Long Live the Good Ol' Days
An old theater is reborn to the sounds of West Side Story
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
From FSM Vol. 7, No. 9, On sale now...
When 1961's Academy-Award winning musical West Side Story was
dusted off for a Nov. 11 big-screen showing in Omaha, Nebraska, it made
its debut in a restored Orpheum Theater. The theater, which first opened
in 1927 amidst Florentine drinking fountains, hand-carved gilded furniture,
and an ornate gold leaf and ivory lobby, once welcomed the likes of Fanny
Brice, Al Jolson, Benny Goodman, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Tommy
Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Lawrence Welk and W. C. Fields.
Standing on the site of a 19th-century vaudeville house, the Orpheum
recently underwent a $10 million renovation. New heating, air conditioning,
doors, carpets, and sound locks, 2,400 re-upholstered seats, more rigging
space, dressing rooms, and restrooms were all in place for the Sept. 2
ribbon cutting. The official ceremony and all-day tours drew nearly 4,000
people, "many of whom remembered it from the time of their childhood or
as the scene of a first date," says Joan Squires, President of the Omaha
Performing Arts Society. Squires reports that a recent performance of the
Omaha Symphony Orchestra was all the more impressive because of the remarkably
improved acoustics of the theater, providing a more immediate experience
for the audience and performers alike.
West Side Story was the first major motion picture shown on the
Orpheum screen in recent memory. It is perhaps no surprise that the Robert
Wise-directed movie, which garnered 10 Oscars including Best Picture in
'61, was resurrected by film afficionado and events wizard, Bruce Crawford.
Crawford, 45, is the creator of two internationally acclaimed radio documentaries
on film composers Bernard Hermann and Miklós Rózsa. His work
has attracted the BBC, which invited him to be a consulting editor on the
forthcoming six-part documentary, Music to the Movies. But he has
also been organizing Omaha film events for 10 years, hosting such stars
as Alan Young, Janet Leigh, Patricia Neal, Billy Gray, Ann Rutherford and
science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury. Equal parts film historian, documentary
producer, lecturer, writer and promoter, Crawford began his gala Omaha
movie celebrations in 1992 with a tribute to special-effects legend Ray
The events, which have benefitted such organizations as the Nebraska
AIDS Project and the National Kidney Foundation -- and this year, the Society
of St. Vincent de Paul of Omaha -- began as little more than combination
film showings and memorabilia gatherings. They have mushroomed into Busby
Berkeley-style extravaganzas, with dancers, musical performers, dramatic
readings, and well-crafted speeches.
Crawford's theatrical approach was a perfect complement to both the
Orpheum stage and West Side Story. Delighted by the Orpheum's renaissance,
Crawford was ecstatic to have brought those Bernstein-Sondheim classic
songs to the big screen again. On hand to celebrate was the actual singer
of many of those songs: Marni Nixon, who dubbed for Natalie Wood in the
film, just as she did for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Deborah
Kerr in The King and I. Nixon gave a lesson on the mechanics of
film dubbing for an audience of about 1,200 people. Also appearing to whistles
and cheers was Russ Tamblyn, who played the role of Riff. Tamblyn talked
about how hard it was to rehearse all those great dance moves; he provided
a virtual prologue to the Omaha Theater Ballet, which performed the opening
music from the film in a spectacular homage to choreographer Jerome Robbins.
Crawford is no stranger to theater preservation; he contributed to an
unsuccessful letter-writing campaign, back in 2001, to save the world's
largest Cinerama, the Indian Hills Theater, enlisting the help of screen
giants Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas, and movie critic Leonard Maltin.
Perhaps because of this campaign's failure, Crawford has an even greater
appreciation of the legendary Orpheum. He is honored to now be among those
"writing a new chapter in its history" on the occasion of its 75th anniversary.