Flagstaff has had its share of opera houses, movie theaters, dance halls and other entertainment venues through the years, but only one has stood the test of time and endures as an icon of Flagstaff ’s vibrant downtown landscape. Located on the site of a former chicken yard, the Orpheum Theatre’s presence—one might say its personality—is one that triggers even the casual visitor to utter, “If only these walls could talk.” For a century, it has been a center for the performing and cinematic arts in Flagstaff.
The Orpheum traces its history back to Flagstaff pioneer and community builder John Weatherford. After Weatherford opened his hotel at the corner of Aspen Avenue and Leroux Street on January 1, 1900, he soon looked to make use of the empty lot to the west. Responding to his customers’ yearning for fresh eggs, he erected an eight-foot-high fence around the lot and ran a chicken farm. According to Flagstaff historian Joe Meehan, this venture was short-lived, “Weatherford found out you had to heat chickens in the winter, and so he had a sale on chicken dinners and that was the end of the chicken yard.”17
A decade later, Weatherford conceived another use for the site, one that would endure much longer than a chicken farm. Movies were becoming wildly popular at the time, and he decided to capitalize on this craze by building Flagstaff ’s first dedicated cinema house. Weatherford opened the Majestic Theatre on October 27, 1911, and formed a team that, by 1913, consisted of John Costigan and Lee Smith. Business was good until December 31, 1915, when a heavy storm dumped five feet of snow on Flagstaff and resulted in the collapse of the Majestic and other buildings.
Weatherford planned to rebuild the theatre but Costigan and Smith didn’t want to wait for this to happen. They preferred to keep the operation running, so they rented space in the McMillan Building, which was a block south of Weatherford’s hotel, as a temporary location for the Majestic. They began showing movies just a week after the storm and continued doing so for several weeks. Costigan soon bought out Smith and found a larger, more permanent site: the Babbitts’ old garage, which was located on the present site of Heritage Square. On this site on March 3, 1916, he opened the new Empress Theatre.
The following month, Weatherford began work on his own, new theatre, which was much larger than the original Majestic. Since Costigan had taken the name with him and used it while operating at the McMillan Building, Weatherford needed a new name for his theatre, and chose Orpheum after the Greek musician and poet.
Some of the details of the Orpheum’s history get a little hazy at this point with some reports indicating the grand opening was on August 3, 1917. However, in keeping with the tradition of many western tales, this does not appear to be accurate. Newspaper accounts from the time show that, under the management of John Barncord, the Orpheum opened on August 31, 1916 and was hosting regular programming by October. According to a story in the August 25, 1916 edition of the Coconino Sun, as Barncord readied to open the Orpheum he said, “The new show house is one of the best and most complete for its size in the southwest, with a capacity that will answer for time to come.”18
For the next several months, the Orpheum and Empress competed for business with each advertising program in the Coconino Sun. The Orpheum, which seated twice as many as the 350-seat Empress, eventually won out. On August 4, 1917, John Costigan purchased the lease from Barncord to operate the Orpheum, and at the same time, closed the Empress.
The ensuing century proved Barncord’s words were prescient, and the Orpheum’s capacity certainly answered for some time to come. Movies, plays and musical performances were augmented by fundraisers, war bond sales and other community-centered activities. For years, these efforts were driven by Costigan’s sister, Mary, who initially helped John run the operation but eventually took over management when his health failed.
Mary was a gifted promoter and woman of many talents. In the mid- 1920s, she became the first female, licensed radio broadcaster in Arizona,and according to some reports, in the nation. She set up the radio station KFXY in the Orpheum, and on December 10, 1925, Flagstaff ’s first radio program was broadcast.
This tradition of entertainment and community-centered activity continued at the Orpheum through 1999 when, to the dismay of many residents, it closed. The facility remained closed for three years until Chris Scully entered the picture. Scully recalled that, by that point in his
life, he had seen some 120 Grateful Dead rock-and-roll concerts, as well as another 500 performances by other bands.19 He had also spearheaded Flagstaff ’s New Year’s Eve and New Millennium celebration just as the Orpheum was closing. He was a man that was clearly passionate about music, and in 2002, he partnered with Turney Postlewait, Art
Babbott and Neil Nepksy to lease the Orpheum and reopen it as an entertainment venue.
The Orpheum’s tradition as a premiere entertainment venue and as a site for hosting fundraisers was able to continue. In this new era, these efforts resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars for everything from relief for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and several natural disasters in Haiti to the Hometown Heroes benefit in support of humanitarian efforts in Nicaragua and a local suicide prevention program called We Care.
Another fundraiser held at the Orpheum, for Lowell Observatory, featured Alan Stern, who was the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission that flew by Pluto in 2015. The Orpheum was chosen as the site for the event because it was here, on February 18, 1930, that Clyde Tombaugh watched Gary Cooper star in the movie The Virginian just hours after Tombaugh had discovered Pluto at Lowell Observatory.
A century of entertainment, fundraisers, radio broadcasts and celebrations—that’s quite a history for a site that started out as a chicken yard.
This excerpt on the history of The Orpheum Theater comes from the book Historic Tales of Flagstaff by Kevin Schindler and Miahael Kitt. To read more about the early days of Flagstaff, visit amazon to purchase the paperback book.