Orpheum Circuit

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The Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles

The Orpheum Circuit was a chain of vaudeville and movie theaters. It was founded in 1886 and operated through 1927 when it was merged with the Keith-Albee theater chain, ultimately becoming part of the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) corporation.

Early history[edit]

The Orpheum Circuit was started by the vaudeville impresario Gustav Walter, who opened the Orpheum Opera House in San Francisco in 1886. This first Orpheum seated 3500 and immediately became the most popular theatre in San Francisco.[1] The program at the original Orpheum ranged from knockabout comedy to opera, thus appealing to a wide variety of people from working class, to middle class clerks and shop keepers, to businessmen. Often there would be as many ladies present for the evening's entertainment as men due to Walter's high-class vaudeville acts. Shows would start around ten in the evening and end around two in the morning.[2]

Despite his success, Walter was in debt, and in 1891, faced with bankruptcy, he leased his theater and its management to John Cort. Cort took over the operations of the Orpheum for two years until his own bankruptcy led to Walter being rehired as manager. This time, Walter was backed by Morris Meyerfeld who become Walter's partner. Meyerfeld managed the business while Walter managed the talent and booking for the theater. As partners they made the Orpheum the place to go for a night on the town. It was regularly sold out, including the standing room.[2]

The beginnings of the circuit[edit]

Following their success in San Francisco, Meyerfeld encouraged Walter to open more theaters. Meyerfeld argued that San Francisco was so far removed geographically, that in order to entice more performers to make the journey to perform at their theater, they needed to make their journey worthwhile by offering more opportunities to perform. The next logical city was Los Angeles. The pair leased the Grand Opera House and opened the Los Angeles Orpheum to a sold out house in 1894. It was now customary for performers to stop in Los Angeles after playing in San Francisco.[2]

Walter and Meyerfeld continue to expand their operations by opening more theaters on the road between the Midwestern United States and their Pacific Coast theaters. Due it its railroad connections and thriving economy, Kansas City, Missouri was chosen as their next location. The pair leased the Ninth Street Theatre and renamed it the Orpheum. It opened in 1898 to a sold out house. Three months after the Kansas City opening, Walter died due to an appendicitis attack. Business for the theaters continue as usual and all contracts held. Meyerfeld was elected as the circuit's new president.[2]

Meyerfeld continued to expand the Orpheum Circuit throughout the Midwest. He leased the Creighton Theater in Omaha, Nebraska and built the Denver Orpheum at a cost of $350,000. With these five theaters, Meyerfeld now ran the "The Great Orpheum Circuit".[2]

Vaudeville Associations and Alliances[edit]

In order to continue expanding the Orpheum Circuit's operation, Meyerfeld made a deal with the Western Circuit of Vaudeville Theaters (WCVT), an association of theater owners based in Chicago. This alliance now allowed vaudevillians twenty to forty weeks of performing from Chicago to the Pacific Coast. Since he was now part of the WCVT association, Meyerfeld opened a booking office in Chicago and hired Martin Beck to run the booking operations of the theaters. Beck's goals became to "make the Orpheum circuit bring the highest forms of art within reach of the people with the slimmest purses".[2]

In 1900 the circuit was incorporated in order to better finance and organize it's five theaters. The Orpheum theaters now dominated the big-time circuit west of Chicago. On May 29th, 1901, Meyerfeld and Beck, along with other big-time Vaudeville theater owners such as Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward Franklin Albee II, signed the bylaws and constitution of the Association of Vaudeville Managers of the United States (AVM). This organization was created for the purpose of booking performers and was set up to last a period of five years. For the first time, Eastern and Western Circuits were linked in an agreement. Keith was the president and the association was divided into two wings. The Orpheum-WCVT officials were on the western board, including Meyerfeld and Beck. Members of the board would meet weekly to judge performers and book them into houses as well as establishing salaries. All five Orpheum theaters were a part of AVM.[2]

In 1904 the WCVT was replaced by the Western Vaudeville Managers association (WVMA). This occurred because the western managers felt they needed a stronger booking association. Meyerfeld became the president and Beck was the Vice President of this new association. This shows the power of that the Orpheum circuit had in the west. By 1906 the WVMA included more than 60 theaters. Also, between 1901 and 1905 the Orpheum had doubled in the size of its holdings to eight theaters with new venues now in New Orleans (1902) and Minneapolis (1904). [2]

