During adaptive reuse assessments of the Orpheum Theatre by practitioners and students from the Roger Williams University School of Architecture, Art and Historic Preservation this past spring, a souvenir program for the Sharpshooter’s Annual Competition Drill and Dance was discovered within the long-shut doors of the Orpheum Theatre.
The theatre was constructed between 1910 and 1912 for the French Sharpshooter’s Club of New Bedford (Le Club des Franc-Tireurs). The French Sharpshooter’s Club first organized in 1891 and was one of the oldest and wealthiest French organizations in the city. It was composed of French-Canadian immigrants who came to work in New Bedford’s textile mills. This esteemed group, well-known throughout New England, consisted of a military guard and drill team. The Orpheum Theatre became the organization’s headquarters where they operated a ballroom and an armored shooting range on the third and fourth floors of the building for nearly fifty years. The club held several kinds of events, including shooting tournaments, dances, drum and bugle competitions, fundraisers, and, of course, the Annual Competition Drill and Dance. This club officially disbanded in 1970 when the final member of the club passed away.
The Orpheum Theatre was opened to the public on April 14, 1912 while the Titanic was sinking into the Atlantic Ocean. For the next 50 years, the theatre showed vaudeville and burlesque shows and movies to crowds as large as 1,500, presenting the latest pictures during the advent of sound, adult films, technicolor, and other Hollywood marvels. The first theatre manager was H. A. Chenowitz, quickly followed by Henry R. Lefebvre later that year. By 1914, due to Lefebvre’s competitive advertising policy, the theatre was attracting up to 5,000 visitors a week. Admission for the shows cost five cents, ten cents, or fifteen cents depending on the length of the feature. In 1915, the Opheum began showing films of World War I and action scenes by war correspondents. It also claimed to be the first and only theatre in New Bedford to show the controversial “Birth of a Nation” that August. In the following years, the theatre operations changed hands several times until the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) Pictures formed and took over in the late 1920s. RKO, one of the Big Five studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age, linked over 400 Opheum theatres nationally into what was known as the Orpheum Circuit. The Orpheum Circuit became one of the largest vaudeville franchises operating in the country. In 1938, RKO released and featured “King Kong” at the Orpheum. Then in 1941, RKO featured “Citizen Kane,” a film considered to have some of the best cinematography to date. The Orpheum continued to screen movies until its doors closed in 1962.
While the Orpheum Theatre was dazzling New Bedford’s residents with the latest in the motion picture industry, the Sharpshooter’s Club was operating on the third and fourth floors of the building. On Saturday, October 14, 1950 the Sharpshooter’s Guard No. 2 held the Annual Competition Drill and Dance in the Sharpshooters Hall on the fourth floor of the building. The souvenir program reads: “The Sharpshooter’s Drill Team cordially welcome you to their Competition Drill and Dance. We extend to visiting teams and our host of friends our sincere thanks for their support by their attendance and we trust that the events of the night will prove very enjoyable. Yours in Drill Team Spirit, Sharpshooter’s Guard No. 2.” Although the Sharpshooter’s Guard No. 2 operated in the Orpheum building, the night’s festivities were held at the Sharpshooter’s Guard No. 1 headquarters in the North End, the Sharpshooters Hall at 70 Hicks Street. On the afternoon of October 14, the Sharpshooter’s Guard No. 2 of the French Sharpshooters Club of New Bedford welcomed three male drill teams and seven female drill teams for a night of competition and dance. The male teams in attendance were Garde Martial of North Grosvenordale, Connecticut, Garde D’Honneur of Southbridge, Massachusetts, and Garde Foch of Putnam Connecticut. The female teams in attendance were Garde St. Anne of Bristol, Connecticut, Garde Independant [sic] of New Bedford, Massachusetts, Garde St. Therese of New Bedford, Massachusetts, Garde Bernadettes of Fall River, Massachusetts, Garde Majorettes of Taunton, Massachusetts, Garde Lafayettes of Hartford, Connecticut, and Joan of Arc of Fall River, Massachusetts.
The Sharpshooter’s Guard No. 2 compliments several sponsors that made the event possible throughout the program. Some of these businesses are still operating, such as Cove Beverage, Donat Boisvert Insurance Agency, and William A. Lambert (now Lambert Insurance Agency). Many, however, were shut down as the old port and mills disappeared, Interstate 195 tore through the city, and urban renewal efforts made way for housing developments to alleviate post-war shortages. The Sharpshooter’s Hall in which this event took place was also demolished to make way for Interstate 195. The names of these sponsors and donors live on in this program to tell the story of the economic landscape of 1950 New Bedford that has since been lost.
The Annual Competition Drill and Dance souvenir program is one of many gems discovered in the historic ruins of the Orpheum. There are over 100 years worth of stories to tell. One day, its doors may open again to invite us into its long and grand history.