In a nod to truth in history and education, the Orpheum reopens its old “Colored Entrance” with The Balcony Project. Public tours open Monday
It has been behind closed doors, unseen by the public since the civil rights era and the passing of landmark laws that desegregated places of worship, public use, shopping, and entertainment.
This week, the Orpheum Theatre’s old “Colored Entrance,” the small entrance lobby designated for Black patrons only along its Beale Street side, has been reopened as an exhibit that brings “an immersive educational initiative that exhibits a pivotal chapter of Memphis history — where the historic theatre’s Black-Only entrance to the balcony once stood.”
“Unlike most theaters, which reclaimed the space in their buildings used for the Black lobby and repurposed it for another use, the Orpheum never tore out its lobby,” said Brett Batterson, President and CEO of the Orpheum Theatre Group. “Instead, it became a storage unit for cleaning supplies and sidewalk salt. It was unseen by the public for 60 years.”
“This presented the Orpheum Theatre Group with many unique opportunities,” Batterson continued. “The opportunity to use the space to tell the story of segregation and Jim Crow; the opportunity to acknowledge the space for what it was: an unjust separate and unequal method to hold some residents below others. The opportunity to educate, to look back at our history. The opportunity to capture the voices of those who were forced to use this entrance – before those voices are lost forever. The opportunity to say it could never be allowed to happen again. And the opportunity to say that at this institution and in this building, it never will.”
The Balcony Project is a small space with a big story to tell. Noted Civil Rights Movement historian and professor, Dr. Charles McKinney has curated informative panels, offering insight into the era’s complexities. Accompanying this, a documentary video produced by videographer Daven Baptiste captures stories from patrons and volunteers who experienced the theatre first-hand both before and after desegregation, providing invaluable personal perspectives.
“This is good work,” said Dr. McKinney. “Any time we’re rendering African American history in this way, it’s a benefit for all of us. On a gut level, this is our story. And on a gut level, we need to know this. We are diminished when we don’t know these stories. Despite evidence (in today’s climate) to the contrary, greater illumination leads to greater freedom, to the creation of spaces where we can have hard conversations about the nature of democracy, and what it means to be an American. On a deep personal level, I am always happy to see these points of illumination, because these are moments and places and spaces of possibility for us.”
StoryBoard Memphis will present a more in-depth look into the history and the reopening of the former “Colored Entrance” and Jim Crow balcony this October.
Below is the Orpheum Theatre Group’s (OTG) full press release:
In “a glimpse into Pre-1964 Memphis and a tribute to progress,” the Orpheum Theatre Group (OTG) unveiled an immersive educational initiative that exhibits a pivotal chapter of Memphis history – where the historic theatre’s Black-Only entrance to the balcony once stood. This balcony, previously accessible through the Beale Street side of the theatre and a congested flight of stairs, embodies the constraints of “separate accommodations” that confined Black patrons during a time of segregation. The Balcony Project is the history of that place and time.
“The Balcony Project serves as a dynamic platform for public awareness, centered on educating visitors. The OTG’s commitment to storytelling extends beyond the stage. This initiative appeals to those who want to learn and continue to advance our society,” said Brett Batterson, President and CEO of the Orpheum Theatre Group.
In the spirit of shared learning, the OTG will be hosting broader community conversations surrounding The Balcony Project in an upcoming symposium on Thursday, January 18, 2024 in the Halloran Centre. This free event will be open to the public. More details will be available soon on their website.
Public tours will begin on October 2, 2023 and include multiple ways to experience The Balcony Project.
1. The Balcony Project will be available to visit for free every Saturday from 10 a.m.- noon, and every Monday from 2-4 p.m. CT
2. It will be included on regularly scheduled campus tours on select Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 10 a.m. and noon. (Suggested $10 donation for full campus tours; reservations required.) Visit https://orpheum-memphis.com/plan-a-visit/orpheum-theatre-tours for current availability and to sign up.
3. It will be included on private campus tours for classroom/student/group visits of 20+, which can be scheduled through Event Operations at https://orpheum-memphis.com/plan-a-visit/orpheum-theatre-tours.
“The Orpheum Theatre Group has used performing arts to educate for 95 years and is uniquely positioned to tell this story,” said Dr. Charles McKinney, Associate Professor of History and Director of Africana Studies, Rhodes College. “The Balcony Project can make significant contributions to historical recognition and understanding of the Jim Crow era, underscoring the OTG’s commitment to continuous learning.”
From field trips to college coursework, historians and academics to creatives, The Balcony Project looks to create conversations, inspire young advocates, change minds and help build more cohesively diverse communities – in Memphis and around the country.
About the Orpheum Theatre Group
The mission of the Orpheum Theatre Group is to enhance the communities we serve by utilizing the performing arts to entertain, educate, and enlighten while preserving the historic Orpheum Theatre and the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education. For more information, visit Orpheum-Memphis.com.