Vaudeville, movies and now Broadway-quality shows highlight the history of Omaha’s Orpheum Theater.
The Orpheum opened in 1927. It was home to vaudeville performers during the early days. It became a movie theater in the 1960s. Jerry Lewis was the last known live performer in 1961, before the Orpheum transitioned into a movie house.
For the rest of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, it served as a movie theater. The building fell into disrepair during that time. It closed in 1971. The last movie shown was “The Barefoot Executive,” a Disney movie about a chimp. It played before an empty house, said Jeff Brown.
Jeff is the assistant production manager for Omaha Performing Arts Foundation. Jeff and Kim Reiner hosted Lisa and I for a back stage tour of the Orpheum. Kim is the foundation’s public relations coordinator.
Jeff has a detailed history of the Orpheum. He has been involved with it and other city entertainment facilities since 1981. He worked for the City of Omaha before joining the arts foundation. Jeff had the privilege of working beside his dad, Al.
The clock in the staff’s office was given to Jeff by his dad, with the stipulation that he couldn’t sell it, Jeff said. The office used to be the stars’ dressing room.
The theater’s history was intriguing to us. From the days of Vaudeville acts to the current Broadway tour shows, the building has seen a lot and gone through a lot of renovation. Years of neglect led to a faulty roof and water damage, Jeff said.
After it closed in 1971, it sat empty for a couple of years.
In 1973, The Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben (a civic organization) bought the building and put in about $2 million to renovate it. The Knights offered it to the city on the condition that the theater be used for plays, musicals, etc.
The Orpheum reopened in 1975. The City owned the building, but had it managed by the Omaha Performing Arts Center.
The theater went through another major renovation in 2002. About $10 million of renovation took place. The Orpheum was closed for about three months during this time. The main floor was basically torn up and replaced with a new layout, including a handicapped seating area and new entrances, Jeff said. The theater currently seats about 2,500 people.
The Orpheum has actually grown in size, too. The theater absorbed a bank that was located next door. The original lobby was L-shaped. An addition created more lobby space for guests. A coffee shop sits next door, as well. The Weaver Lounge is primarily used by donors and patrons.
In 1996, the theater added a permanent bar near the lobby. It replaced rolling bar carts. In trying to fit the bar into the lobby motif, Italian marble was used. It almost matches the marble on the lobby walls. Jeff chuckled in recalling that the four installers (all Italian) couldn’t speak English, but understood what needed to be done.
We moved along to the stage. It was cool standing on the stage where famous performers have been – Jerry Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway.
We drilled Jeff on the “real” behavior of the celebrities he has encountered. He couldn’t think of a bad person (or anyone he was willing to share with us – only kidding). He said the celebrities have been nice to him and other staff members during their visits. He did say that Tim Conway, in particular, is the same off stage as he is during his show – which is hilarious.
He did recall one show at the old Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum (now destroyed). Frank Sinatra had finished a gig in Omaha. A staff member had a set of drinks for “The Chairman” back stage. Once the show finished, Sinatra exited the stage and asked for a drink. His wife at the time nixed it, because they had to catch their ride, Jeff said. Can you imagine anyone telling Frank Sinatra he couldn’t have a drink? I guess none of us guys are immune to the orders (err, recommendations) of our significant others.
Off to the left side, or stage left, stands the rope rigging. There are three sets of ropes that control the curtain, lights and sets. Most shows have one person to run them, but some, such as “Lion King,” may require five workers, Jeff said.
One spot on the stage has a small trap door. It’s known as the “Wicked” door. The door is used in a key scene during the musical. The show will soon make its third stop in Omaha. It’s a very popular performance with theater goers.
In the basement of the building are the current dressing rooms. The main stars’ dressing rooms are stage right. The supporting cast, such as back-up singers and dancers, has its dressing room stage left.
You can see the difference in the rooms.
The theater staff can adjust to specific needs or requests for shows, Jeff said. One performer in the past liked to have a TV in the dressing room, so he could watch baseball games. That pales when you think of horror stories you may have read about some artists wanting certain colored M&Ms, etc.
We checked out the orchestra pit. It was pretty cool seeing where the musicians work, as well as the storage area around the pit. The theater’s original Wurlitzer organ sits in a room off the orchestra pit.
As we were leaving the building, it was noted that the theater’s marquee was recently changed. It’s now digital. Beforehand, from 1975 until the recent change, metal letters were used to advertise the shows.
For more information on shows coming to Omaha, please visit the Omaha Performing Arts Foundation’s website at http://www.omahaperformingarts.org/.