A Theatre Town – Best Times

Vincent Astor has been a theater lover since
his childhood, when he first heard the sound
of a pipe organ filling the Orpheum Theater
with its glorious music. – The organ is part
of the theater. If there’s an organist,
you have an instant show. And seeing the theater
alive and filled with music, is a little different
than just walking in. – By his 20s,
Vincent was the organist at the Orpheum. And his love of theater led
him to research and write a historical book entitled
Memphis Movie Theatres. Fortunately, the grandest
of the old Memphis theaters still exist today, and
it’s filled with history. – The first theater called
the Grand Opera House, was built in 1890. And Sarah Bernhardt played
here, Adelina Patti played here. It was a variety theater
in that it showed a variety of different
types of entertainment. It was said to be the
best two night stand in the South, Memphis was. And that went through its
era, lasted a little more than 10 years, and in
1907 it started being booked by the Orpheum Circuit, and became the Memphis
Orpheum Theater. Harry Houdini was here. Helen Keller was here. A lot of famous stars
who did their turns in vaudeville were here. – (Cris)
Vaudeville was successful for almost two
decades in Memphis, but in 1923 disaster
struck the Orpheum. – In October of 1923
the show was over, and the theater caught fire. In the public parts of the
theater was the Tri-State Dress manufacturing company. Something went wrong
with the electricity, it started a fire. And the theater
was a total loss. The newspapers said the
largest crowd in the Orpheum theater’s history
gathered to watch it burn. Blossom Seeley, a jazz singer, was on the bill and the stage
hands risked life and limb to get her wardrobe and
take it down to the Chisca, where she was staying. And she was not as
grateful as they hoped she would be, she said
thank you, pretty much. And another person who
very early in his career was in the show that
week was Bert Lahr. And the other theaters in
Memphis all did benefit shows, because many of the performers
lost costumes and props to the fire. – (Cris)
It took years to raise the funding, but the Orpheum
Theater was reborn. – On November 19, 1928, this,
the new Orpheum, opened. And it seated 2600 people. It was top of the
line everything. And it was just about
to go from vaudeville and silent films to more
films and then sound films. Vaudeville left, as well as
the Orpheum Circuit in ’33, and a variety of things
were tried to keep it open, including two of the employees,
the leader of the orchestra and the leader of
the stage hands, Chalmers Cullins and Nate Evans, started to book it
on their own. It was during that era
that we had Stepin Fetchit, and Lionel Hampton, and
a lot of famous black big band leaders and musicals. But by the end of the 1930s,
nobody could make it work. It went bankrupt. So it was sold on the courthouse
steps to M.A. Lightman. And that’s when the Orpheum
vertical began to read Malco. And it was the Malco theater
from 1940 until 1976. – By the ’70s,
movie theaters were changing. Multiplexes became the
norm, and the Orpheum was put up for sale. In 1977, the Memphis
Development Foundation bought the theater. – The Foundation wasn’t
sure what they were gonna do with this
theater at the time. In the end it was the
first thing on Beale Street that actually came back
and came back in a big way and got loved by everyone. – (Cris)
Any history of the Orpheum would be incomplete without
mentioning its ghost. Supposedly a little
girl in white named Mary roams the halls and sits
in her favorite seat, the stage left loge,
row C, seat five. In all the years Vincent
has worked at the Orpheum, he’s never seen Mary,
but he has met her. – There was one time
when I had been gone from here for a while. I was playing the
organ like usual, and I got this notion that it
turned chilly for a minute. And there was this
notion that someone had run up to the console
and run away again. “Never Never Land” is
her favorite song. And childlike songs, like
“When You Wish Upon a Star”, that’s when people see Mary. – (Cris)
Today, after two restorations totaling $13 million,
the Orpheum theater has been returned to
its glittering glory. Broadway plays, music concerts,
films and special events grace its historic stage. The Orpheum is one of only
four surviving theaters in Tennessee that date
from the era of the grand movie palaces. While the Orpheum may
be the grandest of all, it was by no means the
only theater downtown. – Right down the street from
here was the Princess Theater. Which was built in the
teens, and went through a number of remodelings
of the front, maybe. And it was kind of
a grind theater. Double feature Westerns
and things like that. What is now the Majestic
Grille was a movie theater. It was opened in 1913. And became retail, that
was one of the theaters that closed because
they didn’t want to make the investment, which
everyone else had to do, in sound film. There was one theater
next to Loew’s State called The Strand, it was
also built in the teens. And it was larger, it
was a majestic also. But it was a little
bit larger, and lasted up until the ’70s. Beale Street was
a separate entity. Beale Street in its
heyday had four theaters, all right together. There was the Beale Street
Palace, which was more famous for its live theater
than for its movies. The old Daisy, which is
famous for being backwards. Because it had a balcony and
they needed fire escapes. The only place to come
out was the alley behind. So the balcony was in the back. So when you walked
in the front door, the screen was on your
left, you were looking at the audience. Another theater that
was built that way for pretty much the same reason
was the Shamrock theater. Which is now Royal Studios. Across from the old Daisy
was a pair of theaters. The Grand and the Venus,
which went their ways through movies and live
shows and everything else, but they disappeared in
1940, ’41, when the New Daisy theater was built, which
still exists and is now a concert venue. – (Cris)
Fortunately for Memphians, the Orpheum theater is
still making history. Entertaining modern
audiences just as it did over 100 years ago. It serves as a gilded
reminder of an era when Memphis
was a theater town.

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