Orpheum Alive with Vaudeville

Video to Help Raise Restoration Funds
NEW BEDFORD — For a few hours Saturday, the deteriorating Orpheum Theatre regained some of the charm and energy with which it opened in 1912.
Men in top hats and women in flowing dresses hurried through the foyer, smiling and whispering to each other excitedly on their way to a vaudeville performance.
Those well-dressed patrons were the real performers though — extras who will fill scenes in an upcoming documentary intended to raise awareness about the historic theater and money for its restoration.
Director Lance Gunberg of New Bedford said he was inspired to make the documentary after he toured the South End theater last year and met with O.R.P.H. Inc., a non-profit group dedicated to the theater’s restoration. When the film is completed early next year, it will air on local cable access and copies of it will be sent to prospective investors.
“I wanted to do a video piece to help raise money for this theater. Restoration is really a major undertaking,” Mr. Gunberg said as he adjusted his camera for a scene.
A complete restoration would cost $10 million, according to Charles Hauck, president of O.R.P.H. Inc. Mr. Hauck said he wants the theater to reopen by April of 2012, in time for its hundredth birthday, but much work needs to be done.
The theater — out of use for nearly 50 years — must be made handicapped accessible, the leaky roof needs to be fixed and parts of the interior, victims of mold and the passage of time, need cleaning and repair, Mr. Hauck said.
“To know that something like this is here and not do anything about it would be like doing the same thing to City Hall or the public library,” Mr. Hauck said as he wiped dust off the theater seats. “If we can get the theater restored, it could be one of the shining places in the city.”
Richard Langlois, who is producing the film with Mr. Gunberg, said the theater has been forgotten by many local people who speed past it daily on Route 18. The red and gray brick structure is one of the few historic buildings still standing in the neighborhood. Its giant windows have long been boarded up, but six original stone-carved faces known as the muses still peer out at the city from the front of the building.
“I always thought, if this building comes down, I want to be there to catch one of those heads when the wrecking ball hits. I imagine I’m not the only one,” Mr. Langlois said.
The theater was just one of the many across the country owned by the Orpheum Circuit to showcase travelling vaudeville acts and later, to show films.
The Orpheum Theatre in New Bedford is believed to be the second oldest in the country, next to the Palace Theatre in Los Angeles, Mr. Hauck said. That fact alone should be enough reason to reopen it, according to Raul Diaz, general manager of Central Foods Market, which occupies the bottom floor of the building on South First Street.
“There are two of these things in the United States — one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast. It’s a shame to see it go to waste,” he said.
Mr. Diaz’s family owns the property.
Mr. Gunberg said he still has to interview people in the restoration group and others with connections to the theater before the film is released in January. He also plans to incorporate into his documentary footage of vaudeville performers shot by Thomas Edison’s film company at the turn of the century.
As for what he shot at the Orpheum Saturday, Mr. Gunbeg said he will edit the footage so that the performers fade away as they walk through the theater, just like ghosts.
New Bedford Standard-Times
September 07, 2008

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