The first picture shown in the theater was Cecil B. DeMille’s classic “The Affairs of Anatol.” While the 1500 seat theater could stage live shows, it was the movies which packed them in night after night and which would eventually run the competition out of business.
Situated on the southwest corner of the town square, the elegant building featured sophisticated and unusual creature comforts for its day. Huge fans directed fresh air over blocks of ice, cooling the 1,500 movie goers and stage shows offered live entertainment. Such extravaganzas as the Ziegfeld Follies, Harry Houdini and star soprano of the Metropolitan Opera, Anna Case, performed to a “standing room only” audience once.
In 1927, with the advent of talking pictures, the owners spent $10,000 to outfit the theater with an elaborate sound system to faithfully reproduce Al Jolson’s voice in “The Jazz Singer”. While 1939 was considered the best year for American cinema, it also proved a banner year for the Orpheum, which was selected above all others for the Southern Illinois premier of “Gone with the wind.” When the restored version came out in 1990, it was shown again as it had been in 1939.
In 1942, a young man by the name of Ray Reynolds began working as a projectionist at the Orpheum, which began an almost 50 year love affair with the theater. Except for a stint during WWII, Reynolds maintained a close association with the theater. While he was able to witness the theater in its heyday, he also saw its decline as competition came from the introduction of the television set. Theaters were no longer able to draw the numbers of patrons required to remain profitable. “Financially, the owners couldn’t even afford to pay the help,” Reynolds said. In the last four or five years owners changed hands nearly every quarter. Eventually, not even enough people would come to run the movies.
The death-knell came when the Bi-county Health Department informed the last owners, the Mann Theater Company from Kansas City, that they couldn’t let the place stay filthy as it was and allow people in.
In 1971, the Orpheum Theatre which had served as a movie/vaudeville theatre for fifty years was forced to close its doors.
The city of Marion purchased the property in 1973 for $15,000 and was going to turn it into a city parking lot. Mayor Robert Butler was approached by a group of citizens led by Jaclyn Hancock who expressed an interest in wanting to save the building. When the building was inspected and found to be structurally sound, the city appropriated $140,000 toward renovating the building.
The theatre building and the restoration was unveiled to the public on August 16, 1974 with the Miss Southern Illinois Pageant. The Marion Cultural and Civic Center, as it is was named, booked a variety of acts including children’s plays, travelogues and gospel music groups. Later in 1993, Sam LaSusa’s shoe shop, next door to the theater in Paradise Alley, was donated to the city and incorporated into the building which added another 1,400 square feet of space. This added an advance ticket sales office, lobby expansion and new restrooms. Initially, Mike Bennett was hired as director but after a career change, Ray Reynolds assumed the position which he held for years.
On March 10, 1997, a local misguided citizen decided to deprive the city of its fine theater building and set it on fire with the result being a total loss. Over the next few years, the city bought the lots on the east of the Orpheum to South Market. A groundbreaking ceremony for a new Marion Cultural and Civic Center was held on March 10, 2002. The new civic center held its first event in May 2004.
Sam’s Notes: I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the Orpheum Theater strikes a close place in my heart. Anyone who grew up in Marion from the 1920’s to the 1990’s surely miss this landmark. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, I vividly remember “the Serials” like Abbot and Costello, the Three Stooges, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and many more which were shown every Saturday afternoon at the “Matinee”. Those hot summer days when you could relax in the cool air of the theater and then at the end where you push out the side doors onto the square and the smell of popcorn at W.T. Grants, the fountain at Parks Pharmacy and the candy, chocolate and nut selection just inside the door of F.W. Woolworths. The theater, still in those days, often held live shows and appearances. I still have a picture of myself when I was about 7 taken backstage with “Little Jimmy Dickens” and my sisters got their pictures taken with “Gabby Hayes”. Both of them western attractions of the day. There were special fright night spook shows, circus acts and magic shows. More often than you could imagine, the crowd would get rowdy and the show would have to be stopped and stearn warnings given by the theater management before the show could be commenced. For a couple of decades through my era the theater was managed by Erman Alred. He was always stone faced, impeccably dressed and intolerant of tomfoolery. In those days of segregation, a section of the balcony was reserved for “people of color”. It was usually occupied, however, with young guys who would rather loft things down into the audience below and of course, couples who desired “privacy” sought solace in the balcony as well.
Note: This building is referenced in Historical Architecture of Marion
See also, additional Opheum Theater Notes from 1971
(Photos and data from Historic Architecture of Marion Illinois, Marion Cultural and Civic Center, Sesquicentennial History article written by Rob Wick, Williamson County Historical Society, Yearbooks; compiled by Sam Lattuca on 12/27/2012)