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5 Star Stories: Show goes on at the Orpheum Theatre

Published: Aug. 17, 2021 at 9:20 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - This week’s 5 Star Story is one of grit and grind, resilience and reinvention, birth and rebirth, revitalization and renovation!

Where the show must go on is more than just a mantra. And it’s all been happening at the corner of Beale and Main streets in downtown Memphis, home to arts and entertainment since the late 1800s.

“The first theater there was actually called the Grand Opera House. It was built in 1890 and it brought the best of Vaudeville to Memphis,” explained Brett Batterson, president and CEO of the Orpheum Theater Group.

The Grand Opera House was considered the classiest theater outside New York City. In 1907, the Grand joined Vaudeville’s Orpheum Circuit and changed its name to the Orpheum. Fast forward 15 years, and comedy turned to drama when just after a performance by Blossom Seeley, fire erupted and burned the building to the ground.

“And it took the citizens of Memphis and the Orpheum circuit and all those people that invested to build the new Orpheum. It took them five years,” said Batterson.

But, the “new” Orpheum opened in 1928 and was the largest theater in the Orpheum circuit and home to a then-new Mighty Wurlitzer organ.

“The organ that we have at the Orpheum is the original organ that was installed in 1928,” boasted Batterson. “And we are the only theater across the United States that has done a full restoration to their organ.”

But soon, motion pictures replaced Vaudeville as the preferred entertainment and the Orpheum couldn’t survive the Great Depression.

“And then, from 1945 to 1975, the Malco movie chain owned it and it was known as the Malco,” recalled Batterson.

M.A. Lightman bought the Orpheum for just 75,000 and played first-run movies there until 1976. But, like much of downtown Memphis in the 70s, the once vibrant theatre was in disrepair. It was even home to x-rated movies for a time. By 1977, the building was back up for sale.

“When the Memphis Development Foundation was born and purchased it back from the Lightman family, it changed the name back to the Orpheum,” said Batterson.

And, those first years under new ownership were tough for the old theater that was in desperate need of restoration.

“And then in 1980, they hired Pat Halloran, my predecessor, and he did a terrific job of getting the theater restored, getting the programming in place, figuring out how to bring Broadway to Memphis,” Batterson explained.

Broadway and live performances returned to the Orpheum under Halloran’s leadership and the theater became one of the first buildings in Memphis added to the National Register of Historic Places. By 1982, $5 million was raised to repair and restore the building to its 1928 glory while also modernizing the facility.

“For a city like Memphis to have saved the Orpheum and every time you walk in that door, you see something new, you see unbelievable architectural beauty, and you just feel good walking in. The beauty of our building is unsurpassed,” exclaimed Batterson.

In 1996, another and so far, the biggest Orpheum restoration got underway which transformed the space to accommodate even larger, more elaborate shows.

“We can handle any Broadway touring show,” bragged Batterson.

Today, the legacy theater continues to thrive under Batterson’s leadership, although he credits his predecessor, Halloran, with creating the Broadway tradition that lured him to Memphis from Chicago about six years ago.

“A lot of Broadway markets across the country are controlled by a very large entity and they get told what Broadway shows they’re going to get, and they get told when they’re going to get the Broadway shows. Here in Memphis, we’re an independent presenter, and so we get to pick our own Broadway shows. I get to curate the season. We get to negotiate when they come,” Batterson explained.

And come back - they will. After a year of COVID restrictions, the Orpheum looks forward to welcoming back the masses with a fall lineup as promising as the theatre’s own future!

“Downtown Memphis is going to continue to evolve and improve,” Batterson said. “And that is only going to help the Orpheum because we’re going to have more people who live around us who can walk to the theater. The city’s building a mobility center next door that’s going to provide us parking, our patron’s parking for as long as we need it.”

Batterson plans to keep the Orpheum at the forefront of what he calls this city’s wonderful cultural sector.

Look for part two of this 5 Star Story Wednesday on Action News 5 at 5 p.m. when you’ll learn more about the Halloran Performance Center next door to the Orpheum. And what’s a theatre without ghost stories? The Orpheum has plenty of them! Don’t miss the second act of this 5-Star Story.

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