As patrons poured into the Orpheum Theater on opening night, April 15, 1912, the celebration may have been muted by news of the sinking of the Titanic early that morning. However, these were good times for New Bedford. The city’s economy thrived on its foundation of textile production and immigrant labor, and a performance by the Five Musical Durands was soon to inaugurate a spectacular new theater in a prime location between shops and restaurants on busy Water Street in the South End.
Although known today as the Orpheum Theater, the French Sharpshooter’s Club of New Bedford—Le Club des Francs-Tireurs—constructed this building to serve as its headquarters. Formed by French-Canadian immigrants, the Sharpshooters Club was a social and paternal organization focused on competitive shooting, military-style drill teams, and marching bands.
The club hired Fall River architect and French-Canadian immigrant Louis Destremps to design the building. Destremps was familiar with the city, having worked on Saint Anthony of Padua Church (1896) in the North End and the New Bedford Car Barn (1910). Sharpshooters Hall featured a shooting range, grand ballroom, gymnasium, retail storefront at street level, and a 1,500-seat Vaudeville theater.
Destremps created a masterpiece of French Renaissance design. Enormous carved heads, representing the Greek Muses of arts and sciences, adorned the façade, along with complex bas relief detail cast in porcelain over a terra cotta base, the same technique that Destremps later used on the Star Store on Union Street (1916). Above the four lower muses were ornate copper torches, which have since disappeared. Construction began in 1910 and was completed in 1912 at a cost of $110,000, about $2.7 million in 2016.
The Sharpshooters didn’t operate the theater in their building, but leased it to the Orpheum chain, a booking agency that provided acts to theaters around the country. Sharpshooters Hall is the second oldest Orpheum Theater, after the Palace Theater in Los Angeles. Orpheum acts included Harry Houdini, actress Lily Langtry, and the Marx Brothers, along with jugglers, dancers, and other Vaudeville-style entertainers. With the advent of motion pictures, Sharpshooters Hall installed a projection system and treated its patrons to films like King Kong and Citizen Kane. During the Second World War, the shooting range was used to train soldiers, while the theater kept patrons distracted and informed with movies, short cartoons, and news reels.
The theater itself was part of the show. The vast auditorium contained 1,500 seats and a wrap-around balcony. It was decorated with complex moldings, painted scenes on the ceiling, and intricate murals on the walls.
The theater continued to operate sporadically throughout the 1950s, but closed in 1962 when the French Sharpshooter’s Club sold the entire building. A tobacco company used the building as a warehouse, and a market operated out of the back for a number of years. The theater was abandoned to face the ravages of time and neglect. Today, Sharpshooters Hall and the Orpheum are privately owned. Although the building remains in disrepair, there are plans to restore and adapt the building to serve as a multicultural arts facility.