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The HISTORY oF the
Although she’s lost a bit of her original luster from neglect, there are few buildings in the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts that have contributed more to the history and culture of the area than the Orpheum Theatre and French Sharpshooter’s Hall. She is the last bastion of a once proud neighborhood that was annihilated by urban renewal in 1960’s when buildings were bulldozed to make way for route 18,
a new highway slicing through the city’s historic district.
The Orpheum opened on April 15th, 1912 at a very important time in American history. Little did the people know at the ”Grand Opening” that the Titanic would sink on that very same night. This was just before World War I, when the City’s mills were busy, the economy was good even though the whaling industry was slowly declining.
The Orpheum was constructed under the ownership of The French Sharpshooter’s Club of New Bedford. This esteemed group operated a ballroom and armored shooting range in the building for nearly fifty years. Le Club des Francs-Tireurs had many events such as dances, benefits, and shooting tournaments. The Club was instrumental in raising and training recruits for both World Wars. The theatre was leased from the Sharpshooter’s to the Orpheum Circuit of Boston.
The Orpheum not only presented stage shows, but they were great innovators in the motion picture industry. They would show movies, then named photoplays, in between acts. As the popularity for Vaudeville waned in the 1920’s, the motion picture industry was there to take it’s place and keep crowds packing in. The Orpheum Circuit had many mergers over the years and eventually became Radio-Keith-Orpheum, the RKO famous for films like “King Kong” and “Citizen Kane”. There were over 400 Orpheum linked theaters nationally. The oldest Orpheum Theater still operating is now called the Palace Theatre in Los Angeles. It opened on June 6th, 1911. New Bedford’s Orpheum opened one year later, and appears to be the second oldest in the country.
The New Bedford Orpheum’s location in the neighborhood was central to the community. Water Street was completely lined with shops and stores that were integral to the adjoining neighborhoods. There was a busy trolley that ushered the residents from their homes to the mills, or the many other destinations. The theatre was a place many came to hear the latest events on the newsreels, or to catch up on the latest gossip.
Le Club des
"A Bunch of
Nonsense" is an original Edison cylinder