This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

A Theater Orchestra

28 January 2012

We live in a magical age. At 3:00 in the morning, we can read the morning news from a virtual newspaper somewhere across the ocean. We can can slip a small disc into a box and from our easy chair watch a movie displayed in more vivid colors than we can count. Taking our coffee with us, we can get into the car and listen to music, broadcast from across the continent on satellite radio, all while traveling at 70 mph in a sound environment that is equal to being in the best seat of a grand concert hall. 

One hundred years ago, people lived in a magical age too, but their entertainment was not a solitary experience. You had to go downtown to hear live music.

In 1912 it would be a rare city in America that did not have at least one theater. You could see a play, a melodrama or a comedy with musical interludes. You might take in a variety show, a musical or even operetta. In some theaters there was a new novelty called a motion picture. The images projected were in sepia tones, and the actors had no voice, but there was great music to carry the story along. It was played by live musicians in an orchestra much like the one shown above.

The German Orchester has a sign that says  Wien ~ Berlin 1916, but the advertisements on the backdrops show that they are on a stage somewhere in America. This vintage photograph has no markings to show exactly where or when these musicians are from, but they are typical of a small theater orchestra of the early 20th century. The leader stands in front with his violin, surrounded by an ensemble of cello and bass for strings; flute and clarinet for woodwinds, cornet and trombone for brass; and piano and accordion for keyboard accompaniment. Oddly there is no percussionist.

To judge by the size of the group, their stage was probably quite modest. Larger theaters could boast of bands and orchestras that rivaled the numbers in an opera or symphony orchestra.

The Empress Theater of Kansas City, Missouri, pictured here on a 1912 postcard, was thought to be one of the most modern vaudeville theaters in Amerca when it opened in 1910. It had 1,902 seats and ran 3 shows daily.

Miss Bessie Pyatt of Rosedale, KS had a friend Mabel who wrote:

Dear Bess,
I would like to go Thurs. but as I have quarreled with my friend I don't see how I can. Are you still working? Do you remember this place here? Ans.

Regrettably, this theater is all memories now, as few of these extravagant art houses have survived into the 21st century.  A terrific resource for the history of old theaters is

Some theaters were part of other extravagant civic buildings like the Palace Theater in Chicago, IL which was on the ground floor of the City Hall Square building. It was built in 1912 but taken down in 1965 for the Richard J. Daley Center. Next to it was the Geo. M. Cohan's Grand Opera House.

The postcard is a colorized photo, but the pedestrians along the sidewalks are all crudely drawn figures.

Mr. Hans Hansen of  Ludington, Michigan got this card from his daughter in 1914.

Dear Father,
Well how is the weather in Ludington It has been awful cold here for the last week, I think it will rain tonight. From your Loving Daughter, Lillie 
Write soon.

The New Princess Theater , also in Chicago, was built in 1906 for traditional stage productions with seating for 900. But it soon evolved into a hall for vaudeville acts and then movies. It closed in 1937.

The card is postmarked 1909 from Chicago to Miss Louise Amish of Rochester, NY.

Someone named Luecta (?Luetta writes,
This is certainly a large city.

And now a postcard view of Fifth and Edmond Streets in St. Joseph, Missouri of 1913, where
All cars in the city pass this point.

The Orpheum theater, with 1000 seats, is on the corner. I think the vehicle on the left of the streetcar is an electric automobile.

It closed in 1957. Sadly here is what the corner of 5th and Edmond in St. Joseph looks like today. I don't think all the cars in St. Joseph pass by anymore.

UPDATE:   I took a virtual walking tour around St. Joseph and made an interesting discovery.
If you use the Google Street View controls to turn around and "walk" back up Edmond St. to the 700 Block you will see another vintage theater, The Missouri, that has survived. A fine example of what looks like Oriental Art Deco,  it was built in 1927 with 1200 seats, and in the late 70's was turned into a performing arts center for the city.  

View Larger Map

George Crooks of Brantford, Ont. got this succinct note on the back of the postcard in April 1913.
Hello Tom

The website has this great image of the interior of the Orpheum Theater. Note the orchestra on right side of the movie screen.

interior Orpheum Theater, St. Joseph, MO

Perhaps they were showing this. An excerpt page from a wonderful Google eBook, The Moving Picture World from 1913. Another great resource on the history of early theaters and cinema. 

My contribution to Sepia Saturday
Click the link to find more photos of this week's theme of Majestic Theaters.



Wendy said...

I enjoyed this trip through the theaters and your observations about today's more solitary entertainment. I didn't realize Missouri was such a hot spot -- paving the way for Branson, I suppose.

Little Nell said...

Somehow I knew before I opened your post that there might be a theatre orchestra. I used to love watching and listening to the orchestara tuning up before a performance; it all helped to build the excitement and anticipation. A wonderful series of images.

Bob Scotney said...

This topic was made for you, a theatre orchestra there had to be. You've shown us a fine set of theatres. It looks as if the life has gone out of St Joseph now along with the theatre.

Rob From Amersfoort said...

After seeing those beautiful theaters the streetview picture is a bit of a downer. I had a hard time believing it's the same location, it looks horrible devastated.

Kristin said...

At first I thought the colorized photo was supposed to be from Ludington! I used to live 70 miles south of there and was positive there had never been such a building there ;-)

Postcardy said...

That is a wonderful view of St. Joseph on the old postcard, and a dismal view today.

RJ Clarken said...

Thank you so much for sharing your photos and your knowledge of theater history, When you mentioned the Orpheum I wondered if that was supposed to be the Orpheum mentioned as a vaudeville house in Gypsy, Anyway, this was really fascinating!

21 Wits said...

What an amazing collection of postcards you have. Did that last one say on the bottom c/o cousin! I just love reading the backs of them. This was a fun trip to the theaters! Thanks!

Teresa Wilson Rogers said...

Mike I love your collection of theatre postcards - they are beautiful and I agree it is so sad so few have been saved. I particularly enjoyed the sentiment on the back of the Empress Theatre in Kansas City! is one of my favorite sites - have I seen you commenting there?

Christine H. said...

What a richly-detailed and thoroughly enjoyable post. Those musicians look so serious. Of course I love the postcards, especially the one of St. Joseph before the apparent apocalypse.

P.S. I think the other postcard is from Luetta.

Bruno Laliberté said...

well, well, a natural theme for you and most enjoyable for me. I especially like the Empress card. So evocative.

In your then and now scenario, it is sad to see the evolution of things over there. I'm relieved to report that things have evolved better here., like the York theater, where now stands a new pavilion for the Concordia University. It is a good example how a district can be revitalized when you remove buildings gone into a derelict state... Urban planning and good architects are important to find a vision and making it a reality for all of us to enjoy.

I wonder if I would enjoy having a live orchestra during a screening. The idea is appealing!!

Jenny Woolf said...

What a great collection of theatres here. When I have visited the US in past years I've always loved to find little art deco movie theatres, some of which are still operating and showing movies! Wow! To me it feels amazing to go into these places. There are still a few old cinemas left in England but very few.

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Hi Mike, this is wonderful. I enjoyed how you tied the old theaters in with post cards that were actually sent.


Kathy M.


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