Trash from the Attic: Memphis movie theater history

By Matt Martin

I remember it like it was yesterday.  Strange then, that it’s one of my first memories.

In May of 1977, I was taken to my first movie theater. I was only 3 years old, with little understanding or interest in anything beyond toys, candy, and animated television. But my older brother was hounding my parents to take him to see this small little sci-fi movie that had just come out. My parents reluctantly agreed, expecting some simplistic, bargain-basement kids flick.

The movie was “Star Wars.”  And needless to say, but, we kind of liked it. A lot. A whole lot. Like on the level of psychotic, single-minded fixation. And more importantly, my brother and I, as well as an entire generation of young Americans, became obsessed with cinema.

Over the next two weeks, we saw “Star Wars” about four more times. It was playing at the now long-gone Paramount Theater, which onces rested at the Eastgate Shopping Center, at the corner of Poplar and White Station (it’s now a Stein Mart … sigh). At the time, my family lived in deep East Memphis near Germantown. It wasn’t long before the 15- to 25-minute drive to the theater was getting on my parents’ nerves. So when we asked for yet another movie excursion soon after, we were told that we had to pick a movie from this new theater that had just opened. One that had just been built, was very modern, and most importantly, was in our own neighborhood, not so far away. It was called the Ridgeway Four, and in July, at the end of the summer, my brother and I were taken there to see the landmark Burt Reynolds down-South classic “Smokey and the Bandit.”

It was then that I first saw the mural, and my life-long devotion to cinema began.

***

But let’s back up — the history of movie theaters in Memphis is tied to a single family: the Lightmans. Originally from Nashville, Morris Lightman Sr. was an engineer with a degree from Vanderbilt University. In 1915, while in Colbert County, Alabama working on the Wilson Dam project, he came upon a long line of people waiting to get into a local theater. Struck by the clear devotion of people to such a business, as well as always being a bit of a showman and entertainer himself, Lightman decided on a change. Not long after, he opened two theaters in Northwest Alabama to resounding success.

When he returned to Nashville a few years later, Lightman Sr. decided to build his first theater in his hometown: the legendary Hilsboro Theater which opened on May 18, 1925 (its first screening? D.W. Griffith’s “America”). But only three months later, a rival up-and-coming theater owner built a movie house literally across the street, hoping to steal profits. The plan worked. The competition forced Lightman and his family to close the Hilsboro soon after. The building itself was used as a live production venue for years until being converted back into a cinema in 1966. Renamed the Belcourt Cinema by a group of new owners and run as a nonprofit organization, it is now roundly considered the finest art house movie theater in the South. One would think Lightman Sr. would be proud.

It was after the Hilsboro closed in 1926 that Lightman and family left Nashville for Little Rock, Ark., and immediately began to build new theaters. Teaming with fellow developers M.S. McCord and M.J. Pruniski, they formed the Malco Amusement Company. They were quickly successful, expanding across Arkansas into Northern Mississippi, Western Kentucky and Louisiana. After a few early forays into West Memphis, Malco bought its first Memphis location, the Linden Circle Theatre, in 1929. Its runaway success would lead them to build The Memphian in 1935, one of Memphis’ first great movie palaces. On Cooper Avenue, it operated for 50 years before closing in 1985 and becoming Playhouse on the Square. In 1940, Malco purchased the Orpheum Theatre downtown, a former Vaudevillian stage. It was renamed The Malco and became the company’s flagship venue, as well the offical home base of operations.

Over the next three decades, Malco continued to build theaters in Memphis and across the South with great success. By the late 1960s, Memphis was expanding East rapidly, and the need for suburban venues was growing.  In 1970, M.A. Lightman Jr., now in charge of the company, announced that Memphis would be getting its first multi-screen theaters. Two four-screened theaters, or “quartets,” were being built, which at that time were considered huge and were not yet common. The first, the Highland Quartet, opened later that year, becoming one of the most beloved, frequented, memorable, and later on, occasionally feared movie theaters in Memphis history until its closing in 2005.

The other quartet would take a bit longer before opening. Because this quartet was special.  It was to not only be Memphis’ most technologically advanced, state-of-the-art theaters to date, but also would serve as the new company headquarters. Great time and effort was spent on its creation, and finally, on June 16, 1977, the Ridgeway Four opened its doors. It was screening four rather different choices: an award-winning war film (“A Bridge Too Far”), an uninspired pulp thriller (“The Other Side of Midnight”), a low budget, Jodie Foster horror flick (“Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane”) and a redneck revenge movie (the third and final of the notoriously bad “Walking Tall” series). But even with such lackluster initial choices, the Ridgeway Four was an instant hit with suburban Memphians.

