TennesseeSoul



& MORE:



Home

Archives

Center City



Introduction


Remarkably, without hesitation, a few young people who barely knew one another joined, along with a big bank, to do something in public that they had never done before – for a cause of passion and delight.

 




Memphis 1974-1981

DOWNTOWN AFTER DARK: DARK NO MORE

by Jerry Murley

Downtown Memphis, in the summer of 1974, was the focus of much attention. Significant buildings were empty, except for debris and pigeons. The city already had a plan in the works to close down Main Street to automobiles and create a pedestrian mall. Trouble was that there was little on old Main Street worth walking to and, supposedly, much inciting people to walk fast from. There were plenty of wig shops and lifeless plazas, concrete moats distancing big banks and other office buildings.

Few people lived Downtown. And the night life that would attract middle-class and young-adult Memphians was rare. The old Malco theater on South Main was charting a comeback with short-run traveling theater events and music concerts. To revive Downtown, Memphis needed peaceful people of all kinds walking the streets at night as patrons of entertainment destinations. To get people back, there needed to be reasons – a variety of them.

When I was in England in 1972, I was a frequent visitor of the National Film Theatre on the Thames. It was located in a modern building which included theater space for plays and concerts. There was a bar as well. Obscure films from all over the world were circulating nightly.

I confess that I actually like dull, slow-moving foreign-language films, even at that age. I came to see them as training to help endure the doldrums of young-adult indirection – and as preparation for some of the more severe and listless times in life to come. As a teenager I had acquired a taste for the otherworldly weirdness and allure of foreign movies at the Guild Theatre on Poplar Avenue in Midtown. In college, the movie house on Highland Avenue occasionally offered an experimental fare. By 1974, movie series dotted Memphis from the Jewish Community Center in East Memphis to tidbits at Memphis State, the public library on Peabody, and the University of Tennessee. These venues were inexpensive, guaranteed to offer something out of the ordinary, and a good place to see, if not rub elbows with, the few thoughtful and artsy people in Memphis. A better place to attract interesting-seeming but aloof young women did not exist in Memphis, except maybe for salons of old college friends.

When the mayor of Memphis established thirteen task forces to help put people into the grand plans for Downtown that were ceaselessly advocated by the Chamber of Commerce, I, as part of my job in city government – and as an extension of the personal interests that had led me to City Hall in the first place – participated as a support resource in some of the groups. One of the groups was nightlife oriented; others were focused on areas such as security, housing, and history. To launch the task forces, a reception was hosted in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel one evening in the early summer of 1974.

At the reception, I struck up a conversation with Jim Roper. Jim worked in marketing at First National Bank headquartered on Madison Avenue. He had been asked by the mayor's team to serve on the Historical Task Force. It turned out that he was passionate about both Downtown and the theater in general. I proposed that we work together to create a film society Downtown. He offered to talk to the bank about our using the auditorium in the basement of the main branch of the bank. The auditorium had an entry room; it was conveniently located in terms of street access, parking, a few restaurants, restrooms, and security; and it had theater seating for around 200 people, a large screen, a projection booth, a projector, and a pretty good sound system.

As risk averse as individuals, businesses, and corporations are today, I have difficulty imagining any entity allowing a group of unknowns to use their facilities at night, especially one night a week for several months each year without paying a cent. With persuasive arguments regarding the benefits, Jim, who would from day one be a crucial participant in the project, opened the bank's doors on Tuesday night, once a week for four months or so each year from 1974 through 1981.

Truthfully, I do not recall if the non-profit arts-promotion organization, Front Street Arts, was already in the works at the time of that fateful conversation at the Peabody or not. If it wasn't, it very soon was. In fairness to history, I can't even remember who was present at the inception of Front Street Arts or who all joined when in launching Lyceum Film Theater and doing one of the many tasks required to make it work. I have a mental picture of a founding meeting in spring, possibly summer, in the apartment of Michael Lance on Poplar Avenue: I think he, Don Donati, and I were there. [1] By summer, Michael had left for Norway. Beverly Cruthirds was deeply involved from the beginning. Jim and Pat Waters worked closely with Front Street Arts on many levels on a couple of highly visible projects. Joyce Hulme was a regular at the mailing and ticket desks – also playing a role hosting, cheering, and waiting. And all, including Gail Dodson and Harold Day, contributed to the selection and sequencing of movie offerings. Sally Hunt may have contributed in some of these aspects during the first season as well. Alan Copeland, an employee of First National Bank (which a few years later was renamed First Tennessee Bank), faithfully served for token remuneration as the projectionist. Along with me, as general director, Beverly served in a chief administrative capacity. She virtually carried Lyceum alone for the last two years of its life. At any rate, soon after Front Street Arts was formally created, with the guidance of Don, as a 501(c)3 organization, Lyceum Film Theater became its foremost project. Lyceum was the banner project that fortune favored.

