Orpheum Theatre still looks nifty at 90

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      Rob Haynes, chair of the Vancouver Civic Theatres board, remembers his first time at the Orpheum fondly. It was the early ’60s and he, just 12 years old, had purchased tickets to see a film at the theatre, which was operated by the now defunct Famous Players at the time. With its high ceilings, opulent interior, and plush red carpeting, the venue left the young Haynes gobsmacked.

      “You would come off Granville Street…and you’d go, ‘What is this? Where am I?’” he recalls during a recent behind-the-scenes tour of the institution. “All of a sudden, it’s dark, there’s sparkle and glitter and everything, and then you’d come into the Grand Hall and you’d have no idea what you were in for. It was really a magical experience.”

      That this enchanted setting continues to wow guests to this day is no accident. Opened as a vaudeville house in 1927, when musicians, jugglers, dancers, and other entertainers frequently made the rounds, the Orpheum was designed by Scottish-born architect Marcus Priteca, who, according to Haynes, had a knack for dreaming up spaces that absolutely captivated their inhabitants. “He knew how to create that ambiance, make people think that they’re in a palace,” he says.

      Ninety years later, that feeling has been meticulously maintained in the nearly 3,000-seat room, though not without a few hiccups along the way. Once known as the New Orpheum—one of only three places in the city that played host to travelling vaudevillians—the theatre was acquired by Famous Players in the 1930s and began regularly screening films. By the ’70s, however, the company had plans to demolish and convert the space into a multiplex. The decision was met with public outcry. “Anyone who was a who’s who in the city got involved to save the Orpheum,” explains Haynes.

      A steadfast campaign proved successful and, with the support of all three levels of government, the City of Vancouver purchased the Orpheum as the new home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. A renovation involving architects Paul Merrick and Ron Nelson followed, resulting in a widened stage and, thanks to the installation of acoustic shells and baffles, improved sound distribution. It was during this time that the ornate, hand-painted dome—a piece that, unbeknownst to many Vancouverites, depicts Merrick and Nelson as biblical, musically inclined figures—was introduced. (Merrick’s wife and daughter also appear as a lady in red and an instrument-toting youth, respectively.)

      The Orpheum Theatre during the 1930s.
      Vancouver Civic Theatres

      “It really is interesting that they [the architects and designers] have all these little secrets that are in the dome,” says Haynes. “Everyone thinks this is a classical piece.”

      Today, the Orpheum is a designated heritage building in Vancouver and a National Historic Site. To celebrate the cinema turned concert hall’s 90th anniversary, Vancouver Civic Theatres—the municipal body that owns and manages the building—will be throwing a 1920s-themed soiree in partnership with the VSO. Hosted by its maestro Bramwell Tovey and CBC’s Bill Richardson, the event will give a nod to the Orpheum’s storied past with a parade of vaudevillians—tap dancers, singers, and acrobats, for example—and screenings of silent films accompanied by Tovey on piano.

      Betty Haswell, a 96-year-old musician who played the institution’s Mighty Wurlitzer in the ’40s and ’50s, will also return to the stage for a performance on the pipe organ, which is the last remaining instrument of its kind in its original location in Canada. Tickets are $19.27—a reference to the Orpheum’s year of opening—and attendees are encouraged to dress in ’20s garb or attire that reflects their heritage.

      It’s an apt toast to arguably the city’s most iconic live-music venue, one that has seen everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Beck to Princess Margaret walk through its doors over the years. In fact, it’s not just locals who recognize the Orpheum’s significance. Take it from the legendary Tony Bennett, who, after asking musicians to set their instruments down and for sound equipment to be switched off, performed an a cappella rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon” at the hall in 2012.

      “You heard every single word he sang,” recalls Haynes. “And then he said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, that’s what you have in the city of Vancouver. Hang on to it and never, ever let it go.’”

      The Orpheum’s 90th-anniversary celebration takes place on Friday (November 24). See event listing for details.