In fact, Elvis himself wanted to go this new theater that summer. A life-long lover of movies, Elvis often had to arrange private, late night screenings at movie theaters to avoid the throngs of fans that followed his every move, making a “regular” daytime visit to the movies impossible (the last movie Elvis saw in a theater? The James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me,” which he had taken Lisa Marie to only a few days before his demise). About to leave town again on tour, Elvis wanted to see the new Gregory Peck film “MacArthur,” which was only being shown at the new Ridgeway Four. On August 15, the day before he died, Elvis tried to arrange a viewing there, but sadly, the projectionist was not available for a night screening. Elvis would never see Memphis’ newest movie palace.

***

It was around that same time that I first saw the Ridgeway Four, going to my inaugural screening of “Smokey and the Bandit.” To this day, I can’t remember actually watching the movie itself, although I’m told I liked it at the time. But I remember the place that summer. It was love at first sight.

For me, as was the case for all who have visited the Ridgeway Four, that first sight was the mural. But not just some small painting. Approaching the theater from the parking lot, one could already see this movie house was different. The entire building front was glass bay windows, allowing one to see all the way into the lobby from the street. Across the back wall of the lobby was a massive “ode to cinema past” mural that towered over you. As a child, this would be my first introduction to classic cinema, as my father and brother would point out each actor or character to my inexperienced eyes, explaining who each one was and what each movie they were from: Flash Gordon, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, the Marx Brothers, John Wayne, the Lone Ranger, Betty Grable, Humphrey Bogart, W.C. Fields and many others, and in the background, King Kong on top of the Empire State Building. For me, and presumably many others, that mural over time became synonymous with cinema itself: brimming with amusement and adventure, larger than life. One look of it when entering the lobby sends many of us into nostalgic swoons for the cherished movies of our past. And for some of us, that swoon became a lifelong romance.

And the Ridgway Four has never stopped. Movies that had a Memphis release there included “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Star Trek II,” “Superman (I and II),” “Flash Gordon,” “E.T.” (I was there! It was insanely packed!) and “The Empire Strikes Back.”

By the beginning of the 1980s, the age of movie multiplexes had begun. Many popped up in East Memphis and Germantown, including the Winchester Court, the Appletree Center, the Trinity Commons theater, and the Majestic. All have gone to time. But the Ridgeway Four remained, and in time, it became Memphis’ oldest theater still in operation. Over the years, the Ridgeway Four has become the destination for Memphis’ smaller film releases, focusing on independent movies, foreign films, and documentaries. And although it remains out of the way for many Memphians downtown and further east, like Bartlett and Cordova, it still draws a loyal following from around the city.

***

But time is tough on us all, and the Ridgeway Four was no exception. By the early 2000s, it was beginning to show its age, both in terms of theater comfort as well as sound and video quality. Many of us feared it would meet the same fate as the others, quietly closed with little respect or fanfare. There were even those attempting to contact Malco to ask about the inevitable fate of the mural, if the Ridgeway Four were to close. But the Ridgeway Four refused to pass, and instead, it was decided that it would be reborn.

In the beginning of last summer, Malco set about updating the theater, while trying to retain its classic look, feel and style. Each theater, one by one, was internally renovated, replacing the long, dipped shotgun look of the original seating with full stadium, raised platform rows for better viewing. By reducing the number of seats per theater, they were able to install more spacious, comfortable chairs (more reminescent of a recliner than a movie theater seat. Very comfy.), complete with mini-tables and improved drink holders. The screens were brought in closer and expanded. And the lobby has been refurbished, without being redesigned, so the classic look remains the same. And finally the concession stand has met the modern-age standards, with Italian menu items available from Ciao Bella, as well as salads and healthier snacks. And of course, they added a beer and wine selection. The updates were completed this last fall.  At a recent screening of “The Artist,” I was thrilled to see how my beloved childhood theater had been given a another life.  And that the classic mural remains on the wall untouched, looking down at future young, curious cinema fans.

Please, fellow film-loving Memphians, make time to see something at the new Ridgeway Four soon, and enjoy not only the top-of-the-line improvements, but also its innate cultural importance. This is the last of the old-school movie theaters in Memphis. Many great cinematic moments have passed through these walls. Become part of that history, and help keep dreams flickering on those screens for another 35 years.

Author: LampLighter

The voice of Cooper-Young, a vibrant, diverse neighborhood to live, work and play, in the heart of Midtown Memphis, Tennessee.

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