Saint Louis, MO

Uncovering The Orpheum: a St. Louis theatre over 100 years old

CJ Coombs
Front of the American Theater, fka Orpheum Theatre, and nka Roberts Orpheum Theatre, St. Louis, Missouri.Photo byNyttend, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This theatre in St. Louis is historic. It was built in 1917. The architectural style is Beaux-Arts. The architect was Albert Lansburgh. Louis A. Cella, a local self-made millionaire and a story in itself, built this theatre at 416 North Ninth Street in St. Louis, Missouri.

When the theatre opened on Labor Day, 1917, it was a vaudeville house, but as vaudeville was declining, the theatre was leased to Warner Brothers in 1930. From then on until the 1960s, it functioned as a movie theatre and venue for concerts and other events.

When the theatre was restored in the 1980s, it was renamed the American Theatre. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on March 18, 1985, under that name which was decades before being returned to the Orpheum name. No other names either current or previous, were included on the nomination form.

The Orpheum Theatre

This historic theatre is at the southeast corner of Ninth and St. Charles Streets in Downtown St. Louis, Missouri.

Located on the southeast corner of Ninth and St. Charles Streets in downtown St. Louis, this three-story steel theatre was constructed of concrete and faced with buff terra cotta. Buff terra cotta has some advantages, including being fire-resistant, durable, and easy to mold.
One of the front entrances.Photo byAcme Photo/NRHP Nomination Form.

There are male and female terra cotta figures holding masks at the street-level entrances. These figures served as atlantes supporting a metal canopy.

The term atlantes is the Greek plural of the name Atlas—the Titan who was forced to hold the sky on his shoulders for eternity. (Source.)

The Orpheum Theater was completed in 1917 next to the Statler Hotel. The person who steered the project of the theatre was Louis A. Cella of St. Louis. He already had experience with theatrical enterprises with financial interests in seven local theaters including a couple of vaudeville franchises.

When Cella died in 1918, his skills had already built a vast fortune. When the theatre opened on Labor Day in 1917, it joined over 24 theatres in the Orpheum circuit, one of the country's oldest and largest vaudeville companies.

The architecture of this theatre in its day must have amazed theatergoers. The designer of the building, Gustave Albert Lansburgh, was from San Francisco. His work in theatre design gained national attention. His first Orpheum commission in Los Angeles was in 1910. By 1916, Lansburgh had provided plans for seven theatres in the Orpheum circuit including one in Kansas City, Missouri which has been demolished.
Some of the details on the theatre building.Photo byBirgitteSB, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The historic theatre in St. Louis had a modern ventilating system and up-to-date electrical equipment. Publicity in the press of St. Louis praised the building. The auditorium was spacious with its wide aisles.

The incredible ornament on the theatre was designed by an Italian sculptor named Leo Lentelli who was working in Rome before coming to New York to assist American sculptors. His sculptures appeared in libraries, the Rockefeller Center, and statues. His large impressive figures can be seen in front of the American Theatre.

The vaudeville era was in its last chapter with this historic theatre in St. Louis. During the 1920s, two luxury movie palaces were in place. The Loew's State was one of them, but only part of its lobby remains. The Ambassador Theatre was another which is also listed on the National Register.

Vaudeville entertainment was eventually replaced with motion pictures. In the mid-1930s, what was originally called the Orpheum was leased to Warner Brothers as a movie theatre.

Loew's Inc. leased the theatre from 1943 to 1960, at which time the theatre was refurbished and opened as the American Theatre. At the time the theatre was nominated for the National Register, it was still owned by descendants of Louis Cella.

When Michael and Steve Roberts acquired the theatre in 2003, they named it the Roberts Orpheum Theater. Events and concerts returned to the state in 2005.

In late 2016, the theatre was acquired by Jubilee World Inc. which was to complete final restorations to reopen as The Orpheum. Restoration is ongoing. Visit here to see more images.

Thanks for reading.

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Multi-genre writer and author/publisher with a BA in Eng Journalism/Creative Writing. I worked in law firms for 30+ years and retired early to pursue writing. I was born into the Air Force, so you could say I'm from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri. I love family, research, history, true crime, reading, art, and travel.

Kansas City, MO

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