Once Upon a Time on Main Street

By Charlie Lambert

Those of you who did not grow up in Memphis, even those who did, probably do not know the mini-version of Hollywood that lived along the main thoroughfare in downtown Memphis starting in the 1920’s and continuing for many decades. Much has been written about the grand movie houses that populated the street over the years. I want to concentrate on just five of them, the ones I haunted in my youth, and how Hollywood controlled their fate from afar during the era known as the “Studio Years” (1924-1951).

In those days, there were seven major Hollywood Studios, most of them in southern California  around Los Angeles. They were founded in the early 1900’s for the most part – MGM in 1924 was the largest, but not the first. That one would be Paramount, dating back to 1915. The others, Warners, RKO, Universal, 20th Century Fox, and Columbia – came into being thanks to innovative, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Arriving in the U.S. not speaking the language, broke, and eager to find work, these men with anglicized names like Mayer, Warner, Zukor, and Thalberg soon discovered America was in love with motion pictures. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry was making films in various locales around New York, Astoria, for instance, where the immigrants arrived at Ellis Island from Poland, Germany, Russia, Austria, and other smaller countries that no longer exist.

No one had yet figured out how to organize such an ephemeral enterprise. Films were made, shown, and profits or losses ensued. Then another film was made and its fate played out.  Sometimes the entities making the films gave themselves names to distinguish themselves as long-term “Movie Makers”. No stars existed, just hungry young men and women hoping to cash in on the phenomenon occurring all around them. Movies were as haphazard as imaginable being made outdoors to take advantage of the light and shown in archaic store fronts or on outdoor screens, even using machines that allowed only one person at a time to see the “movie” (Nickelodeons).

One by one the future moguls of the motion picture industry realized the potential of setting up an organized way to turn this slap-happy world into what eventually were to be called “academies” or “studios”. Opening such movie factories first in the East and eventually moving to sunny California where there was better weather and more room to spread out, The “Studio System” was born and emerged as the very thing these immigrants envisioned it could be. With little money and lots of hope these men turned Hollywood into the most vivid dreamland on earth.

Instead of rag-tag filming of random story-less pieces of comedy or current events, the moguls’ concept was to build a place where actors, writers, construction teams, directors, and costumers, as well as cameramen and set designers –all very rudimentary at first – would work for one enterprise and all would contribute to the product and share the profits, according to their contribution to the overall process. How strange is it that of all the immigrants who sought to get rich quickly in America, that seven of them (and a few others to a lesser extent) achieved what millions of native-born entrepreneurs did not. Was it pure luck or talent? Nobody knows the answer to that mystery. But it happened in short order. 

Louis B. Mayer, led the way when he set up MGM Academy in 1924. He was called the “mogul” (a term applied to the leader of the various studios because of their power) of MGM. The son of a metal monger in Massachusetts when he saw the handwriting on the wall and began renting space to show films made by others on a wall in a room full of chairs holding patrons. The films were silent, short, and at a nickel or dime per person, the showing of the same reels over and over attracted a crowd. He added a piano or violin and sold candy to the show and made even more. So simple but so unique. He opened his own studio in New York, “Metro Pictures” and in 1924 moved to California where he purchased a struggling studio from Samuel Goldfish (changed to “Goldwyn”) and planted his production headquarters there. Thus Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Studios were merged into Metro=Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). The conglomerate grew into the largest and most prestigious of all the studios between 1924-1951. A large holding company headquartered in New York, Loew’s Inc., purchased the studio early on, allowing Mayer to grow it much quicker. Loews let Mayer run the place for them with total autonomy for the next twenty-seven years.

Each one of these major studios followed the exact same pattern. They had all the people who were necessary to make movies under long-term contract, owned the land to make the films, and, here’s the topper – by the late thirties they owned most of the first-run theatres across the country. Every large city had a  Loews Theatre (Memphis had two), a Warner, or an RKO outlet where movies made by that studio played exclusively. As you can appreciate, that made the entire process from creating, to selling, to distributing the major films under the sole protectorate of the moguls. Nobody had a chance to compete with them as long as the Studio System existed. What a coup!

