5 Star Stories: Overton Square, bustling arts district in the heart of Midtown Memphis

Updated: May. 11, 2021 at 9:17 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Overton Square is the heart of a bustling Midtown Memphis district where arts of all kinds have turned the four corners of Memphis Cooper Street and Madison Avenue into a magnet for foodies, music lovers, and theatre enthusiasts.

The second TGIFriday’s in America opened on Madison Avenue at Cooper Street May 21, 1970, after a successful bid to sell liquor by the drink passed in the Tennessee legislature.

Soon after, Overton Square was bustling with restaurants, shops and music venues like the original Lafayette’s, helping propel the careers of some of the biggest names in music.

“Lafayette’s Music Room was hosting. I mean, you name it, we got our hands on Billy Joel, Kansas, Kiss, Barry Manilow, Henry Gross, Leon Russell, and these are all names at the time that hadn’t made it huge yet, but were on their way up,” said Lafayette’s Music Room General Manager Julien Salley, Jr.

Overton Square was the place to party. Remember in 1980, when Pretenders lead singer Chrissie Hynde kicked out a police cruiser window during a disorderly conduct arrest?

As years passed, a mix of things happened. The property changed hands and the square went quiet.

Then, in 1992, signs of life returned. “Malco was talking about putting in the movie theater and we just wanted to be part of the new Overton Square,” recalled Bosco’s Squared Owner Andrew Finestone.

He knew the square was ripe for an affordable, fun, family-friendly restaurant where you fit in wearing either a tux or blue jeans.

Memphis Pizza Cafe was over here and of course you had the Bayou and Le Chardonnay,” he explained. “If you want to have a nice pizza, plank salmon, or if you just want to come in and have a burger and fry.”

Bosco’s is the state’s first microbrewery and their Hefeweizen won the award.

“We entered that in the world beer cup against other breweries, and even German breweries. We got a gold medal,” said Finestone.

Over the years, various restaurants and bars have come and gone. Clothing, sweets, a salon and yoga are now just steps away from packed patios, courtyard concerts, clocktower chimes, and art installations.

Whether you’re headed to a movie or a live stage show, four theatre companies call Overton Square home: Circuit PlayHouse, TheatreWorks, PlayHouse on the Square and Hattiloo Theatre, one of the only free-standing African American theatres in the nation.

“We have diversified the square when it comes to culture and racially,” said Hattiloo founder and CEO, Ekundayo Bandele. He considers Overton Square a true arts district.

“Those independent restaurants are the culinary arts and so you have independent restaurants right here, three or four in Overton Square. And so the art that is in this area is very diverse,” he said.

In November 2016, Lafayette’s Music Room reopened.

“The whole goal was to bring back all of that music that the building housed before,” said Salley. “This is the birthplace of Rock n Roll, the home of the blues.”

There is no Louisiana connection here. It’s all Memphis and Salley shared the story about it.

“There was a group of investors and their favorite bartender at the University club was a gentleman named Lafayette Draper. And so they ended up opening Lafayette’s Music Room, making him over the bar and name of the place after,” he explained.

When our camera was there, Mandy Thomas from NBC’s The Voice crooned for the crowd.

“You can see can see just about every genre under the sun in our four walls,” said Salley.

Just across the street is the home of Ballet Memphis, a 40,000 square foot performance space.

“Five studios, it has a costume shop and has administrative offices. A café courtyard is a community space,” explained Ballet Memphis’ Artistic Director Steven McMahon.

“The audiences, when we have a show here, you know, they can leave and grab a cocktail, grab some dinner,” said McMahon.

The architecture reflects McMahon’s sentiments.

“It was designed in a way so that the people outside could look in and see things in progress and be inspired by what was going on. But also wait for the people inside to look out and feel connected to the city,” he added. “Go look in the window. Go check it out. Go and see if there’s something that is there. See if there is something that makes you want to come visit come and talk to people. That’s how we get to know each other. Right? That’s how we build community.”

The future is bright with the opening of the luxury Memphian Hotel, Overton Square’s newest addition.

“We regularly bring in regional and national talent,” said Salley. “Their tour managers call us like, ‘Hey, where can we have the band stay after the show?’ This is going to be great for us. The Memphian.”

Whether you’re celebrating with a night in or a night out, the options are endless in Overton Square, a source of pride and the heart of Midtown Memphis.

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