Most of these are or were movie palaces, like the one I spent 1976 popping popcorn and selling tickets in. My palace, the St. George Theatre, is still standing to this day in Staten Island, New York, just a block and a half uphill from the world’s most famous ferry. But the St. George is no Orpheum, so, for this one blog post, we’ll leave it, in all its Spanish Baroque glory, behind.
What makes an orpheum and orpheum? All these theaters owe their name to a mythical Greek with a lyre. His music was reputedly so sweet that when his lover, Eurydice, died, he was able to charm Hades, God of the dead, into letting her climb back out of the Underworld with him. If only he hadn’t broken his promise not to look behind at Eurydice as she climbed towards the light! She vanished, of course, a good lesson for all of us, reminding me of what Winston Churchill may or may not have advised, “If you’re going through Hell, keep going.”
Orpheus lost his lady forever, which only made his music the sweeter, another lesson perhaps, about art and suffering. Would’ve made an outstanding movie, and did, as a matter of fact make several.
The Vaudeville origins of so many movie palaces have everything to do with why theaters bear a reference to Orpheus in their very names. Before there were movie palaces, there were music halls many of which became combined-use facilities. Indeed, music (think theater organs) had a lot to do with claiming the audial attentions of early movie-goers, when silents were silent.
How many Orpheums (Orpheii?) are there? Of the 50 existing theaters worldwide bearing the name of the Greek hero/semi-god who toted a lyre in and out of Hell, 39 of them are single screen affairs, according to Cinema Treasures, who ought to know.
The Orpheum in Sioux Falls, S.D. — rumored to be haunted by a ghost named “Larry,” — is a single screen theater which, indeed, began its life as a Vaudeville house in 1913. On West Main Street in Ada, Minnesota, the single-screen Orpheum, dating to the early 1920’s, is the treasure of Mr. Harry Rocker, who has apparently owned it for better than three decades. In Galesburg, Illinois, the local Orpheum is a Rapp and Rapp confection. Built in a French Renaissance style, it’s entirely live these days, the home of the Prairie Players Community Theatre, among other groups of performers.
For all his talents, Orpheus didn’t end well — which you may know. After losing Eurydice, he swore off women forever, apparently infuriating the jealous women of Thrace, who tore him limb from limb and threw his lovely head into the river, a head which nonetheless kept singing, as it drifted out to sea. As Churchill apparently didn’t, after all, say, but I’ll quote him anyhow, “Never, ever, ever...give up!”