Now back to Memphis and our little Main Street. As I said Loews put two theatres here, both holding thousands of people with elaborate surroundings and plush decor. One was, indeed, on Main Street, the other around the corner from Main on Union – The Loew’s State and the Loew’s Palace. Warners bought a grand palace on the other side of Main, the Pantages, and changed its name to Warner. The other two major theatres were the relatively- small Strand Theatre and the Malco Theatre, converted from an opera house and stage theatre into a twenty-nine-hundred seat movie domain in 1940 by the Lightman Family. M.A. Lightman was the patriarch and he dubbed his movie venture the M-A-L-CO. No one could mistake its owner.

If a film made and distributed by MGM came to town, you could bet it would appear at one of the Loew’s outlets for as long as it was profitable. Then it would be booked in neighborhood movie houses for cheaper, but still exclusive showing, usually with a second feature. Same agenda for Warner films. They went to Warners with the same treatment. But, wait, Memphis had five major theatres and there were seven major studios distributing films here. Again, the local representatives of the other majors (we had 37 distribution offices on Second Street at one time, representing all the major and many minor studios). Films from majors were rotated between the Strand (owned by Loews and operated on behalf of Paramount for 8 years) and the Malco. My memory tells me Strand usually ended up with most of the Paramount and 20th Century Fox films and the Columbia products. Malco, because it was formerly part of Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) vaudeville circuit, took RKO and Universal films. Paramount films were shown in any one of the theatres, sometimes, when MGM or Warner was without a new product, in one of the Loew’s theatres. The hard-and-fast rule grew less rigid over the years but the basics were still being practiced in the 1940’s and early 1950’s.

My strange memory retains images of films I saw in the 50’s downtown. I recall descending the steps at the Loew’s State in 1954 and coming in on a particular scene in the Twentieth-Century Fox film, WOMAN’S WORLD. Patrons could go in at any point during the film in those times. Then. they would stay until that point in the following showing. The programs were shown continuously all day and night. Auditoriums were never cleared until the final showing of that day. Another time, I recall an MGM film at the State. So, my statement  about studios shuffling the venues of their films in the last stages of the studio system is accurate.

Another very important aspect of the local film distribution industry was the Film Transit Company. Its trucks took reels of films from Memphis to distant large and small theatre houses in rural and small town venues. Think about the fact that each one-and-a-half to two-hour film had six, eight, even ten reels. The transit business was not only lucrative but vital to the success of movies. The transit company also carried posters, previews, concessions, and other items across five states without a hitch, most of the time. I met the man who innovated the Film Transit concept and his story was fascinating. Eventually, the trucking concern built a huge warehouse for films from all the studios and distributed them from there, eliminating the need for most of the staff of studio distribution offices, and separate storage for the most part.

When I say Memphis was like a Mini-Hollywood I mean that the studio concept carried down to every major city and made the studios invulnerable to competition – until that pesky Supreme Court Case in the late 1940’s, an antitrust lawsuit that resulted in the demise of the studio system.  The ruling allowed the majors the option of eliminating their distribution circuit or selling their theatres. The studios chose the latter course and that effectively ended that grand experiment known as the “Studio System”. There was no longer any barrier for all the competition with the studios for theatre bookings, no longer any need for famous actors to be bound to studio contracts. Anyone who wanted to make a film, as they did in the pre-studio era, could form a company and rent space to make a film, hiring anyone willing to star in it. The remaining studios today are just shell corporations that underwrite the distribution of films. Studios themselves rarely make films these days. Hundreds of independent companies make the films and allow the studios to use their excellent distribution system to get them to theatres, for a small fee.

