The Grand Opera House was built here in 1890 and was billed as the classiest theatre outside of New York City. The Grand became part of the Orpheum Circuit of vaudeville shows in 1907, thus the theatre became known as The Orpheum.
In 1923 a fired burned the theatre to the ground, and the structure you see today was erected in 1928 at a cost of $1.6 million. This theatre was twice as large and far more opulent than its predecessor with lavish tasseled brocade draperies, enormous crystal chandeliers, gilded moldings, and the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ.
As vaudeville's popularity waned, the Orpheum was purchased by the Malco movie theater chain in 1940 and presented first run movies until 1976 when Malco decided to sell the building. There was even talk of demolishing the old theater to build an office complex. However, in 1977 the Memphis Development Foundation purchased the Orpheum and began bringing Broadway productions and concerts back to the Theatre.
Fifty-four years had taken a toll on the “South's Finest Theatre.” The Orpheum was closed on Christmas in 1982 to begin a $5 million renovation to restore its 1928 opulence. A grand reopening celebration was held in January of 1984, and it signaled the rebirth of entertainment in downtown Memphis.
Throughout the next 20 years, the Orpheum brought in large-scale Broadway shows, like Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and Les Miserables, while continuing to offer performances from great entertainers like Jerry Seinfeld, Dorothy Hamill, Tony Bennet, the Goo Goo Dolls, and many more. The Orpheum brings in 10-12 Broadway performances a year and more than 350,000 guests.
Legend has it that two ghosts reside in The Orpheum. One is sweet little Mary and she's 9 years old, she wears a white dress and has pigtails. Some say the real Mary ran out of the theatre and was killed by a trolley car. Mary likes to sit in seat C-5 and often causes a raucus by slamming doors and flickering lights. The second ghost is that of a masked figure that resides in the air ducts above the house. The nameless ghost is known to stretch its brown arm out of the molding that covers the opening in the air duct, and wave at audience members during performances.
What's next for The Orpheum? Just south of the theatre in the parking lot, work will soon begin on a $11 million Orpheum Performing Arts and Leadership Centre that will offer education and community outreach programs to more than 60,000 children and their families each year.