What is “Vaudeville”?

The Orpheum/Arcade in 1916.

The Orpheum/Arcade in 1916.

The Liberty Theatre was originally opened in 1910 as the Orpheum Theatre and became the Arcade in 1915. In those early days the theater housed primarily live performances and a few silent films.  If you have ever taken a tour of the Liberty Theatre, you may have heard that the theater was originally a “vaudeville house.”

The Vaudeville genre was much like a variety show with comedy sketches, music, dance and possibly even a bit of burlesque, though the latter is probably less likely in the case of the Orpheum/Arcade. Most of the acts were unrelated and strung together for an evening of entertainment. The performances usually appealed to the working and middle class likely as a result of both content and the cost to attend, 15 and 25 cents (about $3.80 and $6.40 in today’s dollars).

Vaudeville was popular throughout the beginning of the 20th century, though its origins date back to 1860 and earlier. It was different from other live performances because shows were often comprised of touring groups rather than local performers.  Many of these groups toured in circuits. One particular circuit was the “Orpheum Circuit” which stretched from coast to coast but had its early roots in San Fransisco. Financiers built Orpheum theaters all over the country to house touring performers. Our La Grande Orpheum was not among these theaters but rather, taking on the popular name of the time.

The Isis Theater, just one of the many silent movie houses in turn-of-the-century La Grande.

The Isis Theater, just one of the many silent movie houses in turn-of-the-century La Grande.

Before the Orpheum was built, there were many theaters in La Grande including The Dime, The Scenic, The Electric, The Pastime, The Isis and The Lyric. The largest and most notable of these was Steward’s Opera House which opened in 1890 and closed in 1913. Steward’s Opera House was the only theater with enough space to stage performances but even then, it lacked adequate means for staging touring performances.

The Orpheum opened November 1910 to rave reviews. The La Grande Observer reported, “Vaudeville will make its second debut in La Grande next Monday night when the finest vaudeville house in the Northwest, size of the town considered, will be thrown open.” The Observer reported that the theater would seat 632 comfortably and was “equipped with water toilets and every convenience.” It is debatable how “convenient” we would find 4 toilets for 632 people today!

A fly loft was added later to increase the amount of space and facilities for larger acts but by the late 1920s, entertainment was beginning to shift. With the revolutionary “talkies” came a reduced audience attending live performances. By 1940 the Liberty was showing almost all films with the occasional school play serving as the live performance.

As a whole, vaudeville itself was fading by the late ’20s. Most theaters built for the purpose converted their facilities to show films. Some famous performers went on to try their hand at film and radio but most faded into obscurity. Vaudeville itself had an heavy influence on the kinds of entertainment viewers watched on the big screen but the art of the live performance was mostly gone.

The Liberty Theatre closed in 1959 after the TV became a fixture in most people’s homes. (That is a blog for another day.) Fortunately, most of the structures, such as the stage and the fly loft, were untouched. When the Liberty reopens it will become a home for live performance once again, reawakening our community to the fun and joy that comes with a live production.

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Sources:

Liberty Theatre National Trust for Historic Places Application, Narrative. June 5, 1999

“Orpheum Circuit” Wikipedia.com

“Vaudeville” Wikipedia.com

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