Tributes: Pat Halloran, “One Lucky Man”

I met Pat Halloran over the phone. The meeting was to talk about the Orpheum, a place and an era he held very near and dear. This was in the fall of 2018, when I was researching a feature story about the 1976-to-1980 chapter of the Orpheum’s history.

Pat passed away unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago, on February 8. He was 80.

“His impact,” said Orpheum CEO Brett Batterson, “was profound.” So too is his loss. Pat had his own brand of a personal touch in everything he did. With the shoulders of a linebacker and an indomitable spirit, he was bold and genuine in his passions and his affections. And as we talked that day, we quickly discovered that we had a great deal in common. Namely, a love for Memphis, the kind reserved for we non-native Memphians, a romance with this rich and ever-fascinating place in the center of the South.

The chapter we discussed over the phone that day captured the period directly before Pat was hired as CEO of the Memphis Development Foundation, which owned and operated the opulent theater at the corner of Main and Beale, and which was dedicated to its ultimate restoration.

His arrival in 1980 had come on the heals of the young, passionate group led by Lee Wright and Dr. Rutledge Forney that attracted the crowds back to downtown and through the doors of the Orpheum. Reflecting on that period, Pat told me that “without question, the Orpheum was critical to downtown’s revival ten years after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. . . the resourcefulness and commitment (of that group) . . . their hopes and dreams were instrumental in reaching the heartstrings of the community to wake up.” 

Upon his hiring in 1980 at the age of 37, Pat never imagined the Orpheum helm would become his dream job. He had no experience with the theater world. But having made a run for mayor, inhabiting a wealth of passion, and with a knack for fundraising, he was tailor made for the job. “I had no idea they’d be asking me to take such a position,” he told me in 2018. “I told them I would do it for two years.”

He did it for 35.

Not long after our phone conversation, Pat invited me into his inner, workaday world, lunch at his favorite table at the Majestic Grill and front-table seats next to him and his wife Anne, at a couple of his Positively Memphis luncheons. Of course, he was very interested in StoryBoard Memphis as the monthly in-print startup it was, but his interest was much more than transient. I think he saw something in StoryBoard and in me that reminded him of himself. Just an average guy who fell in love with Memphis, who embraced its assets, and who did all that he could to give it what he thought it deserved.

Many of us want to do great things for Memphis. But few reach the heights that Pat reached. With a heart and soul as big as the city, Pat seemed destined to do the work of uplifting Memphis, putting it on his broad shoulders, and showing it to whoever would listen.

Or, as he often liked to say, he was just one lucky man. Well, Memphis was lucky to have him.

In early 2019, he sent us a version of a story that he shared with many, that became the foundations of his Positively Memphis initiative. Here’s his story in his own words:

One Lucky Man

By Pat Halloran

Everyone is aware of the term Mid-Life Crisis. It usually occurs around 45 to 50 years of age and is usually diagnosed when the middle-aged man starts growing a ponytail and goes out and buys a convertible. Yes, I did that. In womb to tomb psychology, I passed that mid-life stage.

Allow me to introduce you to the next one: Late-Life Crisis. Also called Later-Life Crisis, it’s a very real condition that creeps up after 60 – or, in my case, turning 75 – and comes with the realization that time is running out, when a man starts opening the morning paper and turns to the obituaries before opening the sports section. However, when I reached this latter crisis era, I pondered my 75 years and came to the immediate conclusion that I am one of the luckiest and most fortunate people on the face of the earth.

My luck kicked in when I was 26 – I am not going to recount the years up to then, but take my word for it – when I moved from Miami to Memphis. It was 1969, and I had just finished 4 four years in the University of Miami Dean of Men’s Office and had a free Master’s degree in hand. Everyone asked me, with a deep frown on their faces, “Leave Miami for Memphis? Where Dr. King was assassinated? Why?”

I probably knew five people in Memphis and soon found out that you couldn’t even buy a cocktail in this city – this, coming from the city of Miami, where bars were open until 5 am.

The short answer to “Why Memphis?” was that I was given a challenge that just looked too good to pass up. The job was executive director of my college fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha (PIKE), which was headquartered here in Memphis, in a beautiful building across the street from what is now Rhodes College. I was the chief executive officer for 11 years.

Memphis opened its arms to me in so many ways. I fell in love with this city, despite the massive dark cloud that hung over it for the first 10 years following the death of Dr. King. During those years, some incredible things happened to me. Here I was, a 26-year-old single guy enjoying the experience of running an international organization with a staff of 30 and a membership of 120,000.  After five years I ran for City Council, and somehow I won without a runoff. By then, most Memphians were at least somewhat familiar with this carpetbagger from Nebraska (by way of Miami); and after one term on the Council, I decided to run for City Mayor. Fortunately for me, I lost. I say that because well, what happened next was another amazing opportunity that just fell in my lap.

Pat Halloran, left, with his wife Anne

From Pat’s Facebook page

The Grand Old Dame on Main & Beale

What happened was a job offer, in November 1980, as president and CEO of the Memphis Development Foundation. This was the foundation (started in 1976) created to restore the fabled Orpheum Theatre, which by 1980 was still in great need of repair.

It was well known by then that it would require millions of dollars more to take the bones of the beautiful 1928 vaudeville house and fully restore it to something grand: — possibly continuing as a performing arts venue featuring concerts and local groups or bringing in the larger touring Broadway productions. The streets surrounding the Orpheum were like a war zone. The Peabody Hotel was closed; and, except for a few passersby visiting A. Schwab’s variety store, Beale Street was a ghost town.

It took over four years for the Foundation to raise enough money to give the old dame a fresh look and to finally bring in the larger shows. At the same time, Beale Street was showing signs of life, the Peabody reopened, and more restaurants were opening, in giving the Rendezvous some needed company in the dining scene.

As for me, I was so fortunate to be involved with thousands in the community that were jumping at the opportunity to give this beautiful theater a chance to grow and expand to a real performing arts venue where a wide array of entertainment options were available.

Everyone who enjoys the Orpheum today has a huge list of dedicated volunteers, board members, sponsors, donors and audiences to thank. Over my 35 years as a member of the staff, I took great pride in what this experience meant to so many people.

Today, under the direction of another fabulous board and staff, great things continue to grow. With the new education facility – the Halloran Centre – sitting immediately next door to the old dame, the two together look like a mother with child. And what a beautiful family it is!

Regardless of those who still think I am a carpetbagger, one has to agree that I have had a pretty lucky tour of duty since leaving the sunshine of Miami in 1969 and taking in what is now my hometown of Memphis.

A New Venture

And so here I am, at the brink of my Late-Life Crisis, and I am getting that itchy feeling that I need to start something new again. I don’t hunt and don’t fish; I don’t go bowling, and I stink at golf – so what’s left? A new effort!

That’s what I am going to do! Something called “POSITIVELY MEMPHIS”– a program made up of a five-part effort focusing on the positive things about Memphis and the upcoming projects that are continuing at a torrid pace, providing the “why” when Travel & Leisure Magazine says that “Memphis is the hottest city in the South.”

It is my hope that media partners will step forward and align themselves with our “POSITIVELY MEMPHIS” efforts.

The StoryBoard 30 Podcast from FM 89.3, WYPL. One Lucky Man: Our interview with Pat Halloran in April, 2019. Listen below:

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