The Malco, the Orpheum: In Search of Your Memories

Hello readers,

As StoryBoard navigates the next few chapters of our ongoing history of the Orpheum Theatre, we are inviting the memories of Memphians and MidSouth patrons who visited the theater and downtown during the periods covered in the next installments.

Specifically, we are asking for your recollections of the period between 1960 and 1976, before the Memphis Development Corporation purchased the theatre and began its modern and most sustained revival. During this period, sweeping changes took place in Memphis, as the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, public places were desegregating, and the growth and lure of the eastern suburbs took thousands of Memphians farther away from downtown.

It was also a period that culminated with a downtown decimated by urban renewal bulldozers.

1981 Historic Aerial annotated. Here, most of the Beale Street area has been leveled by urban renewal. The Orpheum stands, highlighted at far left, on the west side of South Main at Beale Street. The footprint of the Randolph Building, on the east side of Main at Beale, across from the Orpheum, is highlighted as well. (Shelby County Register of Deeds)

Our prior chapters in the history so far may help your recollections: When it was The Malco: Hidden History of the Orpheum, Part II

From this period, please let us know your recollections. Here a few prompts:

Were you an African American patron in those days? Do you remember having to use the Beale Street ‘Colored Entrance’? Do you recall finally being able to enter through the main entrance?

Were you one of those who stood in line in 1965 to see GOLDFINGER?

Do you remember the old Randolph Building across the street from the Malco / Orpheum? Do you remember its demolition in early 1968, and the building of MLGW’s headquarters in its place?

Do you recall any of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visits, or the rioting in March and April of 1968 before and after his murder?

Did you see the documentary “King: From Montgomery to Memphis,” in 1971, at the Malco?

Did you see HAIR at the Malco in 1972?

Do you remember when you, your friends, or family members stopped going downtown, and started instead to go to the movies out east?

Use the comments below.

4 Replies to “The Malco, the Orpheum: In Search of Your Memories”

  1. In the mid 1960s my Snowden School friends and I caught the bus from Midtown (I don’t think the route still exists — we caught it on Faxon near Watkins) to downtown almost every Saturday during the school year, and frequently on weekdays in summer. Our routine included shopping at Gerber’s and Goldsmith’s for teen clothes, a “rest” period trying on shoes at Levy’s, lunch at the Krystal, and often taking in a movie at one of the great downtown theaters, including the Loew’s Palace (saw the Beatles’ “Help” there), Loew’s State, Warner’s, and yes, the Malco, where I saw Goldfinger when it opened in 1964.

    As we got older and had driver licenses, my friends and I began going to movies “out east,” because parking was hard downtown, and as of the events of 1968, downtown was pretty desolate and perceived as unsafe. We opted instead for the Plaza or Park theaters, or increasingly the newly-opened Malco Quartet, with its newfangled (then) multi-screen format giving us lots of options. Less fancy than the downtown movie palaces, but more convenient.

    It was a sadly self-perpetuating problem: downtown was considered unsafe, which caused people not to go there to shop or eat or be entertained, which caused businesses to close for lack of customers, which caused downtown to be deserted, which caused downtown to be unsafe.

    That is, until the city realized in the 1970s that a viable downtown is essential to the life of great cities, and began administering drastic life support, first by the conversion of Main Street to Mid America Mall, an outdoor pedestrian mall, which in and of itself was widely unpopular and debatably successful. But it was a dramatic enough effort to jump start all the other development that has followed, including the rebirth of the Peabody Hotel, construction of both AutoZone Park and FedEx Forum, the opening of numerous hotels and restaurants, and, best of all, the development of thousands of residential units throughout downtown. And a jewel in the crown: the saving of one of downtown’s most glamorous movie palaces, the Malco, through its renovation and revitalization and conversion to the Orpheum, the great multi-use arts facility it has become.

    We can fondly remember the old version of Downtown, while still appreciating today’s attractions , and saluting the tremendous effort it took to bring us back from the brink of destruction to the success story of today.

  2. IF you choose to post the reply I submitted yesterday, please correct the spelling on the two LOEW’S (not LOWE’S) movie theaters I mentioned. I believe I misspelled them.

    Thank you for this, and for StoryBoard.

    Beverly Cruthirds

  3. I was a senior at Immaculate Conception when Dr. King was killed. I was pretty naïve at the time of the ramifications of his assassination, of the sanitation workers’ strike and ignorant about the Civil Rights Movement. The immediate effect I felt was that our senior class trip, which had been scheduled for NYC & DC, was quickly rearranged. The nuns felt that a bus of white girls from Memphis would not be welcome in those cities. We turned tail & went south to Texas & Mexico.
    But that summer, thanks to my older sister, who, as a college sophomore was an activist at St. Louis University, I got involved in outreach for young girls at St. Patrick’s on Linden, right across from where the Fedex Forum sits today. The young girls we worked with lived in tenement housing on the site of the Forum & nearby: one single mother with 12 kids lived in 2 rooms. Some of the girls lived in Clayborne Homes and Foote homes. It was eye opening. We were often stopped by white police when driving the girls to Overton Park, or places out east. We went to subsequent marches. The whole experience changed my life and mindset. Over 50 years later, I’m still in touch with some of those “girls” – most of whom are grandmothers now.
    Kathy Haaga

  4. From reader and contributor Robert Lanier:

    The old building across from the Malco was known to many of us as the M&M building for reasons unknown. It was familiar to me as the locale of the draft board, where all young men of 18 had to register for the draft, and for the Herron-Hill Stamp Company office where we stamp collectors could buy collectable stamps and little devices used to stick and protect our stamps in albums. It was tiny and manned by an equally tiny old gent who presumably was either Mr. Herron or Mr. Hill.

    I was happy to read the comment by Beverly Cruthirds, one of my fellow founders of Memphis Heritage, as I had lost touch with her.

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