If the stage and walls of Hannibal’s Orpheum Theatre could talk they would tell a number of stories of years past.

Today there are hopes for new life for the historic theater, but back in the day it was the place to be, the place to see the stars of Hollywood and vaudeville in person or on the silver screen.


If the stage and walls of Hannibal’s Orpheum Theatre could talk they would tell a number of stories of years past.
Today there are hopes for new life for the historic theater, but back in the day it was the place to be, the place to see the stars of Hollywood and vaudeville in person or on the silver screen.
The year was 1918. The first World War came to an end, Puerto Rico was rocked by a 7.5 earthquake and baseball great and Hannibal native Jake Beckley died from complications of heart disease. Meanwhile, downtown Hannnibal was getting a facelift across the street from Central Park along Broadway at Fifth Street. It would be the place where everyone would flock to for enjoyment, the place where people would laugh and cry, the place where memories would be made. It was the Orpheum Theatre.
On Jan. 24, 1922, the theater opened with the fanfare of vaudeville.
It wasn’t much money for the performers in those days. Some made a lot of money, others earned just enough to get by. But it was the pathway to popularity, and anyone with the desire to make it big in show business someday had to take the time to travel from city to city. It wasn’t the size of the municipality the traveling acts visited, it was a matter of success. If the crowd enjoyed the act, the players were deemed successful, if no one cared for the performance their future in show business was in jeopardy.
Several cities had Orpheum theaters and that was the circuit many of the vaudeville acts traveled on. Every theater was different, but their names were the same.
“When the vaudeville players played, they just went from one theater to the next,” Mike Marx, a former Orpheum usher, said. “During that period they all played all the theaters.”
At the time, the acts were just trying to make something of themselves, and some of them actually did.
Of the many acts to hit stardom after success in vaudeville (many of whom passed through Hannibal) included The Marx Brothers and Olsen and Johnson. But an act that still remains popular to this day may have also made a stop in America’s Hometown.
Hannibal was usually a stop on the vaudeville circuit as acts made their way to and from St. Louis, and popular entertainer Ted Healy did everything he could to play every theater he could. He had a trio of sidekicks in his show and while Healy himself didn’t have much success after a strong heyday, his stagemates, often billed as the Southern Genetlemen or the Three Lost Souls, hit their own legacy when they broke away and became known to the world as The Three Stooges.
But acts starving for stardom weren’t the only entertainers to grace the stage. Many famous acts that came and played the Hannibal Orpheum included Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra, Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, James Cagney, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.
As the years past, the building transformed from stage palace to movie theater. In 1925, a sound system was installed so moviegoers could see the latest Hollywood gems.
“The ‘A’ pictures ran at the Orpheum,” Marx said. “Your ‘B’ pictures ran at the Star and the Rialto. If you had ‘Gone With The Wind’ it’d run at the Orpheum.”
Before heading off to have a career in Hollywood himself, Marx got his start in the work world as an usher at the theater.
“That was interesting,” he remembered. “People would come in and you’d take them to their seat, and you had a flashlight.”
Yet, as the years were good to the Orpheum, bad times eventually came.
In 1949, it was renamed the Tom Sawyer Theater and despite its generational connection as a stage and screen palace, it shut down as a movie theater in 1966.
By 1989, Hannibal-LaGrange College began leasing the theater. Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra performed there in 1999 before HLG officially bought it in 2002. Two years later, they sold it to John North and Andrew Burgeen.
New owners Larry Owens, Bob Hemond and Dave Trogan came in 2008, but in January of 2010 Hemond and Trogan relinquished their ownership shares.
The memories and hopes are still strong inside the walls of the ol’ theater and a new lasting legacy may begin now that The Crossing Church has bought it.
Only time will tell.