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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 Harryhausen.

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.

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