The Orpheum Theater has long been a premier venue for arts and entertainment in northern Arizona, with plenty of history to boot.
After a particularly snowy New Year’s Eve in 1915, the roof of the Orpheum, then called the Majestic Opera House, collapsed and destroyed the venue. John Weatherford, who owned the building and built the iconic Weatherford Hotel, quickly began construction of a new theater, and in August 1917, the Orpheum Theater was born.
In 1999, the venue closed its doors for three years until Chris Scully, Art Babbott and Turney Postlewait leased the building and began an extensive renovation project, the effects of which are still being felt today. In 2009, Scully began a new partnership with Dr. Charles Smith. Their goal was to regain the venue’s status as northern Arizona’s premier entertainment spot. Today the Orpheum host a variety of events including musical acts, theater productions, variety shows, comedy performances and cinema, as well as community events such as its famous Adult Prom and election night watch parties.
Now after a 16-year venture, Scully is exiting as the Orpheum’s primary operator and community spokesperson, and Smith will be the venue’s sole operator.
“My goal was to own and create a concert venue that was viable in Flagstaff, and I think that we totally achieved that, and I say we, as a group and a community, achieved that,” said Scully. “But it wasn’t really my goal to toil over operating a venue for the entirety of my latter life, so I’m getting away from management, staying in as a property owner and moving on to other things.”
Those other things include building a new house, traveling, spending time with the family and working on new music, Scully said. Growing up in New York exposed Scully to a vast musical world, which lends itself to the work he’s done at the Orpheum and in his own life.
“There’s just a point where it was kind of a better deal for me in a lot of ways to be moving on,” he said.
The change, effective July 1, is something Scully plays down, saying he’s not leaving town and that he’ll still be involved in the property and other projects here and there. While the change will not have an effect on the current schedule or staff, the announcement has created ripples in Flagstaff’s tight-knit community. The relationships Scully built within the community were key to the success of both the Orpheum and Flagstaff. Smith said stepping in as the sole operator is “the best way to move things as quickly as possible while maintaining the spirit that we have at the theater.”
“One of the reasons it transpired this way was to maintain continuity and build on our strengths, to allow our staff managers to feel a little bit more leeway into developing what they do as a theater, more collaborative experience here for employees, but also to continue the longstanding partnerships that Chris has developed with people in the community,” said Smith.
Smith, often referred to as the “Rock Doc,” has a background in family medicine. While he prefers to keep those two worlds separate, his background in medicine has come in handy when a patron falls short of breath or a touring band comes in with members who are ill or injured. Unknowingly then, Smith and Scully grew up around the same parts of New York and even went to some of the same shows. Eventually, life landed them in Flagstaff where they both took a keen interest in the Orpheum.
“I am so glad I moved to Flagstaff. I am so glad that I became involved in the theater. I never thought it would ever come to this,” said Smith. “I am so glad and so positive looking forward to what we have coming up and the staff that I work with every single day, the hours that I work. It’s all reward at this point going forward.”
Going forward, Smith and Scully agree there’s much to be done. A 2009 agreement with the city of Flagstaff gave the theater’s production company, The Orpheum Presents LLC, a tax break of roughly $100,000 in property tax abatements over an eight-year period. This allowed the Orpheum financial backing to work on much needed renovations such as modifying its interior to expand its capacity from 740 to 1,180 people, upgrading its sound equipment, replacing light fixtures, improving its restrooms, improving an artist hospitality area and repainting the interior, among other things, according to a 2015 city council report.
With a lot of these improvements having been completed, Scully said it adds to the list of reasons to why he is leaving.
“This building is 101 years old, so there’s always stuff to do and there’s always improvements to make, but a lot of the stuff I set out to do is done,” he said. “A lot of the things that I envisioned to happen here have happened.”
The agreement terminated in 2017, and for now, Smith said the focus is on keeping the theater financially secure.
“Right now what we’re working on is shoring up what we already have implemented here, to make sure we’re on sound financial footing, that we never put ourselves at risk, that we focus on programming,” said Smith. “Once we have a comfortable margin, we will be reinvesting in sound, possibly lighting, concessions to some degree.”
Smith, who has acted as the venue’s buyer said he will continue to secure big-name acts while also serving as a gathering place for community focused events. The balance in being a business and a resource is something he and Scully could talk for hours about, but they agree having a good standing with the community is what keeps the Orpheum in business.
“Sometimes we look at community events as not really having much in the way of financial gain, and often times we end up paying money to put on these events, but there are secondary benefits of doing them,” Smith said. “Any time that we put our best face with the community, people think of this then as a community resource.”
According to Scully, it’s the Flagstaff community, his partner and his team that allowed his dream for the Orpheum to come to fruition.
“I just want people to remember that I was part of the team. I want to be able to walk by the Orpheum during a big rocking show and say, ‘I helped with that,’ and we did it as a team,” said Scully. “I want Flagstaff to think that Chris Scully came in and worked with a great team, and as a community we did something great. We made it work because the people of Flagstaff allowed it to happen.”
With more than 100 years of arts and entertainment under its roof, the Orpheum begins its next chapter, with Smith and his team ready for the triumphs and challenges that await.
Visit Flagstaff Live!, www.flaglive.com, this Thursday, June 21, for a video interview with Chris Scully and Charles Smith.