I cannot stop without mentioning logos. Each major and minor studio created its own distinct logo when it began production in the 1920’s. MGM used the lion as its logo starting with its very first film in 1924 (He WHO GETS SLAPPED). Paramount’s mountain, Columbia’s lady with a torch, Universal’s spinning earth, RKO’s radio tower, and Twentieth-Century-Fox’s searchlight have been recognizable for over one-hundred years (with suitable modification, enhancements, and music added along the way). Those logos are still an important symbol of quality and act as  a trademark assuring the patron that one of oldest filmmaking companies had a part in sending that film to that theatre. I hope that bit of nostalgia continues as long as movies are made.

 

Summary of Memphis “First-Run Memphis Theatres

Strand – 1913 (opened at Majestic #2) changed name to Strand in 1929 and operated by Loew’s for Paramount Studios until 1940 when it became independent. 1,085 seats. Closed in 1972. 

The Strand

 

Loew’s State – 1920, owned by Loews Inc. owner of MGM Studios until 1964 when it became independent. 2,566 seats. Closed 1968.

Loew’s State

 

Loews Palace – 1921, owned by Loews Inc. owner of MGM Studios. Rented to the Lightman Family from 1935-40 (1940 was the year Lightmans opened the Orpheum at Malco Theatre). Memphis home of Cinerama Process in Memphis. Given to a local church 1977 as a religious venue and closed in 1985. 2,200 seats.

Loew’s Palace

 

Warner –  1921 opened as Pantages (vaudeville circuit) Sold to Warner 1929. 2,300 seats. Closed 1968.

Warner

Malco – 1928 opened as a vaudeville house and turned into a movie house by M. A. Lightman and family in 1940. Became a stage theatre venue under guidance of Memphis Development Foundation (1977-Present). Closed as a movie venue 1968. Vacant for 9 years. Nearly demolished. 2,308 seats. Only major venue remaining of the original five. Pictured as it looked in the 1950’s.

Malco

Images and summary information taken from Internet archives and Cinema Treasures.

Sources:

Merchant of Dreams, Charles Higham, 1993, Dutton Press

The Hollywood Studio System, Douglas Gomery, 2005, British Film Institute Publishing

Interview with Gil Brandon owner of Film Transit Company

70 years of personal experience

6 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time on Main Street

    1. I find two things amusing. The thumbnail for a post about Main St. is Loew’s Palace which was on Union. Also the architect’s rendering at the end is of the Orpheum not the Malco. The building never, ever looked like that. There are many photos of the Malco as the Malco.
      Remember I did actually “write the book” about Memphis Movie Theatres.

  1. I find two things amusing. The thumbnail for a post about Main St. is Loew’s Palace which was on Union. Also the architect’s rendering at the end is of the Orpheum not the Malco. The building never, ever looked like that. There are many photos of the Malco as the Malco.
    Remember I did actually “write the book” about Memphis Movie Theatres.

    1. This ought to be an easy question to answer but it is not. Conflicting records on file on the Internet suggest that the Memphis Zoo lion was named “Volney”(because his trainer was named Volney Piefier. Supposedly that lion was born around 1915 in Sudan and was relocated to Memphis where the sound recording of his roar was sound recorded at the old Carnivora Building at the Memphis Zoo. That building housed lions and tigers at the time. Today it is a restaurant. MGM renamed the lion “Jackie” and used it from 1928- 1957). It was the first of the many lions used over the years to roar on screen. Jackie was referred to as “Leo the Lucky” due to surviving a plane crash before retiring.

      That version is the one most used in press but other variations move the yeas of Jackie’s reign to other time periods. One account says he died in 1944. Another calls him “Slats” and still other (Wikipedia) doesn’t mention the Zoo connection in its lengthy account. I think we can safely say one of the famous MGM lions lived at the Memphis Zoo and that a sound recording of it was used on screen at some point by MGM. Hollywood history has a tendency to be elusive from one report to another. The Internet does have what is supposed to be a picture of a lion being recorded at our Zoo. Sorry I cannot be more definitive.

      1. Thank you for your prompt response, Charles. Whatever the details, it’s fun to ponder the intertwining of Memphis with the colorful history of the MGM lion. I look forward to your next posting.

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