OPERATION TIME: 1890 to present
The Grande Opera House was built in 1890 on the corner of Main and Beale Street, and was deemed “the classiest theatre outside of New York City”. In 1907, it became part of the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit, which prompted the theater to be renamed the Orpheum Theatre. For nearly two decades, vaudeville remained popular and successful, drawing in large crowds.
Tragedy struck when twelve-year-old Mary was killed in an accident outside of the Orpheum Theatre in 1921. Two years later, a fire broke out during a show with singer Blossom Seeley, and the theater burned to the ground. It was rebuilt on the original site of The Grand in 1928 at the cost of $1.6 million. It was double the size of the old theater, and it featured new decorations and a Wurlitzer pipe organ.
In 1940, the Orpheum Theatre was purchased by the Malco movie theater chain, where they presented first-run movies. The theater remained in use until 1976, when Malco sold the building. Demolition was in store for the Orpheum, as there was talk of building an office complex in its place. However, the Memphis Development Foundation purchased it the following year, and they brought Broadway productions and concerts back to the theater.
On Christmas, 1982, a $4.7 million renovation project began to restore the Orpheum Theatre to how it looked back in 1928. A grand reopening took place in January 1984. Having survived all of its bankruptcies, a disastrous fire, and the threat of demolition, the Orpheum rose above it all to become a premier performing arts center. Called “The South’s Finest Theatre”, it presents more Broadway touring productions on an average annual basis than any other theater in the country.
Actor Yul Brynner, who was reputedly very psychic, saw the apparition of Mary, dressed in a 1920s style dress, sitting on the balcony in her favorite seat (CF). This was during the time that “The King and I” was playing – a play that Brynner was acting in. Cast members of “Fiddler on the Roof” spotted her in the same seat, seemingly enjoying the show; on opening night, a few of the actors and actresses held a séance on the balcony and actually made contact with Mary.
A woman and her fellow theater-goers witnessed Mary’s apparition, whom they described as “a 12-year-old girl in an old-fashioned white dress dancing in the lobby”. Before their eyes, she appeared and subsequently vanished. Mary also made her presence known to a theater workman and a housekeeper. While she never made an appearance in either situation, the workman described the sensation of her presence as a “cold, eerie feeling, like getting into a bathtub of cold liver”. As for the housekeeper, she played pranks on him by taking his tools and throwing them in the toilet.
Other workmen reported seeing a theater door burst open in an outward direction, then proceed to shut itself without the assistance of a living person or wind. Late one night, a repairman was working on a malfunctioning organ. He became frustrated and decided to take a coffee break. Having locked everything up, he was surprised to find upon his return that an unseen entity had fixed the organ.
On a different night, the night watchman accidentally locked up a vagrant man in the 5th-floor gallery. The watchman was startled when he heard the sound of a terrified scream and footsteps running down five flights of stairs in the total darkness. The homeless man burst through the front doors, knocking them off their hinges. It is unknown what he saw that frightened him. In another instance, the theater’s alarm went off, and police with canine units arrived to investigate. The highly trained dogs refused to enter the building, unwilling to budge as if they sensed some sort of presence that the human handlers didn’t.
In Popular Culture
- The Orpheum Theatre was featured on Most Terrifying Places in America 7.
- Wikipedia. “Orpheum Theatre (Memphis),” www.Wikipedia.org
- Haunted Houses. “Orpheum Theatre,” www.HauntedHouses.com