Reel history

The Orpheum theater was a class act in downtown Tulsa.



The 1,500-seat Orpheum theater opened in 1924 as a vaudeville venue. It later played movies. In 1970, the theater was razed, the fate of several other downtown theaters of the era, including the Majestic and the Rialto.

Photos courtesy Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa, Tulsa City-County Library and Tulsa Historical Society

Whether it’s a reclining chair, 3-D glasses or even gourmet meals, modern movie theaters do not lack amenities. It’s easy to forget that not that long ago theaters were showpieces, and air conditioning was the hottest new thing (pun intended). 

In Tulsa, nothing could top the Orpheum for spectacle. The theater, located at 14 E. Fourth St., opened in 1924. Plasters of gods and goddesses always got the best view, gazing down from the ornate, golden balconies of the theater. Everyone else sat in one of the 1,500 rich, velvet seats that filled the auditorium.

In the 1920s, vaudeville was at its peak. The shows featured a wide variety of acts, such as song, dance and burlesque comedy. The “Orpheum Circuit” was the country’s primary vaudeville circuit, and many theaters adopted the name Orpheum. 

Tulsa’s Orpheum was the area’s premier venue with stars such as Eddie Cantor, George Jessel and Jimmy Durante (along with his larger-than-life nose, the famed “Schnozzola”) gracing the stage.

Vaudeville was the Orpheum’s specialty until “moving pictures” came along with first-run films taking over in 1931. The theater screened now-classic films such as “Gone With the Wind” to packed houses.

Even Hollywood took notice. The opening night of “Tulsa,” a 1949 melodrama featuring Robert Preston and Susan Hayward, debuted at the Orpheum. Both stars and supporting actor Chill Wills attended the premiere. The film’s release also brought a Tulsa parade and a full-size drilling rig temporarily set up in front of the theater. Estimates put the parade crowd at 100,000 people.

Unfortunately, the show could not go on forever. The Orpheum struggled to compete with the free parking of suburban theaters. On Jan. 3, 1960, the theater showed its last film. In March 1970, it closed its doors for good and was torn down later that year. The site is now First Place Plaza.

The theater may be long gone, but it is far more difficult to erase its memory. Luckily for history buffs, the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum will open an off-site exhibit called “Show Time: Tulsa’s Theaters of Yesteryear” this month. Photos and information from the Orpheum and many other theaters, such as the Ritz, the Rialto, the Majestic and the Admiral Twin, will be on display at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center Gallery from Jan. 5-31.

 

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