‘Memphis at the Movies’ shows where city’s cinema history began
By Matt Martin
For some of us in our thirties or younger, when we think of classic movie theaters in Memphis, our minds swim with images of the now-gone small theaters like The Park, The Balmoral and The Paramount, as well as the first of the 1970s multiplexes, like The Highland Quartet and The Ridgeway Four.
But Memphis cinema history goes back more than 100 years. To properly study the early history of local theaters — the age of silent movie nickelodeons and classic, ornate movie palaces — we’ll need a true Memphis theater historian.
Luckily, we have one. Vincent Astor has got the history covered. Beginning with an influential screening of the John Wayne film True Grit in 1969 at the original Malco Theatre (now the Orpheum), he began a lifelong love and exploration of the original movie theaters of Memphis. During the 1970s, he worked at the Malco and would continue there even after the place was sold to the Memphis Development Foundation and made into the modern Orpheum, staying until 1987. During this time, he did much local research, hunting the history of long forgotten movie houses. Collecting vintage artifacts and photos, he eventually amassed an impressive collection detailing Memphis’ movie past.
And now, you can enjoy this cornucopia of cinema history. Starting in May, Memphis Heritage will host Astor’s new exhibit, “Memphis at the Movies: 1900-1929.” Gathering his large collection from its longtime home at A. Schwab’s museum, he will open the show at Howard Hall, Memphis Heritage’s office at Madison and Edgewood.
One of the largest and most interesting pieces in the collection is a massive five-foot ornate plaster urn, which once sat at the Warner/Pantages theatre, an old movie palace once located on Main Street between Union and Monroe. Included in the exhibit will be two lectures on Memphis movie theaters and their history, presented by Astor himself. The first, called “Before the Palaces,” which chronicles the early days of the nickelodeons (small, simple streetside theaters) and the birth of cinema, will be on May 17. The following week, on May 24, Astor will present the second lecture, called “The Gilded Hall,” will focus primarily on the grand movie palaces that sprang up following the early days of nickelodeons and small silent film theaters.
All Memphis cinephiles and film fanatics take note: It’s time to go to school. Time to learn where your local cinema history began. Take some time in the month of May to check out the artifacts and listen to the fascinating and forgotten tales of Memphis’ movie memories.