In 1926, one of the highest-paid performers in vaudeville appeared on stage in Memphis. He certainly hadn’t made his name as a singer or dancer, and he couldn’t play a note, but it was standing-room-only when the Sultan of Swat — yes, Babe Ruth himself — stepped into the lights at the Pantages Theater downtown and chatted about his amazing career with the New York Yankees.
Built in 1921 as part of a nationwide chain, the Pantages, which stood on the east side of Main Street between Monroe and Union, was considered the grandest theater in town. A brilliantly lighted marquee stretched the full width of the gleaming white, terra-cotta facade, and every inch of the interior was covered in ornate, gilded plasterwork. When the theater first opened, it staged vaudeville acts — W.C. Fields and Buster Keaton were other stars who played there — and showed silent films. In 1930, it was sold to Warner Bros. Pictures to showcase their new “talking pictures” and the name was changed to the Warner Theater. The first “talkie” Memphians saw at the Warner was General Crack, starring John Barrymore.
The 1,900-seat theater thrived for three decades, an especially popular attraction in the summer, when families drove downtown to enjoy the newfangled invention called “air conditioning.” But the Warner — and its sister theaters downtown, including the Malco, Loew’s Palace, and Loew’s State — began to struggle in the 1960s, when smaller theaters opened in the suburbs and audiences began to stay home and watch television. In 1963, Memphis Press-Scimitar columnist Edwin Howard observed that the Warner, “one of the important links in the Pantages vaudeville chain of the 1920s, [is] still going strong as a motion-picture palace.”
Just five years later, however, officials with the National Bank of Commerce selected that block of Main Street for a 33-story office tower. On December 8, 1968, after the showing of Coogan’s Bluff, the Warner closed. The contents were auctioned off, and bulldozers brought down the old vaudeville palace a few months later. NBC’s Commerce Square stands on the site today.
PHOTO COURTESY BENJAMIN HOOKS CENTRAL LIBRARY