Before I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know him, I knew of Vincent Astor in name only, as the researcher and writer of the book Memphis Movie Theatres, and as someone who had spent some of his younger years working at the Orpheum, when it was still The Malco.
Back in 2018, for the second print issue of StoryBoard, I began researching the overlooked 1976 to 1980 history of the Orpheum. Lee ‘Hilly’ Wright was central to those early grassroots efforts to breathe new life into the grand old theatre, and Lee arranged for a meeting with Vincent at the Orpheum. I was lucky enough to sit down with him in the fall of that year. We sat up in the balcony of the great palace and talked all sorts of Orpheum history, especially his days with the theater in its late-’60s early-’70s Malco movie theater days, the times when we was just about the only person at work in the theatre.
He indulged me with more than a couple hours of storytelling and touring that day. He showed me the remaining markings of an old partition, evidence in the ceiling of the wall in the upper concourse that segregated “colored” patrons from white patrons in the ‘Jim Crow balcony.’ He showed me the boarded-up, colored-only box office entrance on the Beale Street side of the building, and the stairs that took these patrons to their side of the auditorium. And of course he told me all about Mary, the 12-year old resident ghost who was still sometimes seen in her white dress in the balcony suite seating overlooking stage left.
We talked about his younger days working in the theater in early 1970s, when it was stilled called The Malco, was surrounded by nothing but bulldozed vacant lots, the desolation of urban renewal, when it was vulnerable to crime, the elements, and under serious threat of demolition. These were the days just before he stayed on as a co-manager, along with Lee Wright, hired by the newly-formed Memphis Development Corporation, which bought the theater in 1976 under the direction of Union Planters Bank president Bill Mathews. Vincent and Lee did everything from taking tickets to cleaning the chandeliers and fixing or removing rickety, 50-year-old theater seats before, or after, they collapsed under patrons.
And Vincent talked a bit about the beloved Louise, the nickname of the mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that for decades rose up from the orchestra pit at stage right. When we talked that day in the balcony in 2018, the 100-year-old organ was out, in Chicago for a $500,000 restoration.
After that conversation, tour and history lesson, I kept in touch with Vincent off and on, or I’d see him out and about during Friday night Trolley Nights along South Main. And later I learned about his experiences as a gay man in ’70s and ’80s, his escapades at places like the old George’s on Madison (now the Bar-B-Q Shop) and his efforts to bring drag shows to Memphis at the Evergreen Theatre.
And then in late 2020, with the pandemic showing hopeful signs of slowing down and with vaccines on the horizon, Louise the Wurlitzer made its triumphant return to the stage. Eager to see it and hear it, I reached out to Vincent and enlisted the help of Willy Bearden and as Vincent shook off the rust, he gave us a history lesson and a private concert that we filmed and recorded during an enchanting morning in an empty auditorium, a day in Memphis that I will never forget.
It pains me to hear that Vincent may have passed away alone. It pains me to know he was just 69 – he could have had so many more anecdotes and stories to share with Memphis, still more to give to the community. But for a moment, that moment two years ago, we were his audience for a special StoryBoard 30, below. If you did not know Vincent, listen to the magic, wonder and storytelling of our November 2020 podcast and you’ll get a small sampling of this eccentric, outspoken and talented Memphis character. He was one of a kind.
I was honored to know you Vincent Astor. I’m so sorry to see you leave us. May you Rest In Peace.