More to Come: Playhouse on the Square History, Part 6

1993-2015: A Philanthropist Arrives: Memphis Theatre Hits Boomtime 

One fateful day in 1993, a top executive at AutoZone dropped by Playhouse on the Square and found Jackie Nichols on a ladder changing the letters on the marquee. Andrew Clarkson saw a kindred spirit — a business leader willing to do the so-called grunt work for something he believed in. After that first conversation, Andrew offered to buy the theatre a couple of new computers for the box office and fund some additional improvements. 

When the wife of an AutoZone employee mentioned to Andrew that she was running a small theatre company but lacked a performance space, he came back to Playhouse to see if there was a solution. The native of Scotland had business savvy and generosity. He also had financial resources in the form of a family foundation called Jeniam (named after his daughter, Jennifer, and son, William), which was managed by Charlotte King, sister of the late Ron Gordon. 

Jackie and Andrew began hatching the plan for TheatreWorks, an experimental venue that could be used by various resident companies as a way to grow the Memphis theatre community. They came to an agreement: if Andrew could provide a $150,000 donation and the loan of an AutoZone architect, Jackie would get $100,000 of donated materials and a vacant lot on the corner of Monroe and Diana Streets on which to build. 

The small troupe Andrew intended to help, Playwrights’ Forum, would get six free weeks a year for productions and free office space for ten years. The venue would also provide a home for five other emerging companies whose minimal rents would pay for the annual operating costs of the building.  Andrew’s backing was the easy part. After a year of working on the planning, the financing, the de sign, the donated construction materials and the variances, the whole deal almost collapsed when an executive at Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company reneged on the land donation. It had been promised on the grounds that a new theatre would bring more patrons to a struggling Overton Square, which Connecticut Mutual also owned at that point. 

The theatre resorted to old-fashioned public relations. A front-page story about how Connecticut Mutual backed out of a $35,000 donation of unusable property to a nonprofit didn’t look good. The president of the board at the time, Randy Regan, was a Vice-President of NationsBank, a principal funder of projects for Connecticut Mutual. He overnighted a three-page letter to Connecticut Mutual’s president questioning the wisdom of a move that would create ill will and bad press for something of no value to them. Randy heard back immediately: the deed to the property would be delivered within days, and the executive who had reneged would trouble Memphis no longer. 

TheatreWorks opened to the public in March of 1996. That was just the beginning of Andrew and  Jeniam’s support of Memphis theatre and the arts community as a whole. He then helped secure a much-needed warehouse for sets, costumes and props storage. The space was shared by Ballet Memphis and Opera Memphis. 

More Jeniam funding projects followed: The Ticket (a quarterly arts newspaper), dimmer boards, sound boards, lighting instruments, computers, company trips to the Shaw and Stratford Festivals in Canada, collaborations between our youth company and the Dundee Rep in Scotland, new roofs, air-conditioning units, sewing machines, electronic marquees, company vehicles and a multitude of smaller items. 

The biggest was yet to come. 

We can’t understate the importance of Andrew Clarkson, the Jeniam Foundation, and Charlotte King to our existence and growth. They are truly loved by us all. 

A few years ago, as Andrews’s health was failing, Jackie put together a book honoring his legacy of hands-on giving, titled “Learn, Earn and Return” (a philosophy Andrew’s father instilled in him). Each arts group he helped fund in Memphis contributed two pages of photos along with narratives of how he’d supported them. 

In addition to Playhouse, the groups are The Memphis Symphony, Opera Memphis, the National Ornamental Metal Museum, Theatre Memphis, Voices of the South, The Blues Foundation, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, the Brooks Museum, ArtsMemphis, The Rock & Soul Museum, University of Memphis Theatre and Beale Street Caravan.  

Near the end of Andrew’s life, Jackie flew to his home in Connecticut to present the book. As tears rolled down his cheeks, the businessman who’d never desired to be an artist realized what a profound impact he made on the vibrant arts community he helped to build. 

2007: What the F***ing F***ing F***?!

Professional theatre companies peg their reputations on the risks they take as much as the quality of their work. And some risks are too good to pass up. Rocky Horror was one. So was another British production that we heard about, first through word of mouth and later because it won London’s top dramatic award, the Olivier.  

It was a musical — no, an opera — based on America’s most mortifying cultural export, Jerry Springer’s daytime talk show, best known for shameless guests who spend the whole bleeping show fighting over who bleeped whom. 

Jerry Springer—The Opera featured majestic arias sung with the world’s foulest language. Did we mention the characters included a fat Elvis and a diaper-wearing Jesus? So, controversial in more ways than excessive bleeping. So controversial, in fact, that a long-awaited Broadway production kept getting delayed.  

They contacted the London producers and campaigned to be the first American theatre company to stage the show. In their pitch, they noted the historic Elvis connection, played up the very real possibility of an angry religious mob, and made a convincing case that if it could play in the Deep South (where, let’s face it, Springer recruits most of his guests), the show could play anywhere. Within a few days, they received an email: “Let’s talk about this.” 

They later learned that their offer had come just days after the Broadway negotiations fell through. The producers shrugged: “Hell, if they want to do it in Memphis, let’s give it to them.” 

The authors themselves came to the opening, loved the show, and had a bleeping good time. 

