During a performance at the Orpheum Theatre two years ago, Tony Bennett told musicians to put their instruments down, asked for all sound equipment to be turned off and sang “Fly Me to the Moon” a cappella.
Bennett told Vancouverites to hang on to their special theatre on Smithe Street downtown. His admonition is a good reminder as the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame runs tours of the 87-year-old Orpheum until the end of summer. Visitors will not only hear stories of the theatre’s history as a silent movie theatre and vaudeville house but also glimpse behind-the-scenes work this month in preparation for a new season in the fall.
The Courier went on the tour last Saturday and Rob Haynes, president of the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame and chair of the Vancouver Civic Theatres Board, welcomed visitors through the Granville Street entrance.
“This is the entrance you used to come to,” he said to longtime Vancouverites who attended shows as children.
Marcus Priteca, the theatre’s original architect, was concerned about designing the Orpheum affordably but lavishly.
“He went to picture books of what was going on in Europe and took bits from here, bits from there,” said Michael Noon, a retired architect and former managing director of the Chan Centre.
The focus was to create a “mystical land of dreams” despite a wide array of influences. “It could be if you let your mind wander,” said Haynes.
The tour treks from the bottom to the top of the Orpheum.
The chandelier is lowered and being repaired by scaffolding. It was once tended to by using tall ladders. The original projection room now houses spotlights. A concrete wall sealed the room from the house until 1974 as film was highly flammable and fires had to be put out often.
The case for a Charlie Chaplin film brought in for the Orpheum’s 85th anniversary sat in the corner and is about five feet in diameter.
“Isn’t that amazing?” said an elderly visitor. “Now the films are on little discs.”
In the dome of the Orpheum, behind the painted frescos, visitors can see the ceiling suspended by wires. When asked if the wires have been changed since 1927, Haynes said,
Guests were invited to try the organ on stage, which was originally raised by hydraulics. The organ was unintentionally lowered during intermissions due to water pressure to from the theatre’s toilets. It then had to be raised again.
As for the theatre’s bottom, Haynes admitted he believes in spirits. He had always felt a chilling presence in the downstairs men’s room that some tour visitors have asked him about.
Paranormal investigators claimed it was a former restroom attendant. Following their investigation, Haynes did not feel anything again.
Other spirits allegedly spotted over the years include an acrobat that fell to death on stage, a seated woman in a dress applauding and another woman who sits on the original coat check counter where usherettes gathered after performances to shoot the breeze.
Haynes was told by an investigator: “I don’t know who she is but she’s in a uniform and telling all sorts of stories.”
It’s a colourful history for a theatre that still hosts diverse acts today, from the symphony to bands like Alice in Chains, where, as Haynes says, “everyone is as drunk as skunks.”
Tours are Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11 a.m. until Aug. 30. Visitors are urged to arrive 10 minutes early or better yet to make a reservation by phone as large groups often make bookings. Admission is a $10 donation to the hall of fame.