The Orpheum Theatre Phoenix
The Orpheum Theatre in Downtown Phoenix is the place to catch a Broadway musical, play, or classical concert. The theatre also occasionally hosts TV shows like The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. The Orpheum Theatre is historic; it was built in 1929. It was initially built as part of the nationwide Orpheum Circuit, a traveling circuit of vaudeville acts. At least twenty other cities also have an Orpheum Theatre, serving as living relics of the Orpheum Circuit. The Orpheum Theatre is notoriously haunted, with at least four ghosts residing inside, and the operators of the theatre believe there may be more. The most famous is Maddie, a young girl who keeps watch over the theatre and its patrons. The owners and employees of the Orpheum are always researching the theatre’s history to uncover who these ghosts were and what connects them to the building.
The Orpheum Opera House & Orpheum Circuit
The Orpheum Circuit was founded in 1886 by vaudeville impressionist Gustav Walter in San Francisco. The first Orpheum Opera House seated 3,500 and was a hit. The Orpheum quickly became the most popular theatre in San Francisco and attracted a diverse audience. In 1893, after some minor financial difficulties, Walter and his business partner Morris Meyerfeld decided to make the Orpheum Theatre a franchise.
Being situated in San Francisco, Walter and Meyerfeld decided that the West Coast and Midwest were the most logical places to start. They targeted cities with primary railroad connections between the East and the West. Los Angeles was the next destination, then Kansas City. Walter died after the Kansas City opening, but the Orpheum Circuit had grown too lucrative and popular for Meyerfeld to slow down on Walter’s account. Meyerfeld then opened two new theaters in Omaha and Denver. With the Orpheum Theatre now in 5 cities, Meyerfeld was now running the “Great Orpheum Circuit.”
Meyerfeld expanded to Chicago and made a deal with the Western Circuit of Vaudeville Theatres, ensuring a constant flow of performers in his theatres. In 1901, Meyerfeld met with the Eastern Vaudeville Managers Association. They struck a deal, uniting the eastern and western circuits into the Vaudeville Managers Association, also called the VMA.
The vaudeville acts who performed at the theatres were varied. Each show would feature 10-15 different acts, which varied from acrobats to comedians to musical performances and magic shows. Harry Houdini, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson were just a few of the all-star performers of the Orpheum Circuit.
Orpheum Theatres continued to open across the country. The Orpheum Empire was pushing eastwards, angering the East Coast managers, and pushing the East-West alliance towards collapse. Tensions cooled down when the two factions jointly opened the legendary Palace Theatre on Broadway in New York City.
By the 1920s, the Orpheum Circuit had 45 theatres in 36 cities, but the Great Depression meant that vaudeville acts were falling out of style. Movies were becoming more popular and cost less to show. Vaudeville became less prevalent in the 1930s, though some acts were able to survive well into the 50s. Quite a few vaudeville performers, like the Marx Brothers and Gypsy Rose Lee, were able to make a career in the movie industry.
Orpheum Theatre Phoenix
The 1,364 seat Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix first opened in 1929 as a part of the nationwide Orpheum Circuit. The theatre opened at the tail end of the vaudeville era but still played vaudeville shows through the 1930s. The theatre’s interior was designed in the atmospheric style, with the theatre’s walls painted with Spanish style buildings and a blue sky. The Orpheum Theatre was one of the only establishments in Phoenix with air conditioning, which at the time made it a high-class venue.
The theatre was bought by Paramount Pictures in the 1940s and was renamed The Paramount. The Paramount was a movie theatre and played movies from Paramount’s massive movie catalog, including animated shorts starring Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor. In the 1960s, the Paramount was bought by the Nederlander Organization, who wished to add it to their list of theatres as another stop for their Broadway shows. The Paramount was again renamed Palace West, as a western counterpart to The Palace in New York. Palace West hosted some of Broadway’s best stars, like Mae West and Henry Fonda.
