I recently spoke with Lance Gunberg, a graphic designer and filmmaker who is also the president of Orpheum Rising Project Helpers or O.R.P.H, Inc., which is a non-profit organization dedicated to reviving the theater.
What initially drew you to the building?
I had frequently traveled by the French Sharpshooter’s Hall, the building that houses the Orpheum Theatre. The façade of the structure is at once imposing and beautiful. There were many famous acts that came through the area, including Harry Houdini, although we have not been able to confirm that he appeared here. The fact that he performed in Providence, Rhode Island, which is 30 miles from New Bedford, makes it possible that he made his way to the Orpheum during Vaudeville’s heyday. It has been said that there was once a baby elephant on stage as part of an act. It would had to have been brought in using a block and tackle system (which still exists) at the back of the theater, hoisting the animal up one floor and then onto the back of the stage through the large doors there. That story has not been confirmed either, but its fun to think about!
I always wanted to know what was inside. What condition was it in? Was the theater still intact? Pretty much the same questions most people have when they see it. It was owned by a tobacco and candy company for many years after the theater ceased operations. They used the theater and upper floor dance hall floor for storage. Unless you worked there, you never had a chance to see what it looked like.
Why did you decide to get involved with O.R.P.H, Inc?
A few years ago, O.R.P.H., Inc. started providing tours of the theater. I went on the tour and upon leaving the building I spoke with ORPH, Inc.’s then-president, Chuck Hauck. I told him that the community needed to know about the forgotten treasure in their city. I then began work on a documentary that told the story of the French Sharpshooters Organization and The Orpheum Theatre and their combined impact on New Bedford. It was not long after that I was asked to take over as president of the organization, a post I have held since January of 2011. Our goal is to take ownership of the structure, so that we may begin the process of revitalizing the building and the theater within.
How is the organization raising money to fund the restoration of the theater?
Right now we are holding continuing fund raisers that keep our organization alive so that we may continue to raise awareness and keep the building in the public eye while we try to secure a purchase and sales agreement. If that day comes, we will then be able to open up much more available funds on a state and federal level by partnering with established local historical organizations that will allow us to begin the long process of rehabilitation. We have also had a tremendous outpouring of volunteer offers from both the residents of New Bedford as well as local contractors and builders.
If O.R.P.H takes ownership of the Orpheum, what do you plan to do with the theater?
If we are fortunate enough to purchase the building, we would like to create a multi-use building, keeping with the original intent. The Orpheum Theatre would host community productions, as well as local school productions. We would also like to see the theater be used as a live theater classroom. The large ballroom that sits to the right of the theater would be rented out for events like wedding receptions, dances, fundraisers and community events. The various meeting rooms could be used as office space and rented to various community groups to hold meetings and gatherings. Our goal is to provide usable space for the community at large.
Lance’s documentary on the French Sharpshooters Hall and Orpheum Theatre is located at http://www.orphinc.org/documentary