The Orpheum Theater: keeping the landmark standing

Photo courtesy of Bryan Kinkade

The Orpheum Theater has been a staple of downtown Flagstaff since the venue opened in 1917. It has served as a local hot spot for concerts, films, festivals and other events for residents and visitors to enjoy during its 103-year history. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the iconic theater had shut its doors in March after gatherings of over 10 people were banned.

General manager Susan Walter, who also serves as the theater’s event coordinator, said prior to the pandemic, the Orpheum produced around 250 events a year. These events ranged from local and national acts to community fundraisers. Now that holding live events is impossible, Walter said they’ve been livestreaming weekly since May in an effort to raise funds to keep the theater open. 

“Unfortunately, as generous as donations have been, they only scratched the surface of our monthly bills,” Walter said. “We are shifting gears and moving toward small paid tickets at events in the fall and will be posting events for students indoors and outdoors as the year progresses.”

When the Orpheum first closed, Walter had to immediately lay off more than 30 bartenders, security guards and box office employees. The remaining staff currently consists of a small team of four to five employees on reduced hours, Walter said.

When it comes to creating the virtual events the theater has been putting on, marketing director Molly Baker said the process hasn’t been very difficult. However, the switch to an online format meant their team had a lot to learn within a short period of time.

“Our production team had to learn video and camera skills,” Baker said. “Mixing the sound of a live show is completely different from mixing a livestream that will be funneled through someone’s home speakers. Then there’s coordinating all of our safety protocols for staff and talent.”

The newfound learning experience was a necessary one for the Orpheum to stay active within the Flagstaff community, Baker said.

Scott Jensen, who serves as the Orpheum’s production manager, said the transition from live shows to livestreams has been a roller coaster of challenges for both him and the crew because they didn’t know how to produce a livestream earlier this year.

Jensen said they began the process by talking to friends in the industry and watching YouTube videos in an effort to piece everything together. He has been working on updating the process and equipment — they started off with only two webcams and an old computer. They are now streaming the performances using GoPros and iPhones, Jensen said.

When it comes to the performances themselves, Jensen said they’ve learned that putting on livestreams is an entirely different monster than live shows. 

“It can be challenging for the artist as well, as many of them have never played a show in this fashion and have to get used to the IEMS [in-ear monitors] and the environment, but overall it’s been positive and really fun to do,” Jensen said. “When we’re done for the weekend, everyone agrees that they really enjoyed the experience, and the public seems to really like what we’ve been doing as well.”

Jensen also said while the streams look a certain way to the audience, they’re drastically different in-studio. For example, he said because the sound stage is quieter than when they have a live show, sound has to be monitored from all sides and lighting is narrower. 

In addition to hosting livestreams for local bands such as WinterHaven and Tiny Bird, the Orpheum has also allowed organizations to rent the theater and hold their own virtual events. For example, Pride Live was held virtually at the Orpheum in June in partnership with the Northern Arizona Pride Association.

Although it is unclear when the Orpheum will reopen its doors to the public, there are plenty of ways in which the community can support the venue. In addition to an optional donation for virtual events, the Orpheum also has a GoFundMe and is selling T-shirts through the Rainbow’s End website. However, Baker said the most important thing community members can do is contact their state representatives and urge them to support the Save Our Stages Act. 

If passed, the Save Our Stages Act, which is a bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, will provide six months of financial support to independent music and entertainment venues across the nation. If the act is passed, it will be a crucial move for Flagstaff to continue to have a live music venue after the pandemic, Baker said.

No matter when live shows return to music venues nationwide, Walter said she will continue to strive to bring people together through music during this time of uncertainty. She believes music has the ability to connect people and get them through almost anything life throws at them.