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HOLLENBECK: Old theater has served many purposes, but ‘Cleopatra’ showing a hallmark for some

April 4, 2011

The Crosstown.
That’s the theater in Memphis where my cousins and I saw “Cleopatra” sometime in the 1960s. In a recent column, I mentioned a nameless theater that I could see in my mind’s eye but couldn’t recall.
All I could remember when I wrote the prior piece was that the movie house had a buff brick exterior and that it was near the big Sears & Roebuck store in that part of the city.
I could see us driving up to the theater parking lot. I could see us sitting in the seats. I could almost smell the popcorn, but I couldn’t read the vertical sigh bearing the theater’s name above the marquee. (A lot like the Royal Theatre in Benton, though the Royal’s is prettier.)
Not being able to recall the name was exasperating.
I called Sissy, the surviving cousin who was part of that venture, and asked her about it. She has a memory like an elephant and if she doesn’t know it, she can find the answer in her diary. She’s kept one every year since she was 10 and she just marked her 80th year of life. That in itself is some kind of bench mark and probably ought to be in the Guinness World Records.
Though this is digressing, I have to say that my experience with diaries wasn’t good. I kept one for a few years, starting about the age of 10. However, when I was a teenager, I wrote things in it that I didn’t want shouted from the highest mountain top. Big mistake. I gave up that daily journal after some male “friends” found the book at a party and conducted an impromptu read-in for all to hear.
No more diary.
Jump to 2011. Sissy couldn’t help in this quest, it turned out, because we couldn’t remember the year we saw the movie, much less the month, and it would have taken her hours and hours to do the research. It wasn’t worth that kind of sweat equity, I told her.
A little while after the call ended, the name popped into my head like a bolt of lightning.
“Crosstown!” I said out loud, though I was the only one in the room. With absolute clarity, I remembered it like it was yesterday. Of course I called Sissy again to tell her.
I decided to do some Internet research to find out what had happened to the old theater since so many of them have been reduced to rubble. A few now serve as glorious performing arts centers, but there aren’t nearly enough of these.
What I learned in my research was that the Crosstown Theatre was built in the late 1940s and opened in 1951. If the information included on the website is current, it is now used by a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation.
Elvis Presley rented the theater during the 1960s and 1970s for all-night movie sessions, according to the blurb about the theater.
The next bit of information was disappointing. After 2005, when a photo of the theater was taken (and shown in the material I was reading), the vertical sign and marquee were removed and destroyed. A sad testament to historic preservation.
The movie that started all my “search for the truth” efforts was shown on TV the other night and I had to watch it. It’s hard to think of Elizabeth Taylor no longer gracing the screen there or anywhere. And as Queen Cleopatra, no one could surpass her – not only in that character but also in real life.
Memphis had its share of plush movie houses during my youth and the early years of my adult life. As a kid, when I would accompany Mamma on one of her shopping trips, she’d bustle off to Goldsmith’s and I’d head out to see a movie. I could go by myself or with the friend or cousin we had brought along and no one worried since it was a pretty innocent world in those days.
The Malco was my favorite theater because it was so lavish and elegant. It made you feel special just to walk up the majestic marble stairway. It reminded me of Scarlett’s Atlanta home in “Gone With the Wind.”
The only place we had marble in Cotton Plant was our bank, which was beautiful but turned to dust many years ago. But back to the Malco. I loved it, but then life moved on and I didn’t make those trips anymore.
Fast forward to the 1980s. Don’t remember the exact time, but Ed and I and some friends decided to see a performance of “South Pacific” starring my absolutely favorite performer of all time, Robert Goulet.
When we walked into the theater, I experienced a deja vu feeling that just wouldn’t go away no matter what I did.
“I’ve been in this place before,” I told Ed, “but then I know I haven’t ever been to a show at the Orpheum.”
It was almost like seeing a ghost, though there was nothing visible I could identify. I didn’t understand what was happening until intermission when I went to the ladies’ room, on the second story and equally elegant. Then all of it came rushing back to me.
The Orpheum was what had been the Malco Theater in my childhood and youth. I couldn’t prove it at that juncture, but I knew it had to be so.
Now fully restored by this time, it had been part of the Malco movie chain for my growing-up years, which I confirmed with some people working at the then-Orpheum.

History of the Orpheum
The Orpheum is truly one of Memphis’ most remarkable success stories — a theater able to overcome a variety of adversities that ranged from several untimely bankruptcies, a devastating fire, the decay of downtown Memphis, and the threat of demolition for the construction of an office complex. Yet the “South’s Finest Theatre” rose above all this and is the Mid-South’s premiere performing arts center today.
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In 1890 the Grand Opera House was built at the corner of Main and Beale streets. The Grand was billed as the classiest theater outside New York City. Vaudeville was the main source of entertainment at the time and acts featured singers, musicians and magicians. The Grand became part of the Orpheum Circuit of vaudeville shows in 1907, thus the theater became known as the Orpheum.
Vaudeville at the Orpheum was successful for almost two decades. Then in 1923 a fire broke out during a show that featured a strip-tease artist by the name of Blossom Seeley and burned the theater to the ground.
In 1928, at a cost of $1.6 million, a new Orpheum was built on the original site of the Grand, but it was a different theater. The new Orpheum was twice as large as her predecessor and opulently decorated. Lavish, tasseled brocade draperies, enormous crystal chandeliers, gilded moldings, and the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ were just a few of its new amenities.
As vaudeville’s popularity waned, the Orpheum was purchased by the Malco movie theater chain in 1940 and first- run movies were shown there until 1976 when Malco decided to sell the building. There was even talk of demolishing the old theater to build an office complex. (Thankfully, this didn’t happen.) However, in 1977 the Memphis Development Foundation purchased the Orpheum and began bringing Broadway productions and concerts back to the theater.
Fifty-four years had taken a toll on the “South’s Finest Theatre,” so the Orpheum was closed on Christmas Day in 1982 to begin a $5 million renovation to restore its 1928 opulence. A grand reopening celebration was held in January of 1984, and it signaled the rebirth of entertainment in downtown Memphis.
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Since that time, the Orpheum has been bringing in large-scale Broadway shows, like “Phantom of the Opera,” “Cats,” “South Pacific,” “Man of La Mancha,” “Les Miserables” and many more while continuing to offer performances from great entertainers like Jerry Seinfeld, Dorothy Hamill, Tony Bennett, the Goo Goo Dolls (?) and many more.
Two of Memphis’ local arts groups, Ballet Memphis and Opera Memphis, also call the Orpheum home.
The Orpheum Theatre is a nonprofit organization and continues to flourish because of the support of the community.
Although this is the longest column I’ve ever written, I feel compelled to add one more thing — about Mary, the theater ghost.
According to the Orpheum website, countless times in the past 50-plus years performers and employees at the Orpheum have noticed a little girl in a white dress and pigtails sitting in seat C-5, Box 5. Although her blank stare and ethereal appearance have upset some who have seen her, the little girl known as Mary has never disrupted a performance. In fact, it seems as though she adores the theater.
One version of the story is that Mary was struck by a trolley and carried into the theater, where she soon died. An investigation by Dr. Lee Sutter’s parapsychology class at University of Memphis alternatively suggested that the little girl actually died during a downtown accident and did not wander into the Orpheum until after her death.
Regardless of how she came to the theater, she apparently enjoyed her new surroundings and the performances and has stayed on as the theater’s guest.
Wonder what would happen if someone dared utter the name of that Shakespearean character that we of the drama family are forbidden to utter inside the theater?
Just a thought. Shhh.

Lynda Hollenbeck is associate editor of The Saline Courier.
lyndahol@yahoo.com

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