Orpheum Theatre: Polished to perfection

On the nights when he works an event held at the Orpheum Theatre, Steve Needleman — who owns the venerable theater at Ninth Street and Broadway — says he often is mistaken for a security guard.

“I’m wearing an Orpheum shirt, and I’m walking up and down with a radio,” Needleman explains, “and I’m telling people to get their feet off my seats.”

The pronoun and the pride of ownership are entirely fitting. Every square inch of the 87-year-old Orpheum — from the rugs to the light fixtures to the sound systems to the Wurlitzer organ to, yes, those soft-backed seats — is a reflection of Needleman’s family and of his civic legacy, and not simply because in 2001 he spent $3.5 million to renovate the venue. Where some of the other old movie houses on Broadway have fallen into serious disrepair and are no longer operational, the Orpheum has prevailed and lives to boast a busy lineup of concerts, pageants and movies. 

Needleman’s father, Jack, a well-known downtown businessman and philanthropist, bought the building more than 40 years ago. The theater was already leased to the Corwin family, operators of the Metropolitan Theatres Corp., who ran it for more than 65 years. In 2001, when the lease ran out, Steve Needleman undertook the renovation and took over the theater’s operation. 

The Orpheum’s facelift, which included the conversion of adjacent Fashion District space to apartments, was a transformation Jack Needleman had dreamed of but never lived to see. Bruce Corwin, who passed many an hour at the Orpheum with his own father, Sherrill Corwin, was delighted with the theater’s upgrade.

From the vintage neon on the marquee to the marble, dark woods and rococo chandeliers, the 2,000-seat theater is a grand dame of a building that is also a hugely functional performance space. 

“Steve did a wonderful job,” says Bruce Corwin, the current CEO of Metropolitan Theatres. “The theater has a great history, and I just want to see it continue forever.”

History, indeed. In the 1930s and ‘40s, during its days as a vaudeville house, the Orpheum hosted every performer who played the Los Angeles circuit: The Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen. Lena Horne set an Orpheum record, playing 26 weeks. According to Corwin, 28 cents bought a patron eight vaudeville acts and two movies.

Orpheum lore has it that Nat King Cole drew lines around the block for his stint at the theater. When Cole sought to double his $25-per-week fee, the Corwins let him move on and brought in the Will Mastin Trio, which included two adult performers and a singing and tap dancing 4-year-old boy. Sherrill Corwin thought that youngster might have a future, but as a hoofer.

“My dad told the kid, ‘You’re a great dancer, but don’t try to sing,’ ” Bruce Corwin recalls. “That kid’s name was Sammy Davis Jr.”

Despite having one of the oldest Wurlitzer organs on the West Coast, the Orpheum was never a silent movie house during the silent movie era. But the organ comes out on regular occasions, such as accompanying silent films during the annual Last Remaining Seats classic film series sponsored by the Los Angeles Conservancy. 

The arrival of television basically signaled the end of vaudeville, and the Orpheum started bringing in rock ’n’ roll acts while continuing as a movie house. It was among the first in the nation to offer first-run Spanish-language films or films with Spanish subtitles as well as blaxploitation films such as “Shaft,” according to Corwin. 

By the mid 1980s, surrounded by a clientele that did not always treat it kindly, the Orpheum was showing its age. Ed Kelsey, who took tickets during Last Remaining Seats screenings and picked up some extra money working film or TV shoots, became one of the founding members of the Friends of the Orpheum Theatre that formed in 1989. Looking to preserve and spruce up the theater, the Friends put on shows, replaced burnt-out light bulbs in the chandeliers and cleaned up the graffiti that appeared at the end of every weekend.  

Kelsey, now the Orpheum’s general manager and a board member of the League of Historic American Theatres, recalls the nearly wall-to-wall mass of clutter that would get stashed backstage because nobody ever threw anything out, as well as the bank of stand-up video game machines that lined the lobby, leaving scratches in the marble walls. 

 “Steve’s dad would always say, ‘Someday we’re going to renovate this theater, and you’re going to be part of it,’ ” Kelsey says. “There were years when we just dreamed something nice would happen to this theater, but it seemed like an impossible dream.”

Steve Needleman, who in his youth worked backstage at Beverly Hills High School, made that dream a reality. He saw in the Orpheum the opportunity to preserve an important part of the city’s cultural fabric. 

“I am not artistic in any way,” he says. “But the renovation gave me a kind of paint-by-the-numbers way to do something special and do it financially within reason. With Ed’s expertise, we spent my money pretty wisely and were able to bring something back to L.A.”

 In the 21st century, since the Orpheum’s rebirth, the theater has lured countless classic musical acts to the stage, from the Beach Boys to Lady Gaga and Yoko Ono. There have been more than concerts, too. Needleman has taken a fan’s delight in seeing the auditions for “So You Think You Can Dance” and the early seasons of “American Idol.” His backstage “fun wall” has photographs of the owner with stars who have graced the Orpheum stage.

The lineup is eclectic. A musical pageant for the Bais Yaakov School for Girls will bring in one kind of crowd while a Widespread Panic concert will entice a very different clientele. Upcoming performers include funnyman Dane Cook, guitarist Jack Johnson and the 1980s band Simple Minds. The Best in Drag Show, benefiting Aid for AIDS, is a spectacle not to be missed, Needleman says. 

The theater’s bread and butter comes about when it is featured in TV, commercial or film work, playing an old Hollywood movie house, a town hall or even Carnegie Hall in such projects as “The Artist,” “Dreamgirls,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “Spider-Man.”

Running the theater as he does — “old school,” with a small staff and with an emphasis on personal rather than corporate interaction — Needleman has little time to show off his theater to film or architecture students. During its historic theater tours, the L.A. Conservancy is occasionally permitted to take people through the lobby and into the theater itself, but only when a staff member happens to be available. 

But really, the most exciting way to experience the Orpheum is — naturally — as a member of the audience. 

“It’s hard to overstate how fabulous that space is,” says Annie Laskey, program manager of L.A. Conservancy. “It’s an incredible space with an incredible story.”