Orpheum Rising Project Helpers

O.R.P.H., Inc. is a non-profit group dedicated to re-vitalizing the Orpheum Theater Building in New Bedford, MA USA

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Orpheum Theater: a Brief History

Although she’s lost a bit of her original luster from neglect, there are few buildings in the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts that have contributed more to the history and culture of the area than the Orpheum Theatre and [French Sharpshooter’s Club], She is the last bastion of a proud neighborhood that was annihilated by urban renewal in 1960’s when buildings were bulldozed to make way for route 18, a new highway slicing through the City’s historic district.

The Orpheum opened on April 15th, 1912 at a very important time in American history. Little did the people know at the ”Grand Opening” that the Titanic would sink on that same night. This was just before World War I, when the City’s mills were busy, the economy was good even though the whaling industry was slowly declining.

The Orpheum was constructed under the ownership of The French Sharpshooter’s Club of New Bedford. This esteemed group operated a ballroom and armored shooting range in the building for nearly fifty years. Le Club des Francs-Tireurs had many events such as dances, benefits, and shooting tournaments. The Club was instrumental in raising and training recruits for both World Wars. The theatre was leased from the Sharpshooter’s to the Orpheum Circuit of Boston.

The Orpheum circuit was one of the largest vaudeville and variety franchises operating in the country. Founded by Martin Beck who discovered such stars as Houdini, Eddy Foy, Lili Langtry, and The Marx Brothers. The Orpheum circuit was in large part responsible for making vaudeville a more respected art form. before this time most shows were made for a mostly male audience, i.e.Wild West shows with dancing girls. Martin Beck turned it around to appeal to the “decent woman.” Many Orpheum theatres were richly decorated to copy the fancy Parisian opera houses. The theatre quickly became a place people went to see, or be seen.

The Orpheum not only presented stage shows, but they were great innovators in the motion picture industry. They would show movies, then named photoplays, inbetween acts. As the popularity for Vaudeville waned in the 1920’s, the motion picture industry was there to take it’s place and keep crowds packing in. The Orpheum Circuit had many mergers over the years and eventually became Radio-Keith-Orpheum, the RKO famous for films like “King Kong” and “Citizen Kane”. There were over 400 Orpheum linked theaters nationally. The ol Oí dest Orpheum Theater still operating is now called the Palace Theatre in Los Angeles. It opened on June 6th, 1911. New Bedford’s Orpheum opened one year later, and appears to be the second oldest in the country.

The New Bedford Orpheum’s location in the neighborhood was central to the community. Water Streert was completely lined with shops and stores integral to the adjoining neighborhoods. There was a busy trolley that ushered the residents from their homes to the mills, or the many other destinations. The theatre was a place many came to hear the latest events on the newsreels, or to catch up on the latest gossip. This area of Water Street was one of the City’s most diverse, being so close to the mills where many worked, it attracted many distinct ethnic groups. There were large pockets of French, Irish, Jewish, Hispanic, Polish, and Portuguese woven in to a strong community.

Right up to the time it closed the Orpheum was popular for it’s 25¢ matinees. There was another Theater that was destroyed right next to the Orpheum called the “Royal Theater”. There were actually 24 theaters in the city, now the only one still open is the Zeiterion




July 5th 1906 Charles O. Chartier purchases land and buildings from Henry E. Minkler for $2,500.00 Chartiers sells property to the Club of French Sharpshooters for One Dollar

June 10th, 190712 Louis E Destremps is chosen as Architect

Work begins on building Theater.

April 15th, 1912 {same day Titanic sinks} New Bedford Orpheum Theater opens

1913— 14

H.A. Chenoweth is hired as Theater manager, contract signed with the Orpheum Amusement Co. of Boston Building has large ballroom and shooting range operated by the Club of French Sharpshooters. Theater opens with 1500 seats,


Martin Beck of Orpheum Circuit merges with Benjamin Franklyn Keith and Edward Albee to form Keith—Albee – Orpheum Eventually these partnerships open over 400 theaters nationally Warner Brothers releases first talking movie “The Jazz Singer”


In one of the first hostile economic takeovers, Joseph Kennedy {Father of JFK}, bought 200,000 shares of Keith Albee Or pheum. Eventually forcing out director E.F. Albee. Kennedy then made all contracts for any performers mandatory that they also must do radio . This was a severe blow to the devout vaudevillians and an advent to the increasing popularity of motion pictures Radio Corporation of America {RCA} merges with The Keith Albee Orpheum conglomerate and Forms RKO { Radio Keith Orpheum} RKO agrees to distribute Walt Disney films

RKO releases “King Kong”

RKO Releases “Citizen Kane”

In 1948 RKO fell under new management as millionaire Howard Hughes bought a controlling interest in the studio. His ‘micro management’ of the studio would lead to its downfall. Hughes continued his systematic disruption and dismantling of the studio up through 1955 when he split it into two entities: RKO Pictures, Inc. and RKO Theatres, Corp. He then sold RKO Pictures to a subsidy of General Tire and Rubber. In 1959 the name changed again to RKO General, Inc. RKO General was notable not for what they produced but what they released, a massive backlog of movies and shorts were all sent to television. Then, when the last film was out the door, the studio was up for sale again. In 1959 the physical studios of RKO were sold to Desilu Productions as a place to produce ‘I Love Lucy’ among other shows. Unfortunately though the trend that Hughes had started of dividing and selling portions of the company continued for the next thirty years.

12/14 1962
The City of New Bedford takes control of the Orpheum Theater

2/5 1968
The Club of French Sharpshooter sells the title of the Orpheum to Antone “Peaches” Demello for $43,500.00

10/1 1971
Rose Lesco purchases New Bedford Orpheum

11/28 1988
Lesco Realty, Robert H. Lesco, Lesco Quality Corp.

Robert Lesco, Robert H. and Sherry M. Lesco

12/1 1998
Ignacio Diaz, Mariam Morel Diaz and Guido Realty Trust

Burgundy areas represent national Orpheum Circuit

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