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.
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. 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.
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 lead 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.
The beginnings of the circuit
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.
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.
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".
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.
Theatres still operating
- The Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver, British Columbia (1927)
- The Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, California (1911)
- The Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, California (1926)
- The Orpheum Theatre, Madison, Wisconsin (1926)
- The Orpheum Theater, Omaha, Nebraska (1927)
- The Orpheum Theater, Galesburg, Illinois (1916)
- The Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco, California (1926)
- The Orpheum Theatre, Memphis, Tennessee (1928)
- The Orpheum Theater, New Orleans, Louisiana (1918)
- The Orpheum Theater, Boston, Massachusetts (1906)
- The Orpheum Theater, Flagstaff, Arizona (1911)
- The Orpheum Theater, Phoenix, Arizona (1929)
- The Orpheum Theatre, Minneapolis, Minnesota (1921)
- The Orpheum Theatre, Wichita, Kansas (1922)
- The Orpheum Theater, Sioux City, Iowa (1927)
- The Roberts Orpheum Theatre, St. Louis, Missouri
- The Orpheum Theatre, New York City, East Village (c1904)
- The Orpheum Theatre, New Bedford, Massachusetts (1912)
- The Orpheum Theatre in Portland, Oregon: built in 1913, remodeled in 1926 and demolished circa 1976.
- Orpheum Theater in Seattle, Washington: built 1927; demolished 1967.
- The Orpheum Theater in Oakland, California: built 1923
- Martin Beck, chairman.
- Marcus Heiman, president.
- J. M. Finn, M. H. Singer and Mrs. C. L. Kohl, vice presidents.
- B. B. Kahane, secretary and treasurer.
- The Papers of Will Rogers 3. University of Oklahoma Press. 2001. pp. 53–54. ISBN 978-0-8061-3315-7.
- Wertheim, Arthur Frank (2006). Vaudeville Wars: How the Keith-Albee and Orpheum Circuits Controlled the Big-time and Its Performers. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- "Orpheum Circuit, Inc.". scripophily.stores.yahoo.net. Retrieved 2011-12-15.
- "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.
- Arthur Frank Wertheim. Vaudeville Wars. Palgrave Macmillan. Retrieved 2011-12-15.
- "Orpheum Circuit". Encyclopedia of the Chicago Literary Renaissance. 2004. p. 249. ISBN 978-0-8160-4898-4.
-  University of Oregon Digital Library (Image Description describes the Theater was Demolished in 1978)
- Paul Dorpat (March 13, 2010). "The Orpheum Theatre". Seattle Now & Then. Retrieved 2013-12-30.
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