Arts & Culture / Mosaic / Theater / September 17, 2008

Orpheum Theater has rich history

Nestled into its corner on Kellogg Street, the Orpheum Theater has seen big acts and glamorous parties as well as years of vacancy and still serves as a venue for countless performing acts throughout the year.

Originally built in 1916 by C.W. and George Rapp out of Chicago, the theater cost $135,00 to construct and stood as a house for vaudeville acts. Fresh with a French second empire-style façade on the interior, the stage was framed by a proscenium arch and Corinthian columns to boast of grandeur. Later, an Italian Renaissance plaster frieze was constructed in the mezzanine.

George Rapp hoped the theater he helped construct would grow into “a veritable house of enchantment where the poor could rub elbows with the rich,” a place where all people could go enjoy the most popular acts of the day.

The Orpheum played host to several well-known entertainers, including Harry Houdini, George Burns, Jack Benny, Fanny Brice and the Marx Brothers. In fact, according to Groucho Marx, he was at Galesburg’s Orpheum Theater when he was first started using the name “Groucho.” Performers at the Orpheum often spent the night at a hotel connected to the theater called The Hotel Custer, which is now the Kensington.

Perhaps one of the grandest moments at the Orpheum was a movie premier. The film “Those Were the Days (at Good Old Siwash)” chose the theater as a debut location, bringing Hollywood to Galesburg. The movie was based on the (director’s) experiences as an undergraduate at Knox.

A baby grand piano was first positioned in the theater to accompany the acts and was followed by a pipe organ until movies with sound, or “talkies,” began to show there. The Orpheum’s usefulness went into decline shortly thereafter until it closed in 1982.

With help from the local community, the Orpheum opened its doors again in 1988 and was put on the National Register of Historical Places in 1989. The Prairie Players Theater Organization played a huge part in fundraising and updating the theater. Since then, the theater has played regular host to the Prairie Players, the Knox/Galesburg Symphony and Rootabaga Jazz Festival.

In the recent past, country musicians, the Jordanaires, Beatlemania and the Rocky Horror Picture Show have all played in the theater.

Laura Miller

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