Expansion: Playhouse on the Square History, Part 5

1978: Sweet Transvestites

In London, circa 1973, adventurous theatregoers were flocking to a small movie-house-turned-live theatre outside the West End where a cult phenomenon had just been born, a musical combining camp, science fiction, and gender-bending horror. 

“I have to do this show someday,” remarked one vacationing audience member who operated his own theatre in Memphis, Tennessee — perhaps the least likely place this particular musical would be appreciated.  

Jackie Nichols would have to wait a bit. When The Rocky Horror Show finally did come to America, it suffered an ignominious Broadway run — just 45 performances. It was immediately followed by the 1975 film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, equally disparaged upon its initial release. 

After the Broadway run, Jackie called Lou Adler and Associates on the West Coast and began negotiating for the rights. They were finally granted late in the season in 1978, among the first regional productions in the country. A plan was hatched to mount the show as another site-specific production, this time in an old movie theatre just as it had been in London. 

Jackie contacted the owner of The Movie House, a one-screen neighborhood theatre on Poplar Avenue that had formerly been The Guild, The Ritz, and The Evergreen. At the time, it cost $1 to see a film there. Profits came from beer and popcorn, except there weren’t many patrons to sell to. Jackie promised the owner more beer and popcorn sales in one month than he’d make in a whole year showing movies. 

To make a live production possible, a stage was built in front of the movie screen, with a long runway through the middle of the audience. The 8-foot-wide space behind the screen served as a dressing room. 

Jackie knew that success depended on a star — someone who could do justice to Tim Curry’s turn as the “sweet transvestite, transexual Transylvanian” Dr. Frank-n-Furter. The role went not to an actor, but to Memphis musician Larry Raspberry, who had success the previous decade as the lead singer of the Gentrys (“Keep on Dancing”). Raspberry brought his own band, the High Steppers, who were able to truly make this a rock musical. Because Raspberry’s group could typically make more money in one night than the theatre could pay in two weeks, a deal was made to split the door revenue after expenses. 

The show opened December 15, 1978, and Raspberry proved his worth as both an actor and singer.  Word of mouth spread quickly (with no social media), and the theatre was packed for the run, at Christmas no less.  

The Movie House is now the Evergreen Theatre, where monthly midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show by the company Absent Friends with live actors as a “shadowcast” has been taking place since 2010. These shows still sell out. 

1981: Puttin’ on the Ritz

With the mid-century rise of shopping malls and multiplexes came the fall of neighborhood cinemas, which were once scattered all over Memphis and in desperate need of repurposing. In 1981, they bought their first one — the same theater at 1705 Poplar where Rocky Horror Show debuted a few years earlier. 

Built in 1927, when early audiences would have arrived by streetcar, the theater had gone by various names: The Ritz, the Guild, the Evergreen, and The Movie House. The property became available just as they were being evicted from our Overton Park location (where the landlord planned to build an indoor ski slope). They paid $65,000, and the mortgage was just a few hundred dollars more than their previous rent. 

Jackie Nichols sketched out the interior design, which segmented the sloping, single-screen cinema into a multi-purpose facility for a theatre company, complete with a scene shop, rehearsal room, dressing rooms, costume shop, storage, and a proper proscenium stage. Though they removed most of the original seats to make room for all of this, their audience capacity still increased 50 percent over their previous location, from 90 seats to 140. 

One morning, halfway into the breakneck, 60-day renovation project, they found a stop work order attached to the front door. In their haste and excitement, they had forgotten one thing: a building permit.  Through the generosity of a real architect, Charles Shipp, the designs were finally given the official stamp of approval. 

Just three weeks after they closed the final show at 1906 Poplar (The Play’s the Thing), they premiered their first production in the newly christened Circuit Playhouse. The play Loose Ends opened August 14, 1981, was directed by Jerry Chipman, and featured Cookie Ewing and Tony Isbell. 

The theatre came with a great history and played an important role in Memphis’s LGBTQ community.  Back in 1969, it was the site of the city’s first public drag pageant. Though cross-dressing was illegal at the time, the police couldn’t intervene because the show was on Halloween night, when jailing people in costumes might otherwise appear heavy-handed. That pageant is considered by many to be a turning point for LGBTQ rights in Memphis. 

The Circuit Playhouse name was relocated in 2010. Now the theatre is called the Evergreen and is operated by TheatreWorks as a venue for resident independent theater companies. Drag shows and Rocky Horror screenings still regularly play to sold-out houses. 

1986: Presley, Porn and Playhouse

Less than a decade into their residency on Overton Square, the business climate around them was changing. The square fell into decline as its owners had a falling out over finances. The Square was sold to a large consortium outside the city and the new management was less interested in theatre and more interested in rent. 

Just down the street, at 51 South Cooper, an old movie theatre called the Memphian was a possible new location for us. It had a connection to rock-and-roll royalty. In the 1950s and early ’60s, Elvis would screen films for his friends there late at night. Though the building had once been owned by the Lightmans (founders of the Malco Cinema chain), the proprietor since 1981 was a local character named Danny Owens, the “topless club king” of Memphis who was missing parts of two fingers, allegedly from a knife fight. Danny had purchased the Memphian intending to show pornographic movies, but his timing was off: the rise of VHS rentals meant that classic cinema such as Deep Throat now could be appreciated in more private environs. 

