"I have had a blast," Vincent Astor says, describing his experience assembling Memphis Movie Theatres, a photo-laden history of area cinemas, recently released by regional history press Arcadia Publishing.
"I have met a lot of fascinating people and have heard so many more stories than would ever fit in those captions," he says, running down a long list of people and institutions that helped him locate and identify some extraordinary images of area opera houses, nickelodeons, neighborhood theaters, and grand movie palaces.
"During fire prevention awareness week, the Memphis Fire Department was happy to have any marquees they could get," Astor says, explaining how the messages on these marquees were documented by the department, making the Fire Museum archive a treasure trove of hard-to-find images.
"The first thing I did was look at every Don Newman photo," Astor says, referring to works by the photographer whose deep-focus cityscapes beautifully document Memphis street-life in the mid-20th century. Several images included in the book are tightly cropped details from much larger Newman photos.
Astor, a native Memphian and local historian, has always shown a special fondness for old movie houses and has worked in various capacities at both the Orpheum/Malco and the Memphian (after it was transformed into Playhouse on the Square). His collection of Memphis movie-house memorabilia was on display at A. Schwab for 20 years. In fact, the new book was partly inspired by the need to find a new home for his collection when Schwab transitioned to new ownership.
As Astor notes in his book's opening, Memphis has always been a theatrical town, "a crossroads in the center of America for entertainment as well as commerce." In the age of destination multiplexes, it may surprise some Memphians to discover how many theaters once dotted the local landscape.
Vincent Astor signs Memphis Movie Theatres at Burke's Book Store on Thursday, December 12th, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.