By that point in life, my fledgling persona as river-town impresario had emerged in pure abandon. The promotion of Lyceum, the merit of our offerings, the quality of the audience experience, and the nightly receipts, all became weekly obsessions. Beverly Cruthirds took care of everything having to do with the look of our graphic presentation. Her hand-lettered logos and signs put Front Street Arts and Lyceum forward as relaxed, light-hearted, but in-the-know efforts. [2] She and Jim wrote or edited most of the synopses distributed in press releases and membership brochures. But, alas, the one thing I did not bargain for was the duty of making opening announcements at events and speaking to the press about Lyceum. Knowing my Mickey Rooney, I knew the show that the gang had thrown together must go on, so I pushed on and did my bit as best I could. Therefore, on opening night of the first couple of seasons, I strolled down the aisle, tie and hair in place, to welcome supporters. The only season opener that I vividly remember began with the showing of The Lion in Winter. I stood before a full auditorium and with a few words of thanks launched the series yet again.


After getting Lyceum off the ground, it became a matter of routine: assembling the selection committee once a year; compiling, typesetting, printing, and distributing the brochures and news releases; ordering, paying for, picking up, and hand posting heavy film containers; manning the ticket desk; making nightly deposits at the bank; giving ongoing feedback about the projection and audio quality; buying a topnotch projector; doing accounting and filing an annual financial report with the IRS. [3] At times I performed all of the tasks on my own except selecting films, writing about them, designing the brochure, and sitting at the ticket desk prior to each and every movie. [4] It gradually became tiring.

The people came, often after dinner or before drinks Downtown. The press and non-Downtowners noticed that young and middle-age white people were actually choosing to go Downtown – at night!

The most memorable night for me was after the Iranians took Americans hostage. As the theater gods would have it, our offering soon after was Zulu, which I am pretty sure Harold Day had us add to the film schedule that year. The pumped-up, war-like aggression of the nation was palpable in that night's attendees before the movie began. The house was packed. Fortunately, in 1974, few people carried concealed weapons into movies theaters, otherwise a few Zulus, and the First Tennessee movie screen, might have been riddled with holes. As it was, little damage was done and all enjoyed the cathartic victory of besieged white men over dark, barbaric hordes possessing thunderous shields and deep, haunting voices.

One year, Lyceum sponsored a special event in May. Front Street Arts arranged with the Memphis Showboat to present two movies at night on the Mississippi River. Here is how it was reported in Center City [5]:

  Lyceum Goes Overboard

A preview of Lyceum Film Theatre's 1976 season will be given May 27 when two film classics will be presented aboard the Memphis Showboat, docked on the Mississippi River at the foot of Monroe.

The films, to be shown at 8 p.m., are the original screen version of Lost Horizon, starring Ronald Colman, and the award-winning 1930's comedy classic, My Man Godfrey with Carole Lombard and William Powell.

 
The acoustics were terrible, but few seemed concerned. It was yet another way to bond with our supporters, win some new friends of Downtown, and enjoy the river with acquaintances past sunset. The next morning, four of us kept close to the river and drove down to New Orleans for a couple of days.

An understanding of the Lyceum project only starts with the convening of people to watch old classic movies together: it was much more complex than that. Some of the other Front Street Arts members were very interested in the selection, sequencing, and description of movies each season. But all of us saw Lyceum as a political instrument first and foremost – a way to get people Downtown at night. It was the perfect combination of grassroots, business, and government working together toward a good end that cost the public nothing and returned much [6].

I left Front Street Arts and Lyceum Film Theater when I moved from Memphis in the summer of 1980. Beverly Cruthirds carried Lyceum forward for two more seasons. She says that Don helped with the IRS reporting, but she grew weary of lugging the heavy film canisters from the post office on Front Street to the bank on Madison for the Tuesday night showing and back again the next day.

