‘The Balcony Project’ looks to educate on painful part of Memphis history at The Orpheum Theatre

Published: Sep. 27, 2023 at 10:56 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - We’re getting a new look behind the history of the Orpheum Theatre.

The Orpheum is the first theater group in the country to offer this kind of experience—taking a look at our history and what we can learn from it.

As a young girl, Elaine Lee Turner remembers walking through the doors of the Orpheum Theatre, once known as the Malco Theater from 1940 to 1976.

During segregation, a side entrance on Main and Beale Streets was the only way African Americans could get inside a small, congested lobby leading to the balcony.

“In order to go to those movie theaters, we had to go through the colored entrance such as the entrance right here,” said Turner, the owner of Heritage Tours. “It was dehumanizing. We had to come in the side door, climb up the stairs all the way up to the balcony and sit there. That was the only place we could sit.”

Elaine Lee Turner
Elaine Lee Turner(Action News 5)

Like the world around it, the theater and its patrons, white and Black, experienced the realities of Jim Crow, including separate seats and a separate entrance for Black Memphians like Turner.

“Later on, we found out there was something we could do about it, and that was to protest and to sit in at the movie theaters and the restaurants and the lunch counters and all of that,” said Turner. “And that’s what we did.”

That separation was legal until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Fifty-nine years later, that small space in history on Main and Beale Street went unseen by the public until Wednesday.

“I thought anyone who sees the lobby that white patrons used and then see this lobby, will understand immediately the inequality of the two lobbies,” said Orpheum Theatre Group President and CEO Brett Batterson.

The Orpheum Theatre
The Orpheum Theatre(Action News 5)

It’s been on Batterson’s mind since 2016, when “The Balcony Project” was launched.

It’s a partnership with the National Civil Rights Museum, a painful part of our past, told with the help of Dr. Charles McKinney, a Civil Rights Movement historian and professor at Rhodes College.

“This isn’t a story about a set of victims,” said Dr. McKinney. “This is a story about people who were navigating the realities of the nation in which they lived.”

The immersive experience includes Action News 5 Bluff City Life Host Gina Neely narrating visitors through documentary-style videos in the space that features volunteers and patrons like Turner, giving a new look at Memphis’ history.

“This is a step in the right direction of showing its total history,” said Turner. “We can’t hide any of our past. We can grow from it, and if we don’t use it to grow from it, we’ll be stagnant.”

Public viewing of The Balcony Project begins on October 2, 2023. It will be available to view for free every Saturday from 10 a.m.-12 p.m.and every Monday from 2-4 p.m.

Regular full theatre tours including The Balcony Project are available on select dates Monday , Tuesday, Wednesday at 10am and 12pm.

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