5 Star Stories: Celebrating the centennial of Theatre Memphis

Updated: Jun. 9, 2021 at 7:09 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - We’re treading the boards of the second oldest arts organization in Memphis and one of the oldest and most successful community theaters in the country.

Theatre Memphis is spending this year celebrating its Centennial and the reopening!

In this 5 Star Story, we’ll take a tour of the remodeled facility as its 700-strong troupe of volunteer actors and crew prepares for a new season.

What’s a birthday party without Mr. Showmanship? Or at least Gary Beard as Liberace in a performance perfected on the Theatre Memphis stage.

”And so we invited him to come back and then we put together a group of our some of our favorite and outstanding performers to come in and be showcased throughout this hour-long presentation as if he was either in his Las Vegas night club or on his television show,” said Theatre Memphis Executive Director Debbie Litch.

It’s the first Theatre Memphis audience since an abbreviated 2019 season, followed by months of renovations and a planned reopening for August 2020 but for COVID-19.

”So then we felt what everyone else was feeling,” said Litch. “So, the past year we’ve been able to tweak the building but also at the same time come up with very creative reasons and revenue streams to be able to get through this year.”

“Getting Through” is something this community theater had mastered, beginning in 1920 when a group of friends gathered for holidays and came up with the idea for a “Little Theatre.” They heald their first performance, three-in-one-act plays, in May of 1921.

In 1925, The Little Theatre opened its first permanent home, a stable on the James Lee House property at Orleans and Adams near Downtown Memphis.

By 1929, it outgrew the stable and moved into the east wing of what was the Pink Palace Museum, where it remained for 46 years.

May 1975, the theater moved again into its current East Memphis home on Perkins, extended in the process, changing its charter and name to Theatre Memphis. For its Centennial, Theatre Memphis opted for renovations.

”We wanted it to be light and airy warm and inviting, but we wanted it to match the outstanding artistic product that we work so hard to present on our stages and we wanted a complete experience,” said Litch.

You’ll notice the changes from the street starting with the Dramatis Personae Statue Garden created by Lon Anthony.

“So we decided to create pedestals for them as well and have lights and started in those pedestals so they’re up off the ground and lit well at night,” said Theatre Memphis Marketing and Communications head Randall Hartzog. “Physically, the biggest change is that we incorporated the patio area into our internal area and raised all of our levels to one level for accessibility.”

There’s even a covered portico for east drop-offs.

“And you just walk right into this wonderful lobby and you can go straight to the theatre or you can go to some of the additional restrooms we went from eight restrooms to 21 restrooms so that was a big for us and connected all of that to the main lobby as well so you can now do a full circle of the lobby and concessions area, restrooms, theater and would not have to go up any steps,” said Hartzog.

But if you like stairs, you’re going to love the new grand staircase in the lobby.

”I love it all. I have to say though, that Randall Hartzog and I threw ourselves on the sword and then I pushed a little harder and said I’ll raise those extra dollars but we’re going to have a grand staircase in that lobby,” said Litch.

Also, one-of-a-kind chandeliers specially made for Theatre Memphis.

“In our main stage theater, the Lohrey Theater, we actually have sconces that were created by Wayne Edge in salute to Bennet Wood for his 70th birthday,” said Hartzog. “So we commissioned Wayne to design the chandeliers and we asked him to incorporate some of the paneling from the previous lobby area into that. We know it’s there and we love the fact that when he came back with the designs that he incorporated the comedy and tragedy into the two main chandeliers so they kind of arc up and arc down.”

What patrons most likely won’t see is the freshly painted dressing rooms or the added space for set building, as well as the recently renovated tidied and amazingly organized basement storage areas.

As for the two theaters...

”The theatre itself has not changed that much,” said Hartzog. “We did renovate all the seats, we repainted, we re-upholstered, re-stuffed and we took everything out, you know. We did acoustics and everything.”

One thing that hasn’t changed, along with the Carrol Cloar rainbow painting in the lobby, is something that’s been the same since 1921.

“We have professional theaters here and we have touring theaters here and we have other community theaters that have the same mission but we are here to make sure that we have a safe, inclusive, welcoming space for people to practice their art,” said Hartzog.

“We’re just so grateful again to all of our friends, Channel 5, as well as all of our wonderful friends in our Memphis community because we truly could not have had this long of a run of 100 years but we continue to shine on and look forward to our exciting future,” said Litch.

And what’s a 100-year-old theater without a ghost story or two: Let’s just say, if you notice a woman’s portrait in the lobby, make sure it’s not askew!

Staff members told WMC Action News 5 the last time that happened the electricity went out right before the start of a performance and did not come back on until someone straightened the painting.

Theatre Memphis’ new season opens in August with “Hello Dolly.” CLICK HERE for ticket information.

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