Adventures: Shooting the Orpheum

A behind-the-scenes tour reveals new facets of Vancouver's grand theatre.

The Orpheum auditorium seen from the Projection Room. A star in its own right.

VANCOUVER, B.C. – Despite rusty singing and dancing skills (putting it politely), I sauntered confidently onto Vancouver’s vintage Orpheum Theatre stage last week. No one applauded.

When Vancouver PhotoWalks, an online photography MeetUp, reserved a private two-hour tour to ‘shoot’ the interior of this historic Vancouver landmark the signup list instantly evolved into a waiting list.

Pre-shoot info from fearless leaders, Rob and Kelly, said: “A chance to photograph the lobbies, the theatre, the back-stage, the basement, the dressing rooms, the mezzanines, grand staircases, colonnades, arcades, murals, and other details in Baroque and Moorish revival styles, such as golden ornament, plasterwork, stonework, coffered ceilings and many crystal chandeliers. Bring tripods and a wide angle lens”. Those who made the cut were not disappointed. by Rob Haynes, Chair of Vancouver Civic Theatres Board, President of BC Entertainment Hall of Fame and keeper of the Orpheum keys, we were locked in and, as promised, given carte blanche to click from foyer to dome.

Although now home to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the Vancouver Bach Choir and the Vancouver Chamber Choir, the Orpheum originally opened in 1927 as a vaudeville house.

In 1973 a public outcry saved the theatre from demolition, forcing the City of Vancouver to purchase the property from Famous Players for $3.9 million. The skill of architect Paul Merrick, plus an injection of an additional $3.2 million, ensured the show would go on. Now managed by Van Civic Theatres, it was refurbished in 2009, and is a designated National Heritage Site.

Opulently garbed in claret red seats (2,672 of them) and matching surrounding drapery, over 160 Czech crystal chandeliers highlight theatre details, such as the period dome, soaring colonnades and grand staircases. A warm combination of burnished gold and black tie the delightfully over-the-top confection together.

Spicing things up a bit (as any self-respecting historic structure should) are rumours of resident ghosts.

Lounging against the Coat Check, Haynes tells me a rather outgoing lass (a flapper?) has been spotted perched on the counter laughing and holding court during a long-gone intermission.

From an era when smoking cigars was only allowed in the Gents, a fellow used to encountered smoking in there, but rumour has it he may have moved on.

The theatre houses many secrets, but, for me, one of the best was when Haynes told me every guy wire supporting the dome was tuned to a particular note by a violin bow. This was the only way at the time designers found they could ensure each wire was precisely taut to correctly hang, and support, the colourful artistry. Perhaps it aids the acoustics, too. A pulley system lowers the massive centre crystal chandelier for cleaning. in the Projection Booth gazing down across the plush expanse to the auditorium and stage, one has to recall the endless famous stars and entertainers who have delighted audiences down the years. Among my personal favourites were Louis Armstrong, Andrés Segovia, Victor Borge, Jack Benny, Susan Hayward, Mitzi Gaynor, W.C Fields, and the marvelous Nana Mouskouri.

[Dal Richards outside the projection room, and still on stage at the Orpheum. Ursula Maxwell-Lewis photo]

It was a pleasure and privilege to roam the Orpheum public and private areas, but Ron Haynes told me I’d never find the basement. Maybe next time…

Outside on Granville Street remember to glance down and read the famous names on the brass stars embedded in the Walk of Fame. That’s free – although the Smithe Street Orpheum entrance was created because that’s where the taxes were lower. That’s show business.

The cost for our group of 40 was $10 per person. Worth every plugged nickel.

For more information about the Orpheum, upcoming events, and to book group tours call 604-665-3050. Wheelchair accessible. The Orpheum entrances are 601 Smithe St. and 884 Granville. Closest Skytrain station is Granville St.

– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a British Columbia journalist and photographer. Contact her on Twitter @YouTravel

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