The triumph of the 1980s “Save the Orpheum” effort was just the beginning, leading to what’s been an entertaining but long wait for a full restoration into a fully functioning venue. But a newly released renovation feasibility study and anticipated $30 million fundraising campaign renew hopes for the future of the historic theater.
Involving architects from Wichita’s LawKingdon as well as New York City, the master plan proposes a six-phase project to restore, upgrade and expand the Orpheum, allowing the facility at First and Broadway to remain open during the first phase. Later phases would involve buying the adjoining office building; adding a lobby with concessions, bar and more restrooms; gutting the interior and re-sloping the steep auditorium floor; expanding the orchestra pit; installing new audio-visual equipment and lighting; and upgrading the stage floor and backstage area. The final $15 million phase not only would add stage, loading, storage and office space and dressing rooms but a 200-seat studio theater.
It’s a big, ambitious project – no doubt beyond the imagination of some of the volunteers who spared the Orpheum from the wrecking ball. And there will be concerns going forward, especially about whether the plans constitute more of a renovation than a restoration. Some will be skeptical of the modern aspects of the proposed changes, including a glassy pavilion entrance as part of the north-side addition. Certainly the alterations must not do anything to dishonor John Eberson’s 1922 “atmospheric” auditorium design, which was meant to make patrons feel as if they were sitting under the stars in an Andalusian garden.
But the 1,150-seat Orpheum has more than shown its potential to draw audiences by hosting 100 or so concerts, films and other events a year, as it’s seen $4.5 million contributed toward its operation and future since 2000. The elegant restoration of its historic entrance and even its restrooms has raised expectations for the Orpheum’s future look.
It badly needs comfortable seating and other audience amenities, though, as well as the backstage capabilities for the high-quality performances to help sustain it and secure its place in downtown’s rebirth. It would be especially welcome to see the Orpheum accommodate dance classes or other educational activities and resident groups, as mentioned in the feasibility study, turning an evening venue into a round-the-clock arts center and performance space.
“It will be a jewel, a show of civic pride,” an Eagle editorial promised in 1985, as the Orpheum’s volunteer champions took ownership of it and began what was hoped to be a two-year renovation.
What’s been lacking has been money.
It’s time to deliver on all the dreams for the Orpheum. The master plan and capital campaign will point the way. Businesses, foundations, individuals and, yes, governments should start thinking about how to help.