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SIOUX CITY | In its day, the 90-year-old Orpheum Theatre was no doubt a glamorous venue -- replete with crystal chandeliers, dizzyingly high ceilings, ornate plaster work, elegant curtains and carpets with bold patterns.

After going through a sort of mid-life crisis in the 1970s and '80s, when much of the theater's grandeur was covered by false ceilings and stucco (followed by its closure in 1992), the Orpheum rebounded to its 1920s vaudeville elegance in 2001.

That happened as a result of incalculable hours (and millions of dollars) coming from the Orpheum Theatre Preservation Project.

If there is a living embodiment of that project (and of the Orpheum itself), it may well be Irving Jensen Jr., president of the project's board of directors.

Details, details

Jensen (an engineer by trade) is, without a doubt, a details man.

As an example of his attention to detail: when the theater was being renovated, the renovators could (in theory) have settled for some reasonably 1920s-style carpeting for the building.

But Jensen took it a step further. He wanted a facsimile of the actual carpets that patrons in the late 1920s would have walked on.

"We found this original (carpet), we had it reproduced," Jensen said as he sat in one of the Orpheum's original, throne-like lobby chairs -- first brought into the building in December 1927.

The carpet is an exact replica of the original carpet in the building, except that it isn't made of wool.

Orpheum Irving Jensen Jr.

This chair was first brought to the Orpheum in late 1927.

"Original was wool," he said. "But wool wouldn't last like this does."

But Jensen can't talk about the replica carpet without lamenting a mistake he made, difficult though it is to notice. The main staircase in the lobby once had solid-colored carpet instead of the patterned carpet it had elsewhere, which a photo later revealed.

Not that anyone would notice -- inside the Orpheum, visitors' eyes tend to go upward, toward its massive crystal chandeliers.

Orpheum Irving Jensen Jr.

When restoration work was undertaken at the Orpheum, several of its original chandeliers were dirty and missing crystals. They were sent to a Chicago firm for restoration. Sioux City Journal Photo by Justin Wan

Though the very largest and most breathtaking chandeliers didn't leave the building (they were hidden above a false ceiling for years), several of the theater' smaller crystal light fixtures and wall sconces strayed before renovation.

Many of these fixtures were taken when IPS (Iowa Public Service Co.) occupied the building decades ago. IPS employees were told they could take things from the then-run down theater, Jensen said.

Jensen spent a lot of time tracking down the Orpheum's lost light fixtures. All things considered, he was pretty successful.

"They weren't all here. We got a lot of them back from people who had them," Jensen said.

While some of the light fixtures were brought to the theater by previous owners, others had to be sought out.

"I've been to museums; at Cherokee I got three, four, five light fixtures up there," he said. "Found a couple down in an antique place on Dace Street."

When they were found, many of the chandeliers were dirty, and some of their crystals were missing. So, they were sent to a Chicago firm for restoration. 

And today there's not a crystal out of place.

Tables and terra cotta fountains

These light fixtures aren't the only surprising thing that came back to the theater.

"You see that table over there, that marble-top table?" Jensen said, gesturing to a table in the lobby. "There were two of those in the theater.  That one was returned by one of the people from IPS. The other is in Lincoln, Nebraska.

"I know where it is, I tried to get them to donate it back -- and they refused. So we only have one."

How is it that Jensen is able to identify a certain table, missing for decades from the theater, as one of it's original furnishings? 

"Well there's photos, memory," he said. "I'm 86 years old. I've been in this theater from the time I was a little boy."

Orpheum Irving Jensen Jr.

This terra cotta fountain is an exact replica of the Orpheum's original water fountains, based on surviving drawings. Sioux City Journal Photo by Justin Wan

Like the carpet, the theater's terra cotta drinking fountains (which look like ornate pillars) are not the originals. They are, however, exact replicas of the original ones -- not an easy thing to achieve.

The renovators went through a California company to have exact replicas made, using the fountains' original drawings.

Unfortunately for that company, the first fountains they produced had basins that didn't drain properly. So the fountains had to be sent back, and the basins re-shaped so the water would flow out.

Jensen described the re-acquisition of Orpheum furnishings and fixtures as "an ongoing project."

"If somebody has something, we'd take it back," Jensen said.


Lifestyles reporter

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