In the 70s, the Palace West was bought by the Corona family, a Mexican-American family of entrepreneurs. They presented Hispanic events and movies throughout the 1970s and 80s. By this time, the theatre was falling into disrepair. The Coronas painted the murals black and covered the moldings of the theatre to detract from the poor condition. They also thought the decorations would draw attention away from the shows. The theatre’s glory days were long gone, and developers planned to raze the Orpheum and use the land as parking space.
In 1984, the city of Phoenix, seeing its value, bought the Orpheum Theatre and began a 12 year long, $14 million restoration project. The Orpheum Theatre was transformed from an outdated, run-down theatre into a beautiful, palace-style establishment. The theatre was repainted, fixtures were replaced, and the architecture was retouched to bring the old theatre into the modern era. The already large stage was made even more extensive, and a Wurlitzer Theatre Organ was added for musical performances. The new Orpheum Theatre reopened in 1997.
The theatre became a place for events and shows of all varieties. From Broadway musicals to the Phoenix Opera, to rock bands and comedians. The Orpheum Theatre is the only historic theatre in Phoenix; it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Being added to the Register helped save it from destruction.
Ghosts of the Orpheum Theatre
The Orpheum Theatre is home to at least four ghosts, though the owners believe that more may be hiding out in the theatre. The Orpheum’s operators are always digging into the characters of the theatre’s past to better uncover who these ghosts were when they were alive. Some of the spirits have a known connection to the theatre, while others are unknown.
The best-known ghost is Maddie. Maddie is a young girl, about 12 years old. She usually hangs out on the mezzanine, though she may appear in other parts of the theatre room. According to the Friends of the Orpheum, Maddie keeps watch over the patrons and is generally quite friendly, though she acts as a mischievous steward for the theatre. She once smacked a young gentleman in the back of the head for making out with his lover on the balcony while no one was around. She’s also known to tap patrons on the shoulder or ‘shush’ them when they get too loud.
Maddie’s biggest appearance was during a Chinese dance show. Five of the acrobats stopped dancing mid-performance, and began to scream while pointing at the balcony, then fell back into formation and continued the performance. The acrobats all reported seeing the same thing; a young girl who walked toward the edge of the balcony and appeared as if she was going to jump, and instead walked off the balcony into the air and disappeared.
Despite being the most famous and most often encountered ghost in the theatre, nobody knows who Maddie actually is. There’s no record of anyone named “Maddie,” “Madeline,” or “Madison,” who is known to have a connection with the Orpheum Theatre, and some even doubt if Maddie was her real name while she was alive.
The Orpheum Theatre keeps its other ghosts entirely secret. You have to go on a ghost tour to hear about the others. Rumor is that Harry Nace, one of the original owners of the theatre, also haunts the Orpheum.
The latest ghost to be found was encountered in February of 2019. A woman wearing a period dress and a netting over her head briefly appeared to one of the employees in full apparition. She seemed so real that the employee spoke to her as if she were an actual person. It was only a few moments after the encounter that he realized that the woman was a ghost. The operators of the theatre have been researching to uncover who this woman was, and may have actually found a photo of the woman in the theatre archives.
The staff of the Orpheum Theatre claim that there may be more than four ghosts, as many have yet to reveal themselves. The employees and staff cherish their ghostly residents and have pledged to make them feel at home. They don’t reveal too much to keep them comfortable, and are wary of amateur paranormal investigators who try to catch a glimpse or detect their presence.
Learn more about Arizona’s Haunted History!
Arizona had a long and fascinating history. From sacred Native American holy sites to the Mexican Revolution, a lot has happened here, and the ghosts of the past live on. Read more about the Copper State’s haunted history. The Superstition Mountains are home to a spooky abandoned gold mine. The haunted Congress Hotel in Tucson is one of the most haunted hotels in the country, and a fire in the basement led to the arrest of outlaw John Dillinger. You can also read about the top ten most haunted locations in Phoenix here.
Main Image Source: Wikimedia/Greg O’Bierne