The Orpheum Theatre Phoenix celebrated its 95th anniversary with a burlesque nod – and perhaps a shimmy or two – to local history.
The “Arizona Unzipped” show boasted a mix of tawdry dance moves, live music and history lessons.
Pyrrha Sutra of Pyrrha Sutra Entertainment wanted to bring burlesque back to the Orpheum stage in a creative and modern way. This led her to seek a partnership with Marshall Shore, Arizona’s “Hip Historian.”
Together, along with the volunteer nonprofit, Friends of the Orpheum, the historical burlesque production was born.
Laura Lovato Stenzel, treasurer of the Friends of the Orpheum, but better known by her character impersonation of Mae West on Orpheum event nights, opened up with a classic West quip.
“Well, it’s about time you came up to see me,” she exclaimed to the audience.
Stenzel introduced the Corona family that managed the Orpheum for the owner Jimmy Nederlander for two decades from the 1970s through the 1980s, “breathing life into a theater that was practically shuttered,” Stenzel said.
Felix and Soledad Corona, who operated the business with their eight children, ran the space as a cinema showing primarily Mexican films as well as hosting everything from dances to boxing matches for the Hispanic community of Phoenix.
The fact that the Corona family had successfully run the business for a couple of decades, showed that the space was worth its upkeep.
It was the sole reason that the Orpheum wasn’t knocked down for the parking lot it was slated to become, according to Shore.
“They ran it long enough for the city to realize what they had,” Shore said of the Orpheum.
After Nederlander decided to sell the theater, Terry Goddard, the mayor of Phoenix at the time, encouraged the City to purchase the building.
The Orpheum’s history began in 1929 and the theater was used as the only stopping point for traveling vaudeville shows between Los Angeles and Denver.
The “vaudeville circuit” stretched from California to Nebraska, according to the Friends of the Orpheum.
The acts were generally composed of singers, dancers, jugglers, magicians, comedians and animals.
One such group was the Ziegfeld Follies, which was the last burlesque group to grace the Orpheum stage.
Pyrrha Sutra Entertainment coupled with Shore to bring vaudeville-style burlesque back to the Orpheum stage.
The production was a modern take on a classic act, billed as “an Arizona history lesson told through burlesque.”
The second production of the show honored vaudevillian tradition, with burlesque acts accompanied by live music.
But what makes Arizona Unzipped different is that it features a connection between a history lesson and an ensuing dance number, which are rooted in Arizona’s history.
The Hip Historian introduced classroom-style history lessons complete with slideshow before turning the stage over to a dance number that showcased the lesson.
A lesson about the soiled doves at the Bird Cage Theatre in Tombstone concluded with a burlesque number with showgirls dancing to a live rendition of “Lady Marmalade.”
The tale of Leone Jensen, who died by suicide after jumping from roof of the Hotel San Carlos, was illustrated by an aerial silk act with the dancer “falling” to her death at the end.
To connect back to the Orpheum Theatre, another Mae West impersonator stepped over the “dead body” of Ms. Jensen to sing her number.
“Take out the trash, boys,” she quipped.
“Arizona Unzipped celebrates the iconic Orpheum by bringing burlesque back to the stage,” Shore said. “It’s also a love letter to Arizona.”