This Week in History


“The Grand Old Lady of Granville Street”

For the week of Monday March 15, 2010

On March 19, 1974, the City of Vancouver purchased the Orpheum Theatre, which had opened 47 years earlier. After the previous owner had considered turning the movie palace into a multiplex, the Community Arts Council of Vancouver and the mayor were determined to save it. After $3.9 million was raised to help the City purchase the Orpheum and $2 million was spent in renovations, it was re-opened on April 2, 1977 as the new home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

The exterior of the Orpheum Theatre
© Albertype Company / Library and Archives Canada / PA-031519
When the Orpheum opened on Granville Street in 1927 it was the largest theatre in Canada. The architect, Marcus Priteca, described his creation as “Spanish Renaissance”; however, Priteca incorporated other style elements in the building’s design, including Baroque, Gothic, and Moorish North African. Lush carpeting, extravagant décor, including a 1363 kilogram chandelier and a $60,000 Wurlitzer organ, created a luxurious atmosphere and offered an escape for middle-class patrons. When the Orpheum Theatre first opened, a guest could see a movie and eight or nine vaudeville acts, such as animal performers, dancers and acrobats, for the low price of 25-85 cents. Entertainers who once graced its stage include Frank Sinatra and Joan Sutherland. The Orpheum also played short films as a part of the original vaudeville performances.

The Orpheum only continued to show vaudeville acts and short films for another four years after it opened. Then it changed the focus to short films as a result of the increasing popularity of feature-length films and financial pressures during the Depression years. When it struggled to remain open during the 1930s, the theatre reduced prices and began showing double features to keep guests coming; however, the Orpheum briefly shut its doors in 1931.

The interior of the Orpheum Theatre
© Photo courtesy of Vancouver City Theatres

After a public outcry over the possible demolition of the Orpheum in 1973, the City of Vancouver purchased the theatre with the help of private and government donations, grants, lotteries and widespread fundraising. In order to accommodate the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the stage was extended, an orchestra shell was added, and several rehearsal rooms and lounges were built backstage. The original decorator, Tony Heinsbergen, was recruited to paint a stunning mural on the theatre’s domed ceiling.

The Orpheum Theatre was designated a National Historic Site in 1979. It stands as an example of the ornate 1920s movie palace. The Orpheum is home to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the Vancouver Bach Choir, the Vancouver Chamber Choir, the Vancouver Cantata Singers, the Vancouver Recital Society and the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame.

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