Though Beverly says that attendance was good for the final two years, a few factors were working against a continuation of the effort. For all Memphians who had grown up watching classic American movies on WREG-TV, afternoons and late nights every day of the week, and classic foreign movies on WKNO-TV on Friday nights, the pull of VCR devices, home movie rentals, and movies on cable television was bound to get stronger. [7] Also, the old Malco movie house, which became the Orpheum Theatre in the late 1970s, was presenting classic movies Downtown (along with plays and concerts, and eventually ballet and opera) in a classic venue that we all venerated. Last of all, other forms of night life in Downtown Memphis were soon kicking in equally potent ways: a revived Beale Street, a new baseball field, and Peabody Place are but a few of the big changes on their way. How could Lyceum compete? And why should it compete when Downtown was no longer dark after dark?

Front Street Arts, Lyceum Film Theater, and Center City were a small part of the recovery of Downtown Memphis. But they were a part nonetheless. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and their fictional high-school chums, would have immediately recognized the purpose and import of our brand of moxie. Remarkably, without hesitation, a few young people who barely knew one another joined, along with a big bank, to do something in public that they had never done before – for a cause of passion and delight. The staging of film in an area too many had come to fear was a cultural and political act disguised as fun. As lighthearted as it seemed, it was a serious enterprise. People with little, and a big bank, combined to put on a show that ran for eight years, costing nothing more than time, energy, and imagination. That is pure Memphis maverick in the raw, with a slight smile and a grimace the whole way.



FOOTNOTES:

1. As soon as I published the first version of this story, I emailed principal participants in Front Street Arts for confirmation of my perspective and to solicit corrections and additional information. Memory being what it is after forty years, it takes a village. Detailed note-taking is not a chief consideration for small grassroots groups that are task oriented, particularly when the members have other more pressing concerns beyond the group.

Pat recalls a meeting that she attended at which Don's brother, Bill, was also present. As I obtain information that corroborates or modifies various accounts, I will add them to this footnote and to the appropriate thread in TennesseeSoul Mate.

2. Front Street Arts could not afford to use color in printing promotional materials, but Beverly's black and white graphics managed to lend spontaneity, verve, whimsy, style, and optimism to our message. There must have been a silent debate about the spelling of "theater." Delving into the archives for this story, I noticed that several references in the press clippings (offered below in footnotes two and four) used "theatre" as the spelling of Lyceum's full name. All these years, I remembered it as Lyceum Film Theatre. But as with history, it is the steady hand that first draws the storyline that often gets the most indelible last word. There is no denying it now: it was Lyceum Film Theater. Beverly wins the day – again.

3. Jim, Beverly, and I served at various times as publicity drum majors for Lyceum. We relentlessly marched our message out on the streets, counting on a good deal and a good reputation to spread the news by word of mouth. We did not shy away from distributing highlights of our activities to mainstream print outlets to generate buzz eastward to the suburbs to neighborhoods across Memphis. Here are some of the press clippings.

4. In July 1976, the entire Lyceum season brochure was published on page three of Center City, Vol. III, No. 14 (July 8, 1976).

5. After becoming its publisher in March 1976, Front Street Arts continued to avail itself of Center City to widely and freely distribute information about Lyceum Film Theater to the Downtown community. Find one example regarding a special event tied with the opening of the Downtown mall that ran on the bottom right of page two of Center City, Vol. III, No. 10 (May 13, 1976).

6. At the close of 1976, Front Street Arts was running low on cash. We made the decision to hand Center City to a Midtown group in order to keep Lyceum Film Theater alive. The Midtown group proved a disappointment, even though it appeared to be a larger, more financially able residential-community organization. Front Street Arts disclosed its full financial records for the year on the right side of page two of Center City, Vol. IV, No. 3 (February 17, 1977).

7. I would offer readers the Lyceum 100 recommended movies, but there are two seasons for which I have only a partial listing and four seasons for which I have none. There were a lot more the one hundred movies shown. It would be very difficult to narrow the selection down below fifty for a best-of list. Still, here are the schedules of some of the movies that Lyceum presented between 1974 and 1981. I am confident that anyone who likes movies would like at least a quarter of these, especially when viewed with projection on a large screen in the company of dozens of other lovers of film out for a good time where good times are few. Without further ado, Front Street Arts presents a Lyceum Film Theater schedule of films.

8. As our conversations about Lyceum with family in Middle Tennessee continued year after year, my sisters-in-law, from afar, joined in supporting our unlikely foray into show business. Jan embroidered the Lyceum logo on an apron that we use today, forty years later. Behind this apron my wife, Joyce, and I have made many pizzas from scratch and served them to friends and family alike. Lyceum days live on in pizza and free-flowing red wine.

 

Home | Copyright © 2013, Mixed Media Incorporated TM, Tennessee | www.tennesseesoul.com | mixedmedia@tennesseesoul.com