You may have seen the big neon sign on Granville Street, but how much do you really know about Vancouver’s historic Orpheum Theatre?
Special walking tours are now giving visitors an inside look at the nearly century-old theatre, which started its life as a vaudeville house. The 90-minute tours (for the bargain price of $10) shed light on the long, sometimes troubled history of one of Vancouver’s most iconic landmarks.
When it opened its doors in 1927, the Orpheum was the biggest theatre in Canada, built with 3,000 seats at the astronomical cost of $1.25 million.
Few expenses were spared by architect Marcus Priteca, who designed more than 220 theatres across North America. He built the Orpheum in a grand (albeit eclectic) style incorporating influences from Moroccan architecture, the Taj Mahal, Moorish arches and British heraldry, all layered on top of a Spanish Baroque style, with grand staircases, plenty of gold leaf and of course the Orpheum’s giant gilded dome.
The tour ventures down into the Orpheum basement, where the original ice-block air conditioning room was installed in 1927. Guests get an up-close look at some of the 140 original Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers hung throughout the theatre. The tour even climbs to the iconic central dome, where the process of hanging the giant central chandelier is explained.
After vaudeville theatre died out in the 1930s, the Orpheum transitioned to a movie house. Promoters sometimes resorted to bizarre techniques to fill the cavernous venue, including parading a bull down Granville Street before the start of a Western and hiring actress Yvonne de Carlo (a Vancouver native who would go on to star in The Munsters sitcom) to dance on stage before a Hawaiian movie. Occasionally, live acts performed too, including Frank Sinatra, who famously shattered his dressing room lights while practicing a gold swing.
Although the Orpheum limped along, in the 1970s its owners made the decision to gut it and turn it into a multiplex. Only a furious public protest saved one of the city’s architectural treasures. (If only there were more furious public protests today!) In 1974, the City of Vancouver bought the theatre for $7.1 million. An extensive renovation ensued (involving the participation of some of the theatre’s original designers from the 1920s, believe it or not) and the Orpheum was reopened in 1977 with a new entrance on Smithe Street.
Since then, it has been the permanent home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and also hosted countless performances from some of the world’s top music groups. Plus it served as the backdrop for a Battlestar Galactica episode.
Summer tours of the Orpheum Theatre leave every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 11 a.m. from the Granville Street entrance. The guided tours, run by the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame, last 90 minutes and will continue through Aug. 30. Admission is by a minimum $10 cash donation. Tours are first-come, first-served (up to a max of 30 people) but reservations can be made by calling 604-665-3470.
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