Flagstaff has seen its share of opera houses, movies theaters, dance halls and other entertainment venues come and go through the years, but one has stood the test of time, enduring for a century as a nexus for performing and cinematic arts. It is the Orpheum Theater, and this year, owners Chris Scully and Dr. Charles Smith are marking its centennial with a year-long celebration that will include special acts, a car show, block party and an exclusive IPA beer by the Grand Canyon Brewery that will be available only in Orpheum taps.
To people like Scully, this commemoration is about much more than a century of survival. It is about cultural identity, community impact and the basic human desire for recreation. “In life, we all strive for diversity, entertainment, moments of joy,” said Scully. “That’s what the Orpheum brings to Flagstaff, and that’s why we want to celebrate it.”
Scully knows a thing or two about celebrations. In 1999, he helped spearhead Flagstaff’s New Year’s Eve/new millennium festivity (paradoxically, that was the year the Orpheum closed). “That was a big stepping stone for me, and within three years I found myself about to enter the entertainment world on a full-time basis.”
In 2002, Scully partnered with Turney Postlewait, Art Babbott and Neil Nepksy to lease the Orpheum and reopen it after three years of dormancy. They all loved music and wanted to see the Orpheum returned to its days of glory. “It was really our passion for music and wanting to bring that to our community,” said Scully.
Today, the partnership consists of Scully and Smith. They now own the building. An improved parking lot, repainted building exterior and new pizza kitchen window are just some of the improvements they have made and more are on the way.
However, the core of the Orpheum continues to be its music, movies and other entertainment. Scully and Smith also host a variety of fundraisers. “We’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars for everything from Katrina relief and Haiti relief to the Hometown Heroes benefit in support of humanitarian efforts in Nicaragua.” They also host a fundraiser twice a year to support the local suicide prevention program, We Care.
This dual character of entertainment and community support dates back to the early days of the Orpheum and its founder, Flagstaff pioneer and community builder John W. Weatherford, whose legacy also includes such landmarks as the nearby Weatherford Hotel and Weatherford Trail on the San Francisco Peaks.
On Oct. 27, 1911, Weatherford opened the Majestic Opera House just west of his downtown hotel, leasing the operations to a team that by 1913 consisted of J.J. Costigan and Lee Smith. Business was good until Dec. 31, 1915, when a heavy winter storm dumped five feet of snow on Flagstaff, resulting in the collapse of many buildings, including the Majestic.
Weatherford planned to rebuild the theater but Costigan and Smith preferred to keep the operation running and so rented space in the McMillan Building as a temporary location for the Majestic. They began showing movies just a week after the storm and continued doing so for several weeks. Costigan soon bought out Smith and then found a larger, more permanent site, leasing the Babbitt garage (present site of Heritage Square). On this site on March 3, 1916, he opened the new Empress Theater.
The following month, Weatherford began building his new theater on the site of the original Majestic. Since Costigan had taken the name with him and used it while operating at the McMillan Building, Weatherford needed a new name for his theater and chose Orpheum, after the Greek musician and poet.
The Orpheum and Empress competed for business, with each advertising programs in the Coconino Sun. The Orpheum, which seated twice as many as the 350-seat Empress, eventually won out. On August 4, 1917, J.J. Costigan purchased the lease to operate the Orpheum, at the same time, closing the Empress.
In the ensuing years, movies, plays and musical performances were augmented by fundraisers, war bond sales and other community-centered activities. For a time, these efforts were driven by Costigan’s sister, Mary, who set up Flagstaff’s first radio station in the Orpheum in 1925.
The tradition of entertainment and community-centered activity still remains at the core of the Orpheum, now under the direction of Scully and Smith.
The goal continues to be to offer a multi-use facility with something for everyone in the community, says Scully. “Our tagline says we’re Northern Arizona’s premier entertainment venue, and that’s really our mission. The Orpheum has been a centerpiece of this community for 100 years, and we’re just trying to maintain that tradition.” FBN
By Kevin Schindler, FBN
Orpheum owner Chris Scully believes the Orpheum and its events add to Flagstaff residents’ quality of life.
Photo by Kevin Schindler