THIS SUMMER: Revisited, the Hidden History of the Orpheum

In a summer-long series in honor of its 95th birthday, StoryBoard revisits an era when Memphis almost lost its last great theatre palace: its survival during mid-1960s urban renewal; its struggles during the unrest of the late 1960s; and its often-overlooked 5-year revival

“We’re not out of the woods yet. We could still become a parking lot.”

~Hillsman Lee Wright, Orpheum project manager, in September, 1978

In the fall of 2018, StoryBoard Memphis published a feature article on the mostly-unknown and almost-forgotten history of the revival of the Orpheum Theatre by a young group of professionals in truly grassroots, “two boards and a passion” style, who with the help of key influencers and many others, brought life back to downtown and to the historic theatre from 1975 to 1980, before the Pat Halloran era began.

Our November 2018 article appeared only in print, and due to space limitations, there was a great deal of story, history and artifacts left on the editing room floor. Well, here online, we won’t be limited by space. And later this summer, in honor of this November’s 95-year birthday of the Orpheum, we will be publishing a comprehensive feature-length, multi-part history of an era when Memphis almost lost its last great theatre palace.

Circa 1970s brochure geared toward theatre patrons and promoting efforts to save the historic landmark. Courtesy Hillman Wright’s private collection.

Featured this summer will be previously unpublished interviews and untold recollections from the people who were there, more artifacts from the period, and more interactive links and recordings to the stories that shaped the period that saved the Orpheum from the ravages of urban renewal bulldozers.

We are inviting you the public to join in as well, by sharing your memories of the Orpheum during those ragtag days of revival. The revival was preceded and heavily influenced by the theater’s rich history as well as the tragic events and urban renewal destruction in Memphis from the late 1960s and early ’70s; our updated history will include those stories as well. So as you submit your memories, please include only your personal memories from the theater’s heydays in the 1940s-’60s, the late 1960s to early ’70s declines, and revival period between 1975 to 1980. For example, if you attended shows during those revival days, let us know!

Your comments may be used as quotes to be included in our feature story.

Use the comments section below for your comments and your personal 1960s to 1980 recollections.

2 Replies to “THIS SUMMER: Revisited, the Hidden History of the Orpheum”

  1. My memories of the theater go back to the Malco days of the 40s, 50s and 6os. I especially recall seeing “Guys and Dolls” in the 50s and blockbuster “Goldfinger” in the 1960s. We owe so much to Hillsman Wright and others for saving this gem.

  2. I don’t remember the exact dates-late 70s, but I was working for a Memphis Advertising Agency and Union Planter Bank was one of our clients. Their President/Chariman Bill Mathews orchestrated the formation of the Memphis Development Foundation specifically to help save the Orpheum, He understood the cultural and economic benefit the Orpheum held for a changing city. He tasked our Agency, part pro bona-part paid, to take the endeavor to the public…soliciting moral support, political support and financial donations. I’m not sure what my title was on this project, but I took a defacto lead in developing the campaign theme line and execution of it. I had recently worked with Cybill Shepherd on another non-profit project and thought she would be a great spokesperson, especially with her ties to theatre and film. She agree to participate and we worked out a script whereby she would become the “Phantom of the Orpheum,” a ghostlike figure who would (almost) float through the building in a long translucent white gown (probably provided by Pat Tigrett) espousing the grandeur, beauty and exciting history of this important theatre. With around 5 seconds remaining in the commercial, she disappeared in a poof/cut and reappeared in the same gown, at dusk, wind blowing, in the empty parking lot next to the Orpheum, looked into the camera and delivered the compelling line I had crafted…”what do you want…the Orpheum or Asphalt?” Fade to black. The Orpheum or Asphalt? line was carried in a radio commercial, a newspaper ad and the brochure you show here. I know we designed a billboard, but not sure if it was ever posted around town.

    Chapter 2: Remember My Name
    On October 6, 1978 the movie, Remember My Name, had its premier at the Orpheum in part as a fundraiser to save the building. Memphis made sense because Albert Hunter was a successful Blues singer from Memphis and her music was used in the soundtrack for the movie. I was there for the premier and the only guest wearing a tuxedo. I think Alberta performed a few songs before the film and a reception followed. I hung out with Anthony Perkins for a good while because he was interested in some stories about the hey day of Beale Street and the Blues. Met Berry Berenson. and spent a good bit of time with Alberta Hunter. We agreed to meet the next day and take a little tour of Beale Street. As we walked down, her head turned and turned looking at the decaying buildings. She stopped in the street in front of unoccupied King’s Palace, tears in her eyes, turned to me with a hug and said, “David, please don’t let them tear this down, please, please, please.” We became friends and I helped her and her publishers with events to promote her book. Her face, her tears and her plea stuck with me, even to this day.

    Chapter 3. Beale Street Saturday Night
    The effort to save the Orpheum broadened and music joined the movie in a effort to raise awareness and perhaps push some funding. I know Bill Mathews personally loved this project and likely funded it one way or another. Jim Dickenson was tasked with creating a collectable Beale Street Blues album and he rounded up a group of top blues performers to record the album, not in a studio, but in the Orpheum itself. Top local names included Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Teeny Hodges, Sid Selvidge and Mud Boy (Jim Dickenson) & the Neutrons. I helped promote the album and have one of the first pressings still in my collection. It sold out quickly and I have seen they have re-pressed and re-released through the Beale Street Caravan.

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