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Facing a loss in revenue for the first time in years even after slashing its budget in half, the Orpheum on Wednesday issued a plea for financial assistance from the public.

The historic Downtown theater has launched “Onward: Funding the Orpheum’s Future,” a fundraising campaign that hopes to raise at least $2 million.

The money would help make up for the loss of revenue expected for a 2020-21 fiscal year that even in its initial weeks has been hobbled by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“We are asking you to help save the Orpheum again,” an email letter sent Wednesday to supporters of the theater stated, citing such past crises as the 1923 fire that destroyed the original building, the Great Depression, and the 1976 threat of “a wrecking ball” that ultimately galvanized community support and inspired the renovation, restoration and reopening of the then-neglected theater and “movie palace,” a place of gold-leaf elegance and crystal chandeliers that hosts concerts, touring Broadway shows and other events.

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A message of wellness is displayed across the marquee Wednesday, March 25, 2020, at the Orpheum in downtown Memphis. (Photo: Max Gersh / The Commercial Appeal)

While many fundraising campaigns for local iconic attractions, long-established arts organizations and essential charities have targeted big-money donors, “Onward” has a grassroots emphasis. This includes the option of a “reoccurring, sustaining donation,” to enable supporters to make a regular gift of as little as $5 a month, in the same way that groups like WEVL-FM 89.9 and the WKNO stations are supported by “membership” donations.

“We want people to realize that regardless of the size of the gift, every bit helps,” said Brett Batterson, president and CEO of the Orpheum Theatre Group, the nonprofit organization that manages the Orpheum, the adjacent Halloran Centre and their associated education programs. “We want to make sure that we’re making the Orpheum an easy place to support, regardless of what you may or may not have done in the past.”

As the email soliciting donations states: “Memphis needs the Orpheum. And the Orpheum needs you.” 

Batterson said the $10 million Orpheum budget for the theater’s current fiscal year — which began July 1 — anticipates a loss of $2 million, which represents “the first time in my career I have presented a deficit budget. It’s the first time we lived through a pandemic, too.” 

The current budget is less than half of the previous year’s budget of about $21 million. Although the Orpheum was closed to the public from March until this month, the theater didn’t lose money, thanks to the success of the touring production of “Hamilton.” 

Batterson said the Orpheum has multiple events on its calendar, including a Nov. 16 Willie Nelson concert — rescheduled from a COVID-19-canceled April date — that is close to being sold out. However, the cancellation of those events remains possible, at least until much closer to the dates of the shows. 

The “Onward” campaign represents the third and most ambitious phase of the Orpheum’s current methodical return to the public spotlight.

The Orpheum first invited the virus-wary and -weary public to return to 203 S. Main on Aug. 14, when it opened a nine-hole mini-golf course on its stage, as a fun way to raise funds and reintroduce itself to potential patrons. Batterson said playing putt-putt on a stage that has hosted the Pretenders and “The Producers” has proved to be an offbeat success, with weekend bookings for the course being sell-outs.

You’ll be in the room where it happens, if by “it” you mean “playing putt-putt golf,” if you go to the Orpheum now. (Photo: The Orpheum)

The second phase begins Friday, when the 2,300-seat theater revives its longstanding “classic” movie series with a socially distanced 7 p.m. screening of “Cast Away,” starring Tom Hanks. 

Batterson said “Onward” is not a prelude to or teaser for the launch of a big-money-donor campaign. “We’re not looking to ‘name’ the Orpheum,” he said, after a reporter wondered if (for example) a FedExOrpheum could soon complement the nearby FedExForum. But obviously, the theater would like to see some big donations alongside the smaller dollars-per-month “sustaining” gift.

“It’s really an opportunity to take all our fundraising efforts for the next few months under one umbrella,” Batterson said. 

For more information on the Orpheum or to contribute to the “Onward” campaign, visit 

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