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Orpheum Turns 100, Celebrates in Style

Lu Anne Stephens

The historic Orpheum Theatre celebrates its 100th birthday next week.

One of Wichita's classiest places is about to turn 100. People will gather and offer a toast or two in her honor, but to be honest, she's come a long way from that Labor Day weekend in 1922 when she first made herself known. Since then, she has become a pantheon for stars to gather, a beacon for those seeking out the rhythms and souls of life, and a friend who reminds us of the grandeur of a time gone by.

The Orpheum Theatre is turning 100 on Sept. 4.

"So, a century of lights and entertainment at the corner of First and Broadway," said executive director Rachel Banning.

Hugo Phan

The Orpheum has long been the crown jewel of Wichita's arts and cultural community, in part because it's the last theater one standing. Think of the concerts and events that Wichitans have attended through the years – Jack Benny, Gypsy Rose Lee, Harry Houdini, Judy Collins and many more.

The Orpheum was designed and built by one of the nation's leading architects, John Eberson, known as "Opera House John." Eberson would go on to design more than 100 theaters across the nation. The Orpheum, built with perfect acoustics, was the nation's first atmospheric theater and the oldest one still standing. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1981. Gone are the other grand theaters that used to delight past generations of Wichitans -- the Civic, the Sunset, the Crest, the Palace and the Miller.

Only the Orpheum remains.

Lu Anne Stephens

Twentieth-century grandeur and glitches

The walls and ceiling of the Orpheum were painted with scenes that The Wichita Eagle described as appearing as if "the outdoors had come inside."

"Looking above into the blue heavens, we could see the stars twinkling, and it gave you the feeling you could be on the patio in some Spanish villa," George Graves said in the article.

Despite the beauty, the gala when the Orpheum opened its doors in 1922 was marred. Air conditioning was nonexistent then. Kansas temperatures were, as usual, soaring, and the Orpheum's audience – some of Wichita's most prominent citizens --were dressed in their finest and sweating on new red leather seats. When the dye from the leather seats bled onto the patron's clothing, tempers flared. The managers quickly paid to clean everyone's clothes – a bill that in 1922 exceeded $1,800.

That won't happen at the centennial anniversary celebration next Friday, Banning said.

For one thing, even on a sweltering summer day, the gentle hiss of icy-cold air conditioning can be felt and heard throughout the 1,286-seat auditorium.

And, Banning added, "We have vinyl seats now that shouldn't transfer dye onto your clothes."

Lu Anne Stephens

The vision and innovation

Part of the legacy of the Orpheum is that it nearly didn't make it.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, crowds began to dwindle, and it was eventually closed in the late 1970s. Largely through the efforts of Wichita preservationists Marge Setter and Millie Hill, restoration efforts gained momentum. And bit by bit, areas of the Orpheum have been restored.

Those efforts have now been underway for the past three decades. Yet, much still has to be done, Banning said – such as the entire auditorium. But it's coming.

The remaining price tag for renovations is estimated to be between $6 million to $9 million. Each dollar raised by private donors.

Restoration through the years has often called for creative solutions.

"One of the things we are hyperfocused on is using innovation to fuel our historic preservation – with the help of students at Wichita State University," Banning said.

The School of Engineering is making 3D scans of light fixtures and other decorative fixtures in the auditorium and then using 3D printers to recreate and replace damaged pieces.

Lu Anne Stephens

By the first week of September, Banning said, visitors to the Orpheum can expect to see some of the air grilles and other damaged pieces on the stage – originally made with horsehair and plaster – replaced.

Banning is hoping restoration will be completed in the next five years.

"We've been able to operate and have amazing shows and continue to bring in amazing talent," she said. "We've been doing that for decades now."

For years on the backstage of the Orpheum there was a note, according to a Wichita Eagle article.

"Please do not turn on the clouds until the show starts. Be sure the stars are turned off when leaving."

Somehow, largely through sweat equity, volunteers and the vision of Wichita's preservationists, the lights at the Orpheum still shine.