In 1915, William J. Olson, owner of the Gaiety Theatre at the corner of Cherry and Simmons Streets, engaged the prominent architectural firm of C.W. & George L. Rapp to break ground for the Orpheum Theatre. The Rapp brothers were making waves with their philosophy that a theatre should be "a shrine to democracy where the wealthy rub elbows with the poor."


Their free blend of Italian Renaissance and Second Empire style of 19th century France with flourishes of classical, baroque and art nouveau gave the Orpheum an eclectic elegance.  The Orpheum was budgeted at an astonishing $75,000, but when finished wound up costing over $135,000.


Built as a vaudeville house, The Orpheum hosted many early stars of stage and screen, including Jack Benny, George Burns, Houdini, Al Jolson, Edgar Bergen, Fanny Brice and Blackstone the Magician.  The Orpheum was the finest in construction, acoustics, and accommodations, but as was the fate of most palaces of the era, the Orpheum's splendor could not withstand the demise of vaudeville and the rising popularity of television.  

By the late 1970s, the Orpheum was part of the Kerasotes movie theater conglomerate. Due to high operating costs, the Orpheum was forced to close in 1982. The theatre was donated by the Kerosotes Company to the Knox County Civic Center Authority and a successful fund drive by the Prairie Players Civic Theatre raised $100,000 to restore the Orpheum to its former glory. A $2-million grant from the State of Illinois made the plan a reality. On May 5, 1988, the curtain rose on the Henry Mancini Orchestra for the re-inauguration gala.


Today, the Orpheum continues to reflect its former glory, bringing to the stage a diverse blend of the finest entertainment including Mickey Rooney, Collin Raye, the Doobie Brothers, Glen Miller Orchestra, Bo Diddley, The Acting Company and the Russian National Ballet companies. The theatre is also home to many local performing arts and non-profit organizations that bring music, movies, dance and theatre to our stage.


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