by Jonathan Wright
The Orpheum Theatre was once "Peoria’s vaudeville palace"—one of the city’s big four vaudeville houses at the peak of the vaudeville era—but its reign lasted a mere 16 years.
With research assistance from the Peoria Public Library Local History Department, we dug into some of the old advertisements and news clippings from the Peoria Orpheum Theatre’s time as a vaudeville house (1911-1927), as well as some interesting stories just before the grand old structure met its demise in January 1952.
Peoria's new Orpheum Theatre was built by the Leisy brothers, owners of the Leisy Brewery. In 1911, they were producing 350,000 barrels of beer a year, Illinois' largest producer outside of Chicago. Jobst & Son were the contractors. One of Jobst's bricklayers,who worked on the construction of the Orpheum, was future radio star Charles Correll of "Amos n' Andy."
With the opening of the Orpheum in 1911, Peoria officially landed on the national Orpheum Circuit. Founded in 1886, the Orpheum Circuit was a chain of vaudeville and (later) movie theaters. In 1927 it merged with the Keith-Albee theater chain, and later became part of the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) corporation.
Among the acts seen on the February 1921 advertisement below is Bill Robinson (1878–1949), an actor and tap dancer, one of the most popular African-American entertainers of the early 20th century. Other stars who played at the Orpheum, according to newspaper accounts, included Will Rogers, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, Fannie Brice and Clark Gable (back when he was a stock actor).
Located on Madison Street in downtown Peoria, the building was designed by architects Hewitt & Emerson. The same firm designed numerous other iconic Peoria structures, including the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Memorial Hall; Peoria Cordage Company rope mill building (now Prairie Center of the Arts); Hotel Pere Marquette; John C. Proctor Recreation Center; and YWCA Building; as well as the Carl Herget Mansion in Pekin.
Below, various advertisements for vaudeville at the Orpheum, both from 1916. Cost of the shows ranged from 10 cents to 30 cents. "The Naughty Princess" was a farcical operatta in five acts written by William B. Friedlander, billed as "a new, witty and entertaining musical comedy." Apparently the show was eagerly anticipated in Peoria. Upon its opening, a local newspaper wrote: "The very thing the tired businessmen and vaudeville devotee have both been waiting for has at last been secured for Peoria."
Vaudeville listings from the January 30, 1921 edition of the Sunday Journal-Transcript, including the Orpheum, Hippodrome and Ascher's Palace, among other smaller houses of entertainment.
Sophie Tucker's Triumph
"Not only is Sophie Tucker the most popular comedienne upon the stage, but she is also the best gowned and the silver costume she wears in her current appearance at the Orpheum—the one with the butterfly wings and train, is a—literally—dazzling triumph of the modiste's art. Its shimmer and sheen is a fitting accompaniment to the brilliance of Miss Tucker's feature. She sings some and talks some with a peculiar naivete, a mannerism difficult of description but occult in the spell of merriment it weaves. Miss Tucker likes Peoria and Peoria likes Miss Tucker so that her infrequent visits develop into a mutual and enthusiastic admiration society. Crowded houses and big seat sales in advance prove how welcome she is, not to mention encore after encore…
Peoria Journal-Transcript, February 8, 1921
Below, vaudeville and movie listings from a January 1921 edition of the Peoria Journal. A Buster Keaton film is playing at the Apollo Theater; Fatty Arbuckle is "The Life of the Party" at the Madison Theater. The Orpheum's ad on this page is much smaller, perhaps a harbinger of what is to come…
The age of motion pictures proved to be the death knell of vaudeville. While some of Peoria's vaudeville houses became movie houses, the Orpheum was unable to make the transition (although it did show some early films, in addition to vaudeville acts). Research suggests that it closed on February 12, 1927, and never reopened. Below is an ad for the Great States Theater chain (which appears to have cornered the market on theatre entertainment in Peoria by this time) from the last week the Orpheum was open.
After the Orpheum closed, the building sat mostly vacant and inactive for more than two decades, used merely as a storehouse for memorabilia and out-of-date equipment from other theaters. In 1951, amidst the push for modernization and reform in Peoria, it was announced the building would be torn down to make way for a 55-car parking lot. It was demolished in January 1952.
Below right: One month before the Orpheum's demolition, police were called to the abandoned theater to investigate screams coming from within. "Patrolmen dashed into the room to find it filled with youths, some swinging wooden paddles with gusto while those on the receiving end were yelling loudly. The officers soon learned it was a Bradley University fraternity initiation."