Magnificent movie houses of 1920s remembered during Memphis Heritage program

Hidden Memphis feature for The Commercial Appeal

May 13, 2012

Between the years 1905 and 1925, Memphis city directories listed 30 storefront theaters. All had disappeared by 1929. These were nickelodeons — Idle Hour at 269 N. Main and Amuse U at 253 N. Main, among others, little more than storefront venues for showing silent films.

The palaces — The Warner and the Loew’s theaters — would be built specifically for stage and film. They would be lavish houses created for live entertainment and the grandest entertainment Hollywood had to offer.

Memphian Vincent Astor’s interest in these movie houses came from a visit to The Malco theater (now the Orpheum) to see the original “True Grit” in 1969. The gilded decor and opulent surroundings struck a chord with him, and a lifelong interest was born. Over the years, he worked for Malco in maintenance and played the organ “anytime someone would come in that needed to be impressed with the building.” He continued with the Orpheum throughout the 1983 renovation.

“I watched that building change from a semi-dark, unappreciated old movie theater … to introducing myself to Leontyne Price, who was going to try out the acoustics in 1984,” Astor said. “So I actually watched a dream come true.”

May is National Preservation Month, and to celebrate, Memphis Heritage wants to take you to the movies. Two lectures and an exhibit at Memphis Heritage’s home at Howard Hall will focus on movie houses of the past. The first lecture, “Before the Palaces,” focusing on pre-1920 theaters, is set for Thursday; the second, “The Gilded Halls (1920-1929),” is on May 24 … (read more)