This Week in History


A Gem of a Theatre

For the week of Monday January 23, 2006

On January 26, 1919, the first notes played by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra resonated throughout Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre. Seven years later, this old building was replaced by an elegant theatre, also called Orpheum.

The Orpheum theatre, 1927
© Vancouver Public Library, Specials Collections,VPL11036

Construction on the new Orpheum began on October 28, 1926, on Granville Street, and was headed by Benjamin Marcus Priteca, an architect from Seattle. When it opened on November 7, 1927, it was the largest theatre on the Pacific Coast at the time, with 2,870 seats. It was created based on an architectural concept called “movie palace,” developed in the United States during the First World War. Like all “palaces,” it is of imposing proportions, has over 2,000 seats and offers spectators plenty of comfort in lavish surroundings.

The outside of the building is made of reinforced concrete, adorned with brick and terracotta elements. A marquee and vertical sign displaying the theatre’s name grace its façade. The interior design is Spanish style. The great hall leads to a three‑story foyer featuring cast-stone balustrades and columns. The auditorium boasts a stage framed by a proscenium arch and a plaster domed ceiling, from which an impressive 1363 kilograme crystal chandelier imported from Czechoslovakia is suspended. Decorated with plaster ornaments, the ivory and gold walls are covered with silk wallpaper in black and gold tones.

The auditorium of the Orpheum theatre
© Parks Canada

At the beginning, vaudeville acts were the main attraction at the Orpheum, but these very soon gave way to cinema, which gained enormous popularity. With the emergence of "talkies", significant changes had to be made to the theatre, some installations at the Orpheum, such as the Wurlitzer organ that accompanied silent films, became obsolete. The theatre’s popularity decreased considerably with the rise of television in the 1950s. After a local campaign was launched to save the Orpheum from demolition, the building was bought by the city. Renovations began in 1975 to modernize the acoustics and restore the building’s structural and architectural integrity. On April 2, 1977, the theatre was officially re-opened and has since been the permanent home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

Linked to the history of Canadian cinematographic architecture, this opulent theatre has withstood the test of time and has kept its original appearance. The Orpheum Theatre was designated a national historic site in 1979.

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