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Preface & Reader Response



It was actually easier to get to the grand downtown movie palaces from my house than to the Rosemary, because we could easily hop on a city bus that would deliver us to the front door of most of them.

 


DOWNTOWN MEMPHIS



MEMPHIS MOVIE PALACES

by Beverly Cruthirds

When I was a child, going to the movies was probably my very favorite form of entertainment. In those days when air conditioning in every home was not a given, it was especially appealing on a hot summer afternoon or night to escape to the dark chill of the movie house.

My "neighborhood" theater, closest to my house although it was not really in my north Memphis neighborhood, was the Rosemary Theater, at the corner of Jackson Avenue and North Watkins. But though I was taken there many times by my older brothers, I don't have much recollection of its physical self. I just recall it being small-ish, with a large candy counter and a balcony from which I specifically remember watching John Wayne in "The Alamo" and Peter Cushing in "The Brides of Dracula."

It was actually easier to get to the grand downtown movie palaces from my house than to the Rosemary, because we could easily hop on a city bus that would deliver us to the front door of most of them. So my brothers would often let me tag along when they went trolling for girls, or my occasional teenage girl babysitters would take me as an excuse to meet up with boys. You know, the "I'm taking Beverly to see 'Sleeping Beauty' at the Malco," story, when in fact the main purpose of the outing was to meet up after the movie with one of the sailors from Millington who thronged to downtown Memphis in those days.

I didn't care what the reason was – I was going to the movies! Later, as a pre-teen and teenager living in Midtown, it was still easy for me to board the 46 Faxon bus that ran down a nearby street and go to downtown for shopping, hanging out with friends and yes, seeing a movie, the air conditioning still a welcome respite on a hot summer afternoon after walking up and down Main Street, going to the Krystal for lunch and having yet another goofy photo taken at the Blue Light Studio.

In the late 50s and early 60s, Main Street had multiple movie houses from about Monroe south to just past Beale Street. My favorite was the Warner's, with its enormous, classic movie marquee featuring travelling yellow lights along the top and bottom edges, and more flashing lights on the underside of the marquee. Glaring, garish and magnificent! The box office, as per usual, was smack in the middle of the entrance, with two sets of double doors opening on each side. I remember there was a tiny record shop in one of the retail spaces to the side of the entrance, and in those halcyon days of the black vinyl 45 record, it was always packed before and after the movie.

The façade of the building behind the big marquee was ornate, with arches and terra cotta decorations, but those didn't impress me nearly as much as the flash and dazzle of the marquee.

Further south down Main, on the same side of the street, was to my young eyes the fanciest of them all – the Loew's State. All I remember about the exterior are the panels on either side of the entrance where the still shots of the movie were displayed. The memorable part of the State was inside – behind the entrance doors was a long, elaborate lobby/hall that ran all the way to the back of the theater. I remember lots of red, with a dark swirly patterned carpet and velvet drapes, broken occasionally by mirrors, white and gold columns and scrollwork. Once you reached the end of this long walkway, you made a right turn, went up some steps, and entered the back of the steeply sloped theater that paralleled the lobby/hall part of the way back toward Main Street. I vividly recall a really terrible blind date I had at the State – I wore too much White Shoulders cologne that night and the smell ever after reminded me of that lousy date. Never wore it again.

Oddly, Loew's had another theater just a few blocks away on Union Avenue, the Loew's Palace. A much less elaborate theater, I was always confused by which of these two theaters was which, mainly because although the Palace had the more grand-sounding name, it was far plainer than the State. I do recall an odd sort of pseudo-skylight in the ceiling just behind the concession stand – it was really just a large round opening in the ceiling lit and painted to look like the sky, and I remember getting dizzy and disoriented when I looked up at it. The Palace was where I saw the Beatles movie "Help" in 1965.

Moving on down Main Street there were two smaller theaters, the Strand and the Princess. My perception of these was that they didn't show "nice" movies, but that may have been from later years when in fact at least the Strand became known for showing porno flicks. In any case, I don't remember ever seeing a movie at either one. There was also the Majestic just past Goldsmith's, but other than knowing it existed, I have no memory of it.

Just beyond Beale Street was the enormous Malco Theater. It, too, had a big flashy marquee. Originally opened as a vaudeville house, it featured a mezzanine and several balconies, but my most vivid memory as a child is of the restrooms, which were way down in the basement level. You went down a lot of stairs and through a large lounge area and off to the side into another smaller lounge area, and finally to the white tiled toilet room. Sheesh! That's a long time for a little kid to hold it!


I don't recall being unduly impressed by the interior of the Malco auditorium, which is odd considering today it has been renovated and is a stunning jewel box of gilding and elaborate carving and patterned wallpaper and crystal chandeliers and velvet curtains. Maybe it was just dark and covered in grime in those days. I saw "Love Me Tender" at the Malco (which made me insist to anyone who would listen that Elvis had brothers, because on some level I believed movies were real), and much later, "Goldfinger" (by which time I knew it was not real, sadly).

The Malco is the only one left as an operating theater, now reverted to its original vaudeville name, The Orpheum, and movies are a definite secondary attraction after road shows of Broadway musicals and assorted other stage shows. The Warner's was torn down to build a skyscraper, the Loew's Palace to build a parking garage. I think the Loew's State was leveled for a parking lot, although a new high rise, one of the Peabody Place buildings, eventually was built on the site. The Majestic is now a restaurant that has a large screen hanging from the ceiling on which it shows silent films as part of the décor. As in so many downtowns, the decentralization of shopping districts along with the decline of the reliance on public transportation to get to entertainment venues and the concurrent refusal to pay for parking, a given in the urban environment, meant that people would no longer patronize downtown movie houses. The rise of multi-screen theaters put the final nail in the coffin of the grand old one-screen palaces.

But I'll never forget the shock of the overly refrigerated air hitting me as I came in from a hot summer day, or the smell of stale popcorn, or the magic of sitting in a velvet-upholstered fold-up seat in front of a huge screen in the dark of those old palaces. Dolby sound is great in the new multi-plexes, but the magic is gone. [1]



FOOTNOTE:

1. See http://historic-memphis.com/memphis-historic/movietheaters/movietheaters.html or the soon-to-be-published Memphis Movie Theaters by Vincent Astor for more on the subject.

 

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