wall facing Howe Street would be made as plumb as possible;
  • and an illustration (”for a few doubting aldermen”) of the rapidity with which the theatre could be vacated (Province 11 Dec 1906).

Finally, 12 months after S&C took over the Orpheum on Pender, it was allowed to open to the public on December 17, 1906.

Interestingly, the Pender building operated as the Orpheum for seven years without a public safety incident. George McSpadden eventually left his job as City Building Inspector to become a city alderman. The Pender building was demolished in 1913 or 1914. In its stead, there was an auto supply house for some years, followed by the Stock Exchange Building in 1929.

Orpheum III (761 Granville Street): 1913-1927

CVA 99-5150 – Interior of Orpheum III. Flashlight of audience, Feb 1918. Stuart Thomson photo.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 1913, S&C put on their first vaudeville performance in the space that had once housed the Vancouver Opera House. Presumably, Sullivan & Considine were hoping that a little Irish luck would rub off and that the City building inspector wouldn’t create a big stink akin to that at their previous theatre. (The city inspector — who by this time was not George McSpadden — gave S&C thumbs up!)

Before I began the research for this post, I had thought when the Orpheum moved over to the Opera House, that very little was changed. But I was mistaken. Said the World upon the Orpheum’s opening, “Very little of the old structure now remains, with the exception of portions of the two side walls…” (World 8 March 1913).

Cross-section of the S&C re-building of the old Vancouver Opera House into Orpheum III. Courtesy: Tom Carter Collection.

Orpheum III was the first Orpheum (and perhaps the first of any theatre in Vancouver) which was built to house services in addition to the theatre. The Orpheum ‘office building’ (751 Granville) was “a modern five-storey steel, concrete, terra cotta and brick office and store building known as a class “A” fireproof structure” (World 8 March 1913). This served as a mortgage helper since the lease payments from other businesses in the Orpheum Building would help pay down what must have been substantial debt incurred by S&C in building the theatre.

The architect of Orpheum III was J. J. Donnellan (who, reportedly, also designed local theatres such as the Lonsdale, Panama, National and Columbia (and, of course, did the rebuild on the Pender Orpheum). The sum spent by S&C on Orpheum III varied widely depending on which newspaper you read. One claimed they spent upwards of $250,000; another said $400,000; and yet another claimed $750,000!

For a couple of years, starting in 1914, there was considerable to-ing-and-fro-ing in the ownership of the Orpheum. A little over a year after Orpheum III opened, it was bought from S&C by Marcus Loew (Sun 17 June 1914). During the period that Loew owned the building, it would be known as “Loew’s Theatre (Formerly Orpheum)”; while it was Loew’s Theatre, it remained a vaudeville theatre. A year later and the Orpheum had been bought back from Loew by Sullivan & Considine (Province 17 May 1915).

No sooner had the local press reported that S&C was owner once again of the Orpheum, however, than there was another report (a month later) that the Orpheum Theatre & Realty Co. of San Francisco had bought out S&C’s interest in the Theatre (Province 29 July 1915). [4]

The Orpheum III adopted a mixed format with a few months of each year dedicated to vaudeville and the balance of the year to concerts, speakers, and motion pictures. This policy was adopted for awhile in Orpheum IV, as well.

The theatre underwent several name changes over subsequent years: Vancouver Theatre (1928); Lyric (1935); International Cinema (1947); and again Lyric Theatre (1960). Sometime after 1960, the former lobby even opened as a branch of the Royal Bank (leaving the auditorium/stage marooned behind) (Province 8 March 1969). The building was demolished in 1969 to make way for a series of department stores: T. Eaton’s, then Sears, and most recently, Nordstrom’s.

Orpheum IV (884 Granville Street): 1927 –

CVA 791-1148 – The fourth (and current) Orpheum Theatre on the east side of Granville Street (884 Granville). January, 1986.

