By contributing writer Charlie Lambert
We’ve had two of the five Monday night gatherings for the annual MHI Preservation Series. This year the topic is Memphis a Mid-South Movie Hub. Vincent Astor, author, collector, and charter member of MHI, is the main speaker and M.C., offering a variety of movie-related topics to a sold-out series at 7:00 PM each Monday in March. So far, the exchange of ideas and memories has been lively and vivid.
The first meeting was all about the movie theatres that are or were a part of Memphis. The period from 1930-1960 was the timeframe covered with lots of overheads of the buildings that make up the history of Memphis movie houses. Many of them are no more; others still stand vacant and abandoned. Vincent’s vast knowledge of this history is amazing. He has amassed a collection of rare photos from the beginning of the sound era of film to the present time. His purview ends in 1960, a good stopping point, since by 1960 films were beginning to change and the venues where they were shown did as well. The slide show is accompanied by story after story from Astor illuminates the history with details. Week two included discussion of Film Row, the distribution offices for the studios that sprang up in the 1920’s and lasted until the 1950’s (when TV reared its ugly head and deeply affected the movie industry, especially
small-town movie houses).
At one time 36 distributors dotted the landscape on Second Street/Vance/Huling/and Butler, among others, off South Main Street. They booked films into theatres within a 200-mile radius of Memphis and coordinated storage/delivery of film and film products. Charlie Lambert, film historian and writer, talked about the importance of the Film Transit Company (a rapid round-trip delivery service) and its co-owned Memphis Film Service (a storage facility and repair shop for films coming or going through Memphis); President/Owner Fred Blank of Tri State Theatre Supply (candy, popcorn, projectors, velvet ropes, tickets, rentals, and anything else used by theatres have emanated from this company since 1935) commented on his company’s history; Bob Bostick whose family ran National Theatre Supply discussed other entities involved with movie supplies and paraphernalia. The discussion also included comments by Michael Donahue and his sister, Kathy Donahue McLallan, whose father worked for the Paramount Distribution Office in Memphis. They grew up around movies, celebrities, premieres, and other movie-related events. The discussion also got off on the topic of censorship and the colorful insurance executive and film censor, Lloyd T. Binford, a nationally-known Memphis film fanatic appointed by the Mayor to head the Memphis Board of Censors. Fun stuff!
The series is off to a great start and by the time you read this Jackie Nichols, founder of Playhouse on the Square and other theatre venues will have presented his look back at how he preserved and utilized two neighborhood movie houses on Poplar (Ritz/Guild and Cooper (Memphian). The last 2 Mondays will feature the history of Malco and its influence on movies in Memphis beginning in 1929.
The last session will have Linn Sitler, Memphis and Shelby County Film Commissioner, who will talk about her role in getting moviemakers to use Memphis as a film venue and all that entails.