It’s a chilly October evening in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. You’re waiting in line on the busy downtown street, excited to see the first show at the brand new theater. It’s 1913, and you walk into the opulent vaudevillian theater, your eyes wide with awe as your eyes pass over the intricate decor and construction. You take your seat, the music playing from the pit where the band is hidden from view, and the show is slated to be star-studded and extravagant for your little growing town in the west. Orchestras, comedy acts, featured vocalists. You’re ready for a night of excitement and laughter. But then you look up to the balcony as more patrons file in. There’s one figure standing in front of the spotlight up high in the theater. Suddenly, he starts waving wildly like something is wrong. Do you find an usher and tell them? Do you react and heed the apparent warning? No, because seconds after you see him, the figure is gone- vanished into thin air. What did you see? Was it a disgruntled patron, or something from the beyond?
The Orpheum Theatre in Sioux Falls has been a community staple for over a century, but some of the reports of ghostly activity go back even further than the 1913 opening night. Some say the spirit that inhabits the theater may have been there long before the first stone was laid. Some say the ghost has been there since the beginning, while others argue that it wasn’t until the 1950s that the spirit began to show himself to patrons, performers, and employees alike. Even when the theater underwent massive renovations, some construction workers reported their tools going missing and being found in strange locations. The mystery of the theater goes all the way back to the discovery of a very old photo that definitely shouldn’t have been there.
Originally built for $63,000 (approximately $1,933,000 in today’s money) the 1000 seat theater was built to be state-of-the-art, even including a railroad connection behind the theater for vaudevillian performers to unload their sets and costumes directly off the train. Hundreds of performers passed across the stage, lighting up the dark South Dakota nights with laughter and entertainment. By 1927, the theater changed its focus from live performances to the newly available moving pictures, showing second run and B movies for the local community. The success of the theater would be short lived, however, as it gradually declined in both prestige and attendance and would eventually be all but abandoned, doors boarded up and movies put on an indefinite hiatus.
In 1951, the Sioux Falls Community Playhouse would purchase the theater to serve as their new stage to perform for the masses in the Sioux Falls region. In 1975, it underwent major renovations to bring the theater into the modern era, decreasing the seating capacity to just over 600. In the 1980s, it was given National Historic Landmark status, owing to it being the oldest theater in Sioux Falls to survive to the modern era. Finally, another round of renovations would be completed in 2009, modernizing the theater once again and giving it new life in the old community who remembered those cold October nights spent waiting in line to see the newest show.
But the legends of the theater began long before the renovations. The first official reports of paranormal activity began to circulate in the mid 1950s, with patrons and actors reporting an unknown man in the upper balcony, watching the ongoings and occasionally making his presence known with waving arms and his sudden disappearance from the backlight of the spotlights. One report says an actor was alone in the theater when he saw the specter and upon noticing him, a rush of cold air hit him on the stage from an unknown source. The actor turned and ran from the building, some saying he never returned after the fright he’d experienced.
Those in the theater community affectionately refer to this spirit as “Larry,” with many stories and origins being attributed to him and why he remains in the theater. Some say he may have been a vaudevillian performer who leapt from the balcony to his death after being denied a part he was passionate about playing. Still more point to the fact that he may have been one of the original builders of the opulent theater. The mystery was turned on its head when one night, after experiencing light problems all afternoon during rehearsal, a photo of a man was discovered on the stage with no earthly reason for its appearance. Many say the photo is of Larry himself, but it’s the format of the photo that deepens the unsettling timeline of the haunting. The photo was an original tintype photo, printed on tin as its name suggests, and is an outdated form of photography that was popular before the advent of more modern cameras. In fact, the date of the photo has been suggested to be between the 1860s and the 1910s, shortly before the theater was built.
So who is the mysterious ghost of the Orpheum? Is Larry watching from the afterlife after a failed acting career? Was he a builder of the theater, or does his spirit go back even further than that, perhaps spawning from the location of the theater itself, which was surrounded by several other businesses for its life downtown? Another frightening story of Larry’s involvement in the theater tells of an actor working alone in the theater one night when a sandbag from the top of the stage broke and hit the man square on the head, knocking him unconscious. The next night, despite the same sandbag being retired and replaced, another accident occurred where a sandbag broke from the top of the stage and, this time, broke the actor’s collarbone. From then on, the superstition to not be alone on the stage was observed, lest Larry become violent again and harm another thespian.
The Orpheum still holds performances and special events today, though the sightings of Larry have not slowed down since he first made his presence known. The mystery continues, with no one knowing exactly where the spirit came from. All they do know is to never be alone in the theater, and to always be respectful of its resident ghost.
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Born in Death Valley and raised on the prairie, Deborah is a Wyoming-based paranormal researcher and a senior at the University of Wyoming, studying Communication. Her interests lie in folklore, history, rhetorical analysis and research. With an obvious love for ghost stories, frequently those interests combine with her work on Ghostlandia.
2 thoughts on “The Mystery of the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux Falls”
My partner is from Sioux City, Iowa and I am from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The pictures accompanying the story are of the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux Falls (the smaller theatre) and the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City (the larger, more opulent theatre). I believe the text of the story is truly from Sioux Falls, but the pictures confuse me.
Thank you for the tip, Ann! We will replace the photos added by mistake. Part of the difficulty includes that the Orpheum was recently renovated in the 2010s and the facade is different than its historic one.