The Early History of Flagstaff’s Orpheum Theatre

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The Orpheum Theater — historic cinema in downtown Flagstaff, Arizona. Present day live theater and music venue.

The Orpheum Theatre in Flagstaff, Arizona was built on the site of the Majestic Theatre, which collapsed under heavy snowfall on December 31, 1915.

On July 21, 1911, the Coconino Sun reported that John Weatherford intended to build a new opera house just west of his hotel at the corner of Aspen and Leroux Streets. The plan called for a one-story structure designed for picture show and opera house productions. Highlights included a maple floor ideal for dancing and a 60 by 20 foot stage, under which would be dressing rooms.

By November, what became known as the Majestic Theatre was open for business. One of the first, if not very first, productions was a four-act play that opened on November 3. “All the Comforts of a Home,” managed by Murry Brannen, featured “a real bunch of good actors,” including such locals as Mary Riordan, Ray and Ed Babbitt and Marjorie Sisson.

Majestic Theatre Collapses From Snow

For several years the theatre was a place where citizens could whet their appetites for picture shows, plays, dances, and musical productions. On December 31, 1915, a notice in the Coconino Sun advertised a New Year’s Eve program of moving pictures followed by a dance with music by the Majestic Theatre Four Piece Orchestra.

Unfortunately, the lead story on the front page of that day’s paper indicated that would-be revelers would have to celebrate elsewhere: “MANY BUILDINGS CAVED IN HEAVIEST SNOW STORM IN HISTORY – MAJESTIC THEATRE CRUMBLES UNDER WEIGHT OF SNOW. At 6:00 a.m. on the morning of the 31st, the theater became one of several structures in Flagstaff that succumbed to the weight of 61 inches of snow.

Within days, theatre proprietors J.J. Costigan and Lee Smith secured the main hall in the McMillan Building as an interim home for the Majestic. This hall included 182 central reserved seats as well as a section of side seats.

John Weatherford Builds the Orpheum Theatre

By February 11, 1916, a new permanent home was being planned for the Majestic. The old Babbitt garage building on Aspen Street – today the space is occupied by the amphitheatre in Heritage Park – was modified for the purpose. The 350-seat Empress Theatre opened in early March and offered nightly performances of “photoplays,” concerts and other productions.

At the time, opera houses were a major source of entertainment, and by March 1916, three new opera houses were being planned, including one by John Weatherford on the site of the original Majestic Theatre. Construction of the new building began in April, 1916.

It was billed as the newest and best-equipped theatre in the Southwest, and featured an expansive balcony and asbestos drop curtain. Opening night for the new Orpheum Theatre – named after the mythical Greek musician and poet who enchanted the gods with his talents – was August 31, 1916. Tickets for opening night cost 50 cents for balcony seats and $1 for main floor seats.

In August 1917, J.J. Costigan, who had become the sole proprietor of the Empress Theatre, bought the lease of the Orpheum from John Barncord. Costigan then closed the Empress and focused on managing the Orpheum, which for decades ran as a popular show/movie house.

The Orpheum has survived changes of ownership and attempts to raze it, and today continues a long tradition of unique entertainment.

Source:

  1. Coconino Sun newspaper stories written between 1915-1917.