On April 18, 1906 a devastating earthquake and fire hit San Francisco and destroyed the Orpheum theater. A new theater was then built on Ellis street and opened in 1907. This fire caused negotiations between the east and west to cease for a year. Finally, mid-June 1907, a new alliance between the western vaudeville circuit and the eastern circuit was made. This alliance was known as the Combine. It essentially carved up the country into two sections, drawing a line through Cincinnati. The Orpheum Circuit and its leaders were in control of the territory west of the line to the Pacific Coast. They also had control of much of the south from Louisville to New Orleans as well as western Canada. This new arrangement guaranteed the owners territorial rights and prohibited owners from establishing a theater in a city where another member operated a venue. The combined power of those in the Combine, especially because of the power of the Orpheum Circuit, created an oligopoly that now dominated the big time booking business. This powerful alliance had the power to not only blacklist performers, but now to blacklist any other manager that was not a part of its agreement. [2]

Wars between East and West[edit]

As vaudeville continued in its popularity, so did the Orpheum Circuit. By the end of 1909, Orpheum theaters had opened in Atlanta, Memphis, Mobile, Birmingham, Salt Lake, Ogden, and Logan. In addition, Beck and Meyerfeld made an agreement with the Sullivan-Considine vaudeville chain in 1908 that allowed the Orpheum to books artists in their theaters in Seattle, Spokane, Portland, and Butte. In 1911-1912 the Orpheum acquired theaters in Winnipeg, Calgary, and Edmonton, Canada. [2]

Beck wanted to continue to build the Orpheum's influence and power and became obsessed with opening a large Orpheum theater in New York as well as other cities in the east which violated the territorial agreement of the Combine. The alliance of the Combine, that was set to expire in 1911, started splitting up before that date. The heads of this alliance were now battling each other. As early as 1908 rumors of Beck's intention to put Orpheum theaters on the east coast were printed and caused the Combine accord to almost collapse on several occasions. It was all out war between the two big powerhouse circuits. [2]

Late circuit[edit]

Ad appearing in This Week in Boston, 1909

Orpheum Circuit was incorporated on December 22, 1919, in Delaware.[3]

In 1927 the company merged with the Keith-Albee theater chain to form Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO).[4]

In 1928 KAO was merged with Joseph P. Kennedy's FBO film company under the aegis of RCA. The result was Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) which consisted of the former KAO theater chain and a new film studio, Radio Pictures (later called RKO-Radio), one of the major Hollywood studios of the 1930s and 1940s.[5][6]

Theatres still operating[edit]

Closed theaters[edit]

Demolished theaters[edit]

Management[edit]

Artists[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Papers of Will Rogers 3. University of Oklahoma Press. 2001. pp. 53–54. ISBN 978-0-8061-3315-7. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Wertheim, Arthur Frank (2006). Vaudeville Wars: How the Keith-Albee and Orpheum Circuits Controlled the Big-time and Its Performers. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 
  3. ^ a b c d e "Orpheum Circuit, Inc.". scripophily.stores.yahoo.net. Retrieved 2011-12-15. 
  4. ^ "700 Theatres Merged In Vaudeville Circuit. Keith-Albee and Orpheum Now Largest in Country. Final Papers Signed". New York Times. January 27, 1928. Retrieved 2015-02-10. 
  5. ^ Arthur Frank Wertheim. Vaudeville Wars. Palgrave Macmillan. Retrieved 2011-12-15. 
  6. ^ "Orpheum Circuit". Encyclopedia of the Chicago Literary Renaissance. 2004. p. 249. ISBN 978-0-8160-4898-4. 
  7. ^ http://oregondigital.org/u?/archpnw,10114
  8. ^ http://oregondigital.org/u?/archpnw,10115
  9. ^ [1] University of Oregon Digital Library (Image Description describes the Theater was Demolished in 1978)
  10. ^ Paul Dorpat (March 13, 2010). "The Orpheum Theatre". Seattle Now & Then. Retrieved 2013-12-30.