Neighborhood Theaters: The Normal

By Robert A. Lanier

I suppose that, in most cities of any size, there is no longer such a thing as a “neighborhood” movie theater. If that is so, some slight explanation of the term for younger readers may be in order. Using Memphis as an example, until around 1970 major new motion pictures were first shown at fancy downtown theaters, most of which were on Main Street.

There was the Malco (now the Orpheum), the two Loew’s theaters the Palace and the State, the Warner, and the smaller Strand. After a film completed its downtown run (the length depending on its popularity), it made its way to the 15 or so smaller theaters located all over town. Unlike the downtown movie palaces which belonged to great corporations like Loew’s, Warner Brothers, Paramount, etc., these little theaters were individually owned. My neighborhood theater for most of my youth was the Normal, located at 535 South Highland, on the west side of the street, near Southern. It was built around 1928 and soon took its name from the community, which in turn got its name from the West Tennessee Normal School (now the University of Memphis).

From left to right, the Normal Cleaners, the Normal Tea Room, and the Normal theater, on South Highland. (The Bluff pub and sport bar resides there today) Photo furnished by the author

The Normal stood in a building of its own almost in the middle of a block of one-story storefronts on the west side of Highland, which housed drug stores, a “tearoom,” a hardware store, a bakery, some groceries, a “dime store,” shoe repair shops, etc. Its box office and entry doors were sandwiched between two store fronts, which upon various occasions housed a barber shop, a record shop, and other businesses which I have forgotten. For most of my childhood the manager (and owner?) was a nice man named Mr. Gaughan (pronounced “Gone”). I say that he was nice because he went out of his way to cater to children. Of course, he showed the popular major films that had completed their downtown run, and he certainly wanted adult customers. Because of the self-imposed movie “code,”1 most movies of those days could be watched without shock to the sensibilities of persons of any age.

This code received an unnecessary supplement from the absurd rulings of Lloyd T. Binford, the official Memphis censor. Mr. Binford, an insurance executive in private life, banned movies about train robberies because he had been involved in one in his youth. An “adult” picture generally meant one with romance or a serious theme, which bored kids. (Today it really means a film for adolescents who are curious about sex and violence). The Normal often showed movies which mostly kids would enjoy. These included “B” westerns (Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers et al.) and lots of cartoons. In fact, on several Saturdays during the year, Mr. Gaughan would show a “Cartoon Carnival,” an orgy of perhaps twenty cartoons in a row. On some Saturdays there would be a “double feature” of two westerns. Sometimes he would feature kid-oriented films like “Alice in Wonderland” or “Lassie” (the Collie dog) series, with Wednesday showings after school. At Christmas time there was sure to be “A Christmas Carol.” Moreover, before the matinees on many Saturdays, he staged a sort of floor show in front of the screen with contests and prizes for the small fry, all of which was sometimes tape recorded and played later on some radio station. Those of us in the audience cheered loudly, hoping to hear ourselves on the radio. I doubt that most theater managers did all that.

Before a kid was 12, the price of admission to the Normal was 12 cents (perhaps $2.00 in today’s money). That meant that your parents would give you a quarter, which would entitle you to the movie(s) and the remaining coins could be used for a nickel bag of fresh popcorn and a nickel Coca Cola. I don’t remember what I did with the remaining 3 cents. The extra two cents on the dime ticket were a wartime luxury tax, which the theaters after the war lobbied to be repealed. When it was, the ticket price went up anyway! Mr. Gaughan had a telephone installed on the wall behind the box office with which we could call our parents to pick us up, if necessary, and it was free. On the street side was a porch-like marquee, bearing the name of the theater in large letters, with the names of the currently showing films on the sides. On both sides of the box office were little window-like display cases in which 8 by 10 color photographs (even if it was a black-and-white film) of the current attraction were displayed. I once wandered into the alley behind the theater, where there was a barrel full of these “lobby cards,” all of which had been discarded. Today they would be worth a small fortune to collectors.

Beneath the folding theater seats there would invariably be wads of gum, both old and recent, as this seemed to be a traditional place to dispose of one’s cud while consuming popcorn or candy. In retrospect this seems a relatively harmless act of vandalism. Speaking of chewing gum, it is worth recalling that, during World War II, bubble gum was virtually unavailable. The legend was that it contained rubber, a vital war commodity. I know that I attended a birthday party for a little neighbor and the door prize was a single piece of Fleer’s Double Bubble gum.

Parking was not a problem when attending the Normal, as depending on one’s age, he or she was either driven to the show and picked up afterwards (upon schedule or after using Mr. Gaughan’s free telephone for summoning parents) or walked to and from the theater. If parking was required, cars would park, nose-in toward the elevated curb, side-by-side, like cattle at a trough.

What happened to the Normal? In the 60s it was bought by an “art” theater chain, showing foreign and, later, risqué films. Then, when neighborhood theaters were done in by television, cable tv, etc., it became home to a night club.

Were the hours spent watching our favorite films wasted? We still managed to have plenty of time for outdoor “play,” and I believe that the movies we saw, despite depicting a not entirely true picture of the world, managed to gently introduce us to various aspects of life, including sympathy, kindness, love, courage, cruelty, and hope.

Robert A. Lanier was born in Memphis in 1938, and has spent most of his life in the city as an attorney, with stints serving as a Circuit Court judge from 1982 until his retirement in 2004. Lanier also served as an Adjunct Professor at the Memphis State University School of Law (U of M) in 1981. He was a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission from 1977 to 1982, and was a founder of Memphis Heritage Inc., the historical preservation group still active today. He is the author of several books about Memphis history, including In the Courts (1969), Memphis in the Twenties (1979), and The History of the Memphis & Shelby County Bar (1981), and his most recent, Memphis in the Jazz Age (2021). He is proudest of his book The Prisoner of Durazzo (2010), about the king who postponed World War I for a year. Lanier also donated hundreds of his personal historic Memphis photographs to the Memphis Room of the Memphis Public Library – part of Lanier’s personal interest with Memphis history and historic preservation – and they can be viewed on the library’s digital archive and collection (DIG Memphis) under the Robert Lanier Collection

1 (From Britannica and other sources) The “code” refers to the Production Code, also popularly known as the Hays Code, after Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) from 1922 to 1945. The code was implemented in 1934 in response to pressure from the Legion of Decency and public protest against the graphic violence and sexual suggestiveness of some sound films (the urban gangster films, for example, and the films of Mae West). The Legion had been established in 1933 by the American bishops of the Roman Catholic church (armed with a mandate from the Vatican) to fight for better and more “moral” motion pictures. 

With economic challenges during the Great Depression and World War II, films and studios could not afford risking theater bookings, and the code’s guidelines were followed very closely during the decades of the 1930s and 1940s. The film industry followed the code well into the late 1950s, when it began to weaken due to the combined impact of television, influence from foreign films, controversial directors pushing boundaries, and the intervention from the courts, including the US Supreme Court. In 1968, after several years of minimal enforcement, the Production Code was replaced by the MPAA film rating system.

One Reply to “Neighborhood Theaters: The Normal”

  1. The Normal? I should have known. It was my go-to movie house from the age of 6 till it became the Studio and changed formats. I’d ride my bike from Haynes St., leave it outside without a lock with no worry it’d be there after the show. Admission had gone up to a 25 cents. Some Saturdays I went to nickel day at the Fairgrounds instead Grade B horror film double features was the fare. A few scared the Willis (See Giselle) out of me. Years later, Sivad featured most of them on Fantastic Features. Wonder if it’s a coincidence we both became film buffs after spending our formative years at the Normal.

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