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New blood, high hopes for Foxborough’s Orpheum Theatre

A rehearsal was underway at the Orpheum Theatre in Foxborough on Feb. 8 for a production exploring dance from the 1920s to today.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
A rehearsal was underway at the Orpheum Theatre in Foxborough on Feb. 8 for a production exploring dance from the 1920s to today.

FOXBOROUGH — Bob Hickey is noisily using a leaf blower at 10 o’clock on a recent Saturday morning to sweep popcorn from under the seats of the empty Orpheum Theatre. He’s already bundled three bags of trash left over from Friday night’s show — medium Maureen Hancock’s “Postcards from Heaven” — and he couldn’t be more pleased.

Handout
Bob Hickey.

That’s because the piles of popcorn, tissue paper, and other detritus on the old theater’s floor are the leftovers from a sold-out performance that brought upward of 400 people to the venerable Orpheum — a bubble-gum-pink, two-story structure on Foxborough Common that has seen its share of good times and bad, including a recent threat of closing for good.

Hickey, executive director of the nonprofit that took over the theater’s operation in September 2017 and is in the process of buying the building, will gladly sweep up mountains of trash if it means people are coming to the Orpheum.

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“The important thing is we are open and a vibrant presence,” he said. “We want to change the mindset [from] ‘Is the Orpheum still open?’ to ‘What is the Orpheum doing today?’ ”

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The goal, he said, is to be open every day, for everything from theater performances and rehearsals to dance classes to birthday parties, community meetings, and late-night showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

An exterior view of the Orpheum Theatre.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
An exterior view of the Orpheum Theatre.
On a sign outside the theater, some coming attractions.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
On a sign outside the theater, some coming attractions.
A view from the seats during a recent rehearsal for a high school musical.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
A view from the seats during a recent rehearsal.

Town officials welcome the change, saying a lively Orpheum is vital to plans to revitalize Foxborough’s downtown. Those plans include finding a developer for the town-owned site across the street from the theater, a spot occupied by a vacant fire station and former funeral home.

“The Orpheum was on the market and there was little or no programming going on, and we were freaking out,” said Paige Duncan, the town’s planning director. “It’s right next to our fire station property, and we needed it to do well. Now it’s booked through the year, churning out 1,400 people a weekend. It’s been great.”

The Orpheum first opened in 1912 as a vaudeville and silent-movie theater on the second floor of the Union Building next door, with 250 seats and a slanted floor so patrons could see over those sitting in front of them. (That building came down in 1956, and the site is now home to a BP gas station.)

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In 1927, the current Orpheum Theatre opened in all its pink glory, with 550 seats in the broad auditorium and balcony and an orchestra pit — at a cost of $60,000. The owner, Frank Perry, also owned the bus line that ran between Mansfield and Foxborough and saw the silent-movie theater as a way to attract riders.

In 1961, the building was purchased by a group that also owned Cinema 8 in Sharon and opened as a movie theater. The pink stucco was covered by a gray metal façade, and the ornamental lion-like head over the double front doors was chiseled off for a more modern look. The theater became a duplex; in 1981, a third screen was added in the back of the stage.

Business did not expand, and in 1989 the Orpheum closed. It remained shuttered for five years, until local businessman Neil Colvin bought and extensively renovated it with the idea of creating a regional performing arts center. Colvin and his wife, Linda, invested millions in the project, restoring the pink façade and the stage, updating the mechanical systems, building a dance studio on the second floor, and adding gallery space.

The Coltons moved on, though, selling the theater to the Bay Colony Performing Arts Academy, which ran it from 2004 to 2017 — when Hickey stepped in.

Hickey grew up on a chicken farm in Virginia, but his father’s family was from Foxborough and he vacationed here; he remembers seeing the movie “Jaws” at the Orpheum. He and his wife moved to Foxborough in 1993 to take care of his grandmother and became heavily involved in the community.

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A former selectman, he has a cable television show and last spring was interviewing the cast of Un-Common Theatre Company, which was rehearsing for a production of “Les Misérables” at the Orpheum, when he learned the building was on the market and at risk of closing.

‘The important thing is we are open and a vibrant presence. We want to change the mindset [from] “Is the Orpheum still open?” ’

Bob Hickey, executive director of the nonprofit that runs the Orpeheum Theatre 

Hickey had just been laid off from his job as a recruiter in Boston and had just heard a consultant’s report on the future of downtown Foxborough that highlighted the need for activities around the Common.

The Orpheum, he said, was the “big pink elephant in the room,” a potential destination attraction for downtown.

“It made great sense to come in here and make this a business,” Hickey said. “I’m not a performer, but I know how to create a welcoming environment and how to treat customers. I also know there are groups that need performing arts space. It just made sense.”

Hickey resurrected the on-paper-only Foxboro Regional Center for the Performing Arts and started filling the building with theater groups that needed a home base, such as the newly renamed Roundabout Productions, which had moved from Norfolk, and the nomadic Inspiration Performing Troupe, which had been practicing in libraries and halls for nine years.

There’s also a dance school and art classes and a full schedule of comedy shows, community theater performances, local school productions, a summer theater camp, and lots of movies.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Despite the name change, it’s still the Orpheum.

Hickey said the theater — now officially the Marilyn Rodman Performing Arts Center but still known as the Orpheum — is operating on a “shoestring budget” of about $180,000 this year. The money comes from ticket sales, subscriptions, rental fees, and advertising in event programs, he said.

As executive director and the only paid staff, with an “office” in the concession stand next to the popcorn machine, he received his first paycheck on Feb. 24, he said.

But he’s confident the Orpheum will thrive. On his wish list: updated sound and lighting systems and cupholders for the seats.

“The Orpheum has great bones,” he said. “It just needs a little tender loving care and attention.”

Upcoming events on the theater’s calendar, which has every Saturday booked through September, include a student production of “High School Musical Jr.,” a community theater production of “Moon Over Buffalo,” dance performances, comedy nights, a Beatles cover band, and a showing of the new film “Pickings,” which features locally bred actress Katie Vincent. A full schedule is at www.orpheumfoxboro.org.

The Orpheum hopes to stay busy and pull in crowds.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
The Orpheum hopes to stay busy and pull in crowds.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.