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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Grand Opera House

Posted By on Tue, May 19, 2009 at 10:39 AM

7eab/1242748742-grandoperahouse.jpg You think times are bad now? In the late 1880s, Memphis was struggling to recover from a series of yellow-fever epidemics that had almost taken our city off the map. In these uncertain times, a group of 25 businessmen managed to raise $60,000 to build what they would call "a temple to Thespis that no city in America would be ashamed of owning."

I'm proud to say that records indicate the Lauderdales contributed $10 towards this worthy cause. Our generosity knows no bounds!

The Grand Opera House opened on the southwest corner of Main and Beale on September 22, 1890. The Memphis Avalanche (one of the best-named newspapers of all time) called the premiere "the most brilliant theatrical and social success in the history of Memphis." Don't mince words, Avalanche reporter! The stunning building, constructed of Bedford limestone from Indiana, soon attracted some of the biggest stars of the American stage. Sarah Bernhardt, Lillian Russell, W.C. Fields, John Philip Sousa, and countless others performed at the Grand.

Even so, as the years passed, the quality of some of the shows began to decline. Of the 1897 production of The Wedding Day, critics said, "The plot was obscure, the music tiresome, and there was an absence of the dash and conciseness incident to good comic opera." Even the star, Lillian Russell, was "past the age and figure that once whirled the minds of sensuous men." Ouch.

Other shows were apparently more successful at whirling those minds. The Telephone Girl, described as "a daring story of loose morals" (the subtitle of my own autobiography!) when it was presented in 1889 "is shocking, and certainly the most flagrant exhibition of up-to-date wickedness ever seen on the Memphis stage. This is not the show to take a sister or sweetheart to see." Criticism that would almost guarantee a packed house, if you ask me.

Around 1904, comedians, trained dogs, magicians, and the like began to appear between acts. It was only a matter of time before the vaudeville performers proved so popular that they began replacing the main productions, entirely, marking "the beginning of the end of the golden age of theater," as one newspaper put it.

In 1907, the Orpheum Theater circuit purchased the Grand, remodeling and renaming it the Orpheum. In 1921, the building was remodeled again, but its days were numbered. Following a performance on the evening of October 16, 1923, flames broke out on the top floor. Firemen battled the blaze all night, but by morning there was little left but rubble. A new Orpheum, later called the Malco, then renamed the Orpheum again, was built on the site in 1928.

A postcript to this story: It was in that 1923 fire, so the story goes, that a little girl perished — the same little girl whose ghost haunts the Orpheum to this day, and has a particular fondness for watching performances from Seat C-5 in an upper balcony. (An alternate version has the girl, called Mary, killed in a streetcar accident outside the theater.) But that' another story, for another time.

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