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March 19, 2014 | by  |  This Day In Vancouver


On the heels of an unprecedented letter-writing campaign, a lengthy “Save the Orpheum” drive, and a city feasibility study, Vancouver city council votes 10 to 1 to purchase the historicOrpheum Theatre, thus rescuing it from being gutted by Famous Players and turned into a multiplex.

“Mayor Art Phillips told council the federal government has agreed to put up $1 million toward the $3.9-million purchase price and will put up a further $1 million for renovations,” reports the Vancouver Sun. “The only dissenting vote came from Ald. Harry Rankin who said he was not disputing the desirability of the city having another theatre. He said his quarrel was with council’s sense of priorities in spending the sum involved when there are many other needs that clamour for money.”

The Orpheum (originally known as “The New Orpheum”) has been a city institution since its construction in 1927. Originally a vaudeville house, it was later purchased by Famous Players and transformed into a movie theatre. However, the news that the corporation was planning to gut the building’s interior and create multiple auditoriums caused a massive public outcry and gave birth
to the “Save the Orpheum” campaign.

“When word of Famous Players’ plans for the theatre reached the public, City Hall was inundated with 8,000 letters from citizens, with only ten of them in favour of the destruction,” former Orpheum manager Ivan Ackery will later recall in his memoirs. “The others were shocked, angry, pleading. Two petitions bore 1,000 signatures. Never before had the city had such an overwhelming reaction to the impending loss of an old building. Even Christ Church Cathedral, which is a beloved and historic site, inspired only 300 letters to prevent its destruction.”

The campaign (which will include a fundraiser by none other than Jack Benny) will result in a commitment of $2 million from the federal government, with the city contributing the remainder of the $7.1 million sale, and the intention being to transform the movie house into a new civic theatre. Despite receiving no provincial assistance, the renovations will proceed, and the Orpheum will reopen in 1977 as the permanent home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

It will be designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1979.
IMAGE: The construction of The Orpheum, 1927. Image Courtesy of the Vancouver Archives.

Jesse Donaldson is a journalist and historian whose work has appeared in VICE, The Tyee, subTerrain, and SadMag. If you think THIS is neat, an expanded "This Day In Vancouver", is now available in book form, in bookstores everywhere, and online at Anvil Press.


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