The theatre did, however, make a special effort to deter the faint of heart. A bound notebook was placed conspicuously in the lobby. The cover read: “This book contains all of the foul language or phrases encountered in Jerry Springer—The Opera, much of which is sung in a high C. If you find this offensive, we suggest you not buy tickets to this production.” 

2002-Present: To Neverland and Beyond

Over the years, tens of thousands of school children have watched in awe as Peter Pan, with the help of pixie dust, miraculously levitated to Neverland — a miracle carried out for many of those seasons in a theatre with no fly space. 

By the early 2000s, their artistic aspirations had long outpaced their technical capabilities. To rise to the next level professionally, the theatre itself needed to grow. 

They considered a major remodel of Playhouse, still operating in the converted cinema. For a few million dollars, they could knock out walls, raise the roof, expand the wings and create a semblance of a traditional performance space. 

Or they could bite the bullet, raise a lot more money, and build a brand-new theatre. 

In 2002, the theatre received grant money to dream. They hired an architect to show what a new space would look like and how much it would cost. That architect was John Morris, known for his design of the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. They chose him on the recommendation of Rob Satterlee, the Stage Manager at Steppenwolf who was moonlighting for Playhouse as a director. “It’s a real actors’ theatre,” he said. So, they toured their space and asked everyone who worked there if there was anything they would change about the design. Their answer was unanimous: Nothing. That decided it. Morris knew how theatres were supposed to work. The following year, Playhouse conducted a feasibility study, which offered a more detailed concept. Though they considered various locations across the city, they set their sights on a nearby piece of real estate. 

Across the street from Playhouse stood a dilapidated building that for decades had been used as an antique mall. Behind that stood a five-story office building, which in its heyday had been the corporate headquarters for the Shoney’s restaurant chain. Morris’s design would require tearing down the antique store and grafting the new performance space to the side of the office building. 

In March 2004, they hosted a board retreat — the moment of truth. Would board members commit to a massive capital campaign or stop us in our tracks? Board member Steve Miles was a top executive at FedEx at the time. He led us through the same kind of high-level organizational evaluation that major corporations go through before making huge decisions. 

“Let’s get one thing straight,” he advised. “You will not be spending $15 million to build a new theatre. That’s not why we’re doing this. We’re spending $15 million to transform a community. To turn Midtown into the center of arts in the city.” This guiding principle would help sell the project to hundreds of donors — large and small. One problem: the property they staked their future on wasn’t for sale.  

After the board signed on, Jackie Nichols asked the owners if they might donate this high-visibility real estate to the noble cause of transforming the arts in Midtown. After their laughter subsided, they offered to sell the land — the antique mall, the office building, and the adjacent parking lot — for $1.1 million. 

On the eve of demolishing the antique mall, the theatre invited the community to “vandalize” the building.  They provided cans of spray paint to hundreds of curious Midtowners. Among them was an elderly woman. 

“Do you realize this building used to be a theatre?” she asked to our collective surprise. She retrieved an old photograph showing that the antique mall, in the early 1900s, had previously been a movie house called the “American Theatre.” Will Rogers once performed there in person. They took that as a good sign. 

Raising $15 million didn’t come easily. They began lining up major donors in July of 2004 under the direction of Janie McCrary, one of the most successful nonprofit fundraisers in Memphis. Momentum waned the following year when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the nation turned its attention to rebuilding that city. In September 2007, they finally moved into our “community phase,” turning to the general public to help us reach the goal. 

They broke ground March 27, 2008, in the middle of what is now called the “Subprime Mortgage Crisis.” They knew it simply as “the recession.” Across the country, major theatre companies were going bankrupt and shutting down while Playhouse was audaciously pouring concrete. 

Twenty-two months later, on the night of January 29, 2010, the entire City of Memphis was on lock down because an ice storm had turned the streets to glass and most businesses were closed. Our new theatre, however, was warm, dazzling, and packed with people who came to our first opening night — a production of the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin 

One of the last big checks they received came from the national Kresge Foundation. Their contribution had been contingent upon our raising at least three-fourths of the goal. Their maximum funding, according to their own guidelines, was $500,000. When a check arrived for $650,000, we assumed there’d been an error. A phone call to their accounting department confirmed that our messaging — spelled out at that first board retreat — had been on target. 

“We feel that you’re not just building a new theatre” said the Kresge rep. “You’re redeveloping Midtown Memphis. We wanted to acknowledge that.” 

In the immediate years that followed, Memphis developer Bob Loeb credited Playhouse on the Square for his own decision to revitalize Overton Square into the vibrant entertainment district it is today. Ekundayo Bandele, a young theater producer mentored by Jackie, would soon build Hattiloo Theatre next door to Circuit. Today it’s one of the only free-standing black repertory theaters in the country. Ballet Memphis, the city’s oldest professional dance company, relocated from Cordova to the corner of Madison and Cooper to capitalize on the new artistic energy of Midtown. 

Now, on any given weekend, audiences can see live theater at Playhouse, Circuit, TheatreWorks, Evergreen, or at any of the other Midtown-based companies and venues that owe at least some gratitude to a group of high school kids who, 50 years ago, decided to put on a play. 

The Playhouse on the Square History series is brought to you by StoryBoard’s partnership with Playhouse on the Square. All stories and images are credited to Christopher Blank and the Playhouse on the Square archives.

Missed any part of the Playhouse on the Square history? You can read Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

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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