Revisited: Introduction to An (almost) Lost 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 struggles and survival during mid-1960s urban renewal in a ravaged downtown; and its pivotal 5-year revival from 1976-1980

Story by Mark Fleischer

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

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

Stepping out of the 50-year-old theater during the mid-1970s, Lee Wright looked out at a downtown landscape that looked nothing like what he knew in his youth. He was surrounded by a surreal panorama, block after block of vacant, bulldozed land that was now being utilized as dusty, unpaved parking lots.

Looking to his right, down South Main, the Hotel Chisca and the rest of the streetscape was still intact. But to left his left, looking north and northeast, he would see what observers said looked like a war zone and a bombed-out Berlin after World War II. Up the street, the grand old movie palace, the Loew’s State Theatre, had been demolished along with entire square blocks that surrounded the Orpheum. A few more blocks away, the Peabody Hotel was still boarded up. Directly in front of him across the street, the stately, 8-story masonry Randolph Building was long gone, and in its place was an 8-year-old behemoth, the imposing office building that was home to Memphis Light, Gas & Water.

And Beale Street? Barely two blocks of the former “Black Main Street” remained. The once-thriving commercial and entertainment district was now mostly boarded up, and all of the surrounding neighborhoods bulldozed to nothing. By most accounts, the only businesses that remained open were the iconic A. Schwab Dry Goods and Lansky Brothers clothing store, Art Hutkin’s hardware store, and the Novick’s Loans and Engelberg’s pawn shops.

Lucia Gilliland, board member of the Memphis Development Foundation (which purchased the Orpheum in 1976), said that “downtown was at its absolute darkest moment.”

The historic aerials above (1981 at left, 1949 at right) illustrate the devastation of the Beale Street area under the federal urban renewal projects that were implemented by the Memphis Housing Authority (MHA) from 1957 to 1977. (Aerials from the Shelby County Assessor’s site)

ABOVE: In the 151-acre “Beale Street I” area (profiled left to right, west to east), the MHA eventually demolished 560 “substandard” buildings between 1969 and 1973, including the grand Loew’s State Theatre at 152 S. Main (red triangle, just north of McCall Place), and the 8-story brick masonry Randolph/M&M Building, at 198 S. Main (also in red, at the southeast corner of Main and Beale). Over 1500 residents were displaced, and just 65 original structures were spared, included the Malco/Orpheum Theatre (in red, east side of Main). The Malco, originally targeted by the MHA for the new Memphis, Light, Gas & Power building, was spared by the authority of the federal program.

Note the changes to the street grid to isolate the proposed Beale Street entertainment district (According to MHA Deputy Director Randall A. P. Johnson, MHA decided that “people just wouldn’t come to that type of area,” in reference to the adjacent, majority-Black neighborhoods): the elimination of Hernando Street through the Beale Street district; the elimination of Turley Street; the widening and rerouting of Linden Avenue and the creation of a new street (later to be named Lt. George W. Lee Avenue) ending at Second Street; and finally the widening and rerouting of Wellington Street and its name change in honor of entertainer and St. Jude founder Danny Thomas. In addition, McCall Place later would be become Peabody Place.

The Orpheum Theatre – the grand movie palace known for 3 decades as The Malco – was right in the middle of the destruction, but had been spared by urban renewal. And it remained, mercifully, sitting on an urban island surrounded by the desolation.

A vulnerable, aging palace sits alone, an island surrounded by urban renewal desolation. The Orpheum in 1976, before it was sold to the new Memphis Development Corporation. View northeast from Linden Avenue (now Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd). (Courtesy Hillsman Lee Wright from his private collection)

After five decades as a stage for Vaudeville and 1930s singers and big band entertainers, then from the 1940s on as a movie house for big Hollywood musicals, Cinemascope epics and wide-screen classics, the elegant theatre was showing her age.

Inside, the theatre’s velvet curtains were worn and tattered. The paint and plaster of its interior walls and ceilings were chipping away. And while its grand chandeliers were being routinely maintained, there were ongoing issues with the seats.

“We had 2655 seats,” said Lee Wright. “And theater seats are always a problem, but we had seats that had been used for 45, 50 years, and we would have occasions where a seat would collapse under somebody. It was that kind of thing.”

And outside, urban renewal bulldozers had chipped away at some of the building’s southern walls.

Above: 1976 photos from Hillsman Lee Wright’s personal collection

But throughout downtown in 1978, there were signs of hope and revival. The new Volunteer Park Museum and the Mud Island tram were under construction over on Mud Island. Gene Carlisle’s Beale Street Landing at One Beale was getting ready to open. The first International Barbecue Cooking Contest had taken place on the vacant lot on the north side of the Orpheum. And the first Beale Street Music Festival had been held a year earlier, on the corner of Beale and Third.

And the heart of the Orpheum was still beating. Thanks to the heroic efforts of Bill Mathews and Union Planters Bank, the board members of the Memphis Development Foundation, and the onsite management of Vincent Astor, Lee Wright and Rutledge Forney, the blood of live blues and jazz performances, various stage plays and performances and yes, vintage and second-run movies were keeping her bones healthy enough to keep her alive, while audiences willing to brave a desolate downtown were supplying just enough oxygen (and cash) to keep her breathing.

The Orpheum has had many lives, from Vaudeville to movie palace to the host of touring Broadway shows. From 1928 to 1940 it survived the Great Depression and changing times, from 1940 thru the 1960s it prospered as movie palace, and from the early 1980s to today it has thrived as cornerstone of downtown Memphis.

But from 1964 to the late 1970s, its fate was in question, along with the rest of Beale Street and downtown. This summer, in honor of the theatre’s 95th birthday this fall, StoryBoard is revisiting this epic period, with new analysis, never-before published stories and interviews, never-before heard recorded interviews, and rarely-seen videos.

Next time on the Almost Forgotten History of the Orpheum: A brief history of the theatre and the first threats of its destruction from Memphis Light, Gas & Water and the Memphis Housing Authority.

If you have personal stories of the theatre in its Malco or Orpheum days from the 1960s to the late 1970s, please share them in the comments below.

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Mark Fleischer is the founder and executive director of StoryBoard Memphis. The Orpheum’s Forgotten History was originally published as a front-page feature in StoryBoard’s former print edition in November of 2018. This summer-long online series expands from the confines of print and features more in-depth stories and analysis, never-before published interviews and stories, and recorded interviews from the participants who brought the vintage palace back to life.

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