The 1898 Queen Anne-style theater, located at 300 West Washington Street in Downtown Phoenix, was originally constructed by architect S. E. Patton for nearly $35,000 (nearly $1 million today) and boasted conical towers, 20 bay windows, accommodations for 1,200, and the largest known state on the west coast.
A critic wrote of their preview of the theater in 1898, “The prevailing tint throughout is a delicate pale green, and when lighted by 384 brilliant electric lights, the scene is one of vast and unlimited confusion, until one becomes reconciled, when the beautiful frescoes that so profusely embellish the walls and ceiling stand out as clear as if in relief. Elaborate greenish portieres form the background of the loges, while the handsome gilded Chinese curtains that drape the windows yield the finishing touch to this Parisian palace of Phoenix.”
On December 16, 1899, Patton’s Grand Theater managed to make headlines across the country. During a production of Don Caesar, the chorus, armed with muskets and supposed black cartridges, found themselves shooting small missiles intended for target practice into the cast. The shooting severely injured actor Paul Gilmore, who took six shots, and actor Lewis Monroe died of wound complications. “The Great Gilmore Massacre,” as the event was ultimately named, left many wondering if Gilmore’s theater troupe was jinxed. Just a few days later, actress Kathrine Kidder fainted on stage due to extreme exhaustion, severely hitting her head on the stage floor.
Nearly two weeks after the Great Gilmore Massacre and 14 months after its opening, S. E. Patton sold the theater to E. M. Dorris and renamed the Dorris Opera House. Overtime, however, the term “opera house” was exchanged for “theater”, as the building was never truly constructed for operatic concerts. Many of the first Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association meetings were held within the Dorris Theatre from 1899 to 1901, forming what is now known as the Salt River Project. By the early 1910s, the theatre renamed itself once again as the Elks Theatre, hosting Elks club meetings upstairs, and varying performances downstairs, including the play the Pirates of Penzance, bandleader John Phillip Sousa in 1915, and even D. W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation. Come the Great Depression, the theatre took on the name the Apache, and by the 1950s, again renamed itself as the Phoenix Theater and served as a movie theater until 1965.
By 1984, the twin conical towers iconic to the theater had disappeared, and many of the bay windows had been bricked in. The atypical pink plaster was a remnant of the past, cracking of with each passing day. Inside, little remained of the then state-of-the-art seating, and the glamorous frescos on the ceiling were instead covered in political posters. At the time of its destruction in 1985, the Dorris Opera House served as a municipal annex for city clerk election materials rather than a theatrical paradise. Many parties attempted to preserve the theatre over the years to no avail, including Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard. However, the cost to restore the historic building—estimated at over $1 million—proved to be too steep for Arizona preservationists. Director of the Central Phoenix Redevelopment Agency Jim Forsberg stated in 1984 that if any buildings were to be redeveloped in the Downtown Phoenix area, the Palace West—now known as the Orpheum—was significantly more suitable.
Today, in place of the once great Patton’s Grand Theater, stands the Phoenix Municipal Court: one of the top ten busiest municipal courts in the United States. While the architectural significance of the 19th century style theater is now lost to photographs and distant memories, the Orpheum, built just 30 years after Patton’s, remains on Adams Street, preserving some memory of early Phoenix theatrical history.