At that time, they were suffering from a lack of cash while Danny was suffering from an image problem (go figure). So, they worked out a deal in which they would get the building appraised for $500,000, half of which we would pay with a mortgage where the monthly note was roughly the equivalent of the rent in Overton Square. Danny would donate the other half — on paper, at least — which made him look like a civic-minded philanthropist. While Danny Owens’s reputation was that of an underworld businessman, they received only honest and fair treatment from him. In the contract, he agreed to put a new roof on the building and the day after closing, workmen were onsite. Danny added one stipulation to the contract: six reserved seats up to two days before every show for his personal use.  He never took them up on that. 

To transform the auditorium into a usable theater space, they consulted architect Charles Shipp and started what was at that time their largest capital campaign, spearheaded by Gene Katz and Buck Clark with help from their friends. 

The Memphian was a 500-seat auditorium with no stage or lobby. To make it a live theatre, they removed the front 50-feet of seating to make room for the 40-by-28 proscenium stage with minimal flyspace and narrow wings. Behind that was the greenroom and dressing rooms, stacked on top of each other. 

To build a front-of-house, they removed the rear seven rows of seating, which is why there is a lobby gallery behind the last row of seats. The warren of small offices upstairs — where they ran the company for more than two decades — along with the light and sound booth were constructed atop the balcony that was a relic of racial segregation. 

While “thoroughly” cleaning the classic red seats in preparation for classier audiences, they were able to identify the place where Elvis generally sat during his midnight parties. That seat is in the lobby for fans to enjoy. 

Just three weeks after closing our last production in the old Lafayette’s in Overton Square, they opened the new Playhouse on the Square in December of 1986 with a production of Gypsy.  

The existing neon is original to the theatre except that they replaced “Memphian” with “Circuit” and “Playhouse.” They were very glad to be able to save the historic movie house from a lesser fate or possible demolition. 

1991: Bus and Truck

It goes without saying that times have changed in the world of theatre production. Things they got away with 30 years ago would never fly with insurance executives, fire marshals, and cooler heads today. 

Case in point: Two Rooms, the most intense of the 12 site-specific shows that they’ve done. The play deals with an American who has been kidnapped and held hostage in a room in Beirut. His wife back in Washington has created a room in her home that she imagines is similar to the one in which her husband is held captive. It’s an emotionally disturbing and challenging play. 

When the audience arrived at Playhouse, armed, masked men kidnapped and loaded them into a bus with blacked-out windows. They then took them on a discombobulating ride to a warehouse with a set resembling the imagined cell. Staging something like this today would be, at best, inadvisable.

1996: Memphis Magnolias Make The New York Times

In 1996, Playhouse finally made the cover of The New York Times entertainment section. Normally, this would be cause to celebrate. Not so much for the cast of Steel Magnolias, which was in rehearsals. The role of Truvy, a hairdresser, was played by one of Memphis’s best performers and a real-life hairdresser. 

Mark Chambers also had a long history of performing in drag. And while the theatre thought he was the perfect choice, playwright Robert Harling and the house that licensed his work vehemently disagreed— an artistic dispute that made for titillating reading in the Times

Mark was replaced by a female, and to this day drag productions of Steel Magnolias are strictly verboten. 

1998- The Footprint Widens

The building next door to the former Circuit Playhouse (now TheatreWorks-Evergreen) may be fairly nondescript, but throughout the late 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s, a parade of music legends appeared in the doorway. Among them: Steve Cropper, Jeff Beck and Jerry Lee Lewis. 

The once state-of-the-art recording studio passed through various owners before falling victim to the music trends that sent the industry out of Memphis. When the property came on the market, they recognized its potential: the small studios could be used for office space. A large studio that could fit an entire orchestra would serve as a much-needed rehearsal hall. 

The theatre offered what we could afford: $100,000. The building sold for $150,000… to someone else. They licked their wounds and moved on. Soon after that deal fell through, the Devoe Paint Store attached to Playhouse on the Square announced it was moving out. Again, they got excited. They could finally add handicapped accessible restrooms, an expanded party room, a bar area, and most importantly, a large scene shop. But renovation alone would run in the neighborhood of $250,000, and the owners wanted to lease — not sell — the building. 

They knew they couldn’t raise funds for a facility they didn’t own. After much haggling, they agreed to a ten-year lease with the money going toward a predetermined purchase price of $140,000. 

“The Memphian Room” deal fell into place exactly at the right time and was possible only because they lost the bid on the recording studio at 1711 Poplar. Later, they learned that the studio had been purchased by Jeanne and Henry Varnell. 

It was used primarily by their daughter and her boyfriend for just a few years. When they quit making music together, the Varnells generously gifted the building to Playhouse in 1997 to expand community education programs. 

The lesson here for any arts group is to not let ambition get ahead of finances. Growth should be cautious and strategic. But they can’t help mentioning the other takeaway: it doesn’t hurt to have great friends and neighbors. 

Want more Playhouse on the Square history? You can read Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Christopher Blank is WKNO’s News Director, a frequent contributor to NPR, and moderates conversations about Memphis’s arts and culture community through the station’s Culture Desk Facebook page. He wrote this history of Playhouse on the Square for the theatre’s 50th anniversary.

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