On April 3, 1926, local entrepreneur Joseph F. Langer and the Orpheum Theatrical Co. announced their agreement to build the fourth Orpheum for an estimated cost of about $1 million and would have a seating capacity of about 3000 (Province 3 April 1926).[5] Langer would build it and the Orpheum Circuit was to lease it for 20 years but, as is explained in my related post about Langer’s life — linked above — he received some poor advice and sold the Orpheum in 1929. Marcus Priteca was architect on the project.

The fourth Orpheum opened to the public on Monday, November 7, 1927. There was a mixture of vaudeville acts (including juggling, comedy, and dancing) and a feature film (The Wise Wife). During many of the fourth Orpheum’s years, it was a Famous Players movie cinema.

For details of the history of Orpheum IV, I’d recommend consulting Ivan Ackery’s Fifty Years on Theatre Row, his memoirs of managing that theatre (1935-69).

There are many jaw-dropping features of the theatre, even today. My personal favourite is the dome above the auditorium. But there was no painted mural on the dome in 1927. It wasn’t there until 1976, when Anthony Heinsbergen was commissioned to paint his “valentine to the romance of music” (Province 24 June 1976). Province writer, Roy Shields, was apparently part of a vocal minority who, by the 1970s, believed the Orpheum was in “bad taste”, “high camp”, and a “monument to kitsch”.

But I disagree. I join the majority (I suspect) of those of Vancouver as it was in 1927 and beyond who have beheld with admiration and great affection the Fourth Orph!

The dome in Orpheum IV’s auditorium (as viewed from the stage).

Notes

  1. Long-time Orpheum IV manager, Ivan Ackery, in his memoirs Fifty Years on Theatre Row, claimed that “Vancouver’s first Orpheum was in the 900 block Main Street [Westminster Avenue at the time, presumably] in what later became a secondhand store and where, for many years, the original proscenium continued to exist in the back of the store. The first vaudeville act to ever appear there was “Power’s Elephants”” (Ackery, p. 128). I regret to say that I was unable to find any evidence to support Mr. Ackery’s claim as to the location of the first Orpheum. I could find no newspaper clippings to support the Westminster Ave. address for any theatre. And I couldn’t find any Orpheum advertised or noted in any way earlier than the inheritor of the Crystal Theatre locale. Ackery was born in 1899 and arrived in Vancouver from the U.K. after WWI, so he couldn’t have been a witness of the first Orpheum. Chances are that he was shown the “proscenium” in what was considered by the owner (and perhaps others) to have once been the Orpheum and was thereby led down one of history’s many ‘garden paths’.
  2. “Orpheum” was not exactly a novel name. It had been applied to theatres in many other cities (Seattle and San Francisco, for instance, both of which were part of the Orpheum Circuit for a time). Within the City of Vancouver, there were several non-theatrical businesses which tied their fortunes to the Orpheum name: There were Orpheum Cafes across the street from both Orpheums II and III; there was an Orpheum Hotel for a time on West Hastings (prior to that, the hotel was called Hamilton House; later it was called the Invermay Hotel); there was an Orpheum Poolroom on Pender, an Orpheum Cigar Store, and an Orpheum Barber Shop.
  3. James J. Donnellan (architect) was a native of Chicago, Illinois.
  4. Local theatre expert, Tom Carter, succinctly describes the fall of S&C: “Mr. Sullivan apparently had been borrowing money to build theatres against other theatres he didn’t actually own (had mortgages on) so it had become a bit of a pyramid scheme. He was also losing his mind – in fact was declared insane in 1913 –  and wandered into a railroad yard and, some say, committed suicide by walking in front of a train. After that, S&C kept their Empress vaudeville circuit but divested themselves of their theatres – the two vultures who picked them up at fire sale prices were Marcus Loew and Alex Pantages. Pantages was already intent on building the new Pantages Theatre at 20 West Hastings so passed on the Orpheum, but Loew swept in.” (Email: Tom Carter to mdm, July 26, 2020, 10.01 a.m.)
  5. Ladies who have taken in a performance at the Orpheum IV will be bemused by the claim that restrooms would be “spacious” (Province 3 April 1926).
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