On May 20, 1921, the first one-act play of what would later become Theatre Memphis was produced. Fittingly, it was titled The Dream.
The dream at the time was simple — to create a small, community theater. To that end, The Little Theatre Players Association of Memphis, was incorporated on January 17, 1922. Harrison Crofford was the first director.
The initial group, gathered together by Fairfax Proudfit Walkup, was comprised of 56 active members, from which the officers, actors, producers, and musicians were taken.
The mission of the theater group at the time still rings true today, 93 years after actors first strode the stage in Germania Hall at Third Street and Jefferson Avenue in downtown Memphis: “producing plays, encouraging the art and the writing of plays, and the uplift of the drama and its allied arts.”
One-acts were produced exclusively through the third season with performances being seen in the auditorium of the Nineteenth Century Club when its home was on Third Street, and at St. Agnes Conservatory on Vance Avenue. The Little Theatre’s first full-length production was in 1924. “Nothing But the Truth” was received with such acclaim that it traveled to Forrest City, Arkansas, Sardis, Mississippi, and Knoxville.
A year later, the company merged with The Drama League’s local chapter and hired its first full-time professional director, Minor Coburn. The company longed for a permanent stage. Lee Rose, daughter of steamship baron James Lee Jr., donated the family home at Adams and Orleans to found the Academy of Fine Arts, predecessor to the Memphis College of Art. She offered the barn, and the Stable Playhouse was soon opened with 90 seats, potbelly stove heat, and a meeting room in the attic. The first production in this venue was You and I.
At the end of 1929, as the nation’s economy took center stage, the group found a new home in the Pink Palace Playhouse on Central Avenue. With an increased capacity of 250 seats, the rest of the house left the players a bit cramped, with no wing space, storage, and dressing rooms on the second floor and a closet acting as make-shift box-office. The Memphis Park Commission collected $50 per month in rent.
In the early 1930s, the budget was less than $4,000, and the only paid employees were director Eugart Yerian and the janitor. It was a time when the number of plays each season grew as did performances for those productions; matinees were introduced as well. In 1936, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was adapted by technical assistant Paul Camp and directed by Marcella Keeton; the yearly production remains popular to this day, and attendance has become a family holiday tradition for many.
In 1953, the company created the Memphis Children’s Theatre in conjunction with the Recreation Department of the City of Memphis. The first production was The Brat. The Children’s Theatre would later break off on its own and find a home at the Mid-South Fairgrounds.
Having directed 133 of the company’s 230 productions, Yerian resigned as director in 1961 to become visual aids d,irector for Holiday Inns. He was succeeded by Sherwood Lohrey, who would hold the post for 33 seasons.
The theater company had survived the Great Depression and a World War, even as its actors and directors were being shipped off to fight overseas. These were times when everyone needed a distraction, the sought-after release of a night out with drama and music onstage. There were other concerns for live theatre during those years — radio and television became reasons for people to stay in their homes and, when they wanted to get out, Hollywood offered a different movie every night in the city’s plethora of cinematic palaces.
By the end of the turbulent 1960s, though, the Little Theatre’s annual budget was 10 times what it had been 30 years earlier.
Just as Yerian had worked to grow the company of actors and backstage personnel through workshops and multiple productions in the less than ideal space allowed at the Pink Palace, Lohrey would work to grow the space itself, giving the actors room to spread their wings and thus increasing the possibilities of popular productions.
In 1970, the Little Theatre, led by board president Joel Bernsen and treasurer Gene Sebulsky, began a massive campaign to raise nearly $1.3 million for a new home in East Memphis.
With the idea of a new building came that of a new identity, a new brand in the parlance of today. As the fundraising effort ramped up, Lohrey wrote, “We must eliminate ‘little’ from our name … We have maintained high artistic standards of production under the supervision of a small professional staff …”
On May 1, 1975, the company’s dream came into focus when, with a long term lease on a patch of land owned by the city across the street from other civic treasures Audubon Park and Memphis Botanic Garden, the curtain was raised for the first time at the new home of Theatre Memphis.
Today, it is one of the oldest, continually operating community theatres in the country. “Anybody onstage during a production is a volunteer,” says Randall Hartzog, director of marketing & communications for the theatre. Hartzog became involved in 1978 and has sat on the board and held the seat of president over the years before joining the staff five years ago.
It is the reliance on community and volunteers that makes Theatre Memphis special, Hartzog says. The respect is mutual. “The relationship we have with our patrons is the trust, that when they come see something here, they’re trusting us to see a show that’s going to entertain them or be thought-provoking. We are a place where the community can come in and use their talents as a community theatre.”
Cultivating the right people is where the success lays, says Jerry Chipman, board member and past board president. He attaches that success to executive producer Debbie Litch. “From board members to talent onstage and backstage to the staff, she has recruited an admirable staff of designers — scenic designers, costume designers, lighting designers, and sound designers.”
More than mere entertainment, the theater is heavily involved in the community through outreach in a mentoring program partnership with the Memphis Grizzlies and the running of the Caritas Village afterschool program in Binghamton. It’s a throwback to the community spirit of the Children’s Theatre of the 1950s.
“It’s all very interactive and the kids perform,” says Hartzog. “It’s the self-esteem kids get from learning how to speak in front of people, learning to express themselves.”
The Showagon outreach troupe tours schools performing abbreviated Shakespeare or original works based on fairy tales and pieces informing against bullying.
A far cry from the barn in Victorian Village or the Pink Palace, the Lohrey Stage seats up to 411, and the Next Stage black box theatre holds up to 100. With an annual budget of $1.5 million, the theater puts on 11 productions a year. The challenge has been to remain in the forefront of theatergoers’ minds as entertainment dollars and attention spans are continually stretched among movies, concerts, video games, digitally streamed home entertainment, and other events. To compete, the theater is always looking to improve and, in the past few years, has upgraded both stages digitally in lights and sound.
“Nobody does it better.” This is the consensus of Chipman, former vice president of executive and corporate relations for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, whose interest in Theatre Memphis spans back to the mid-1970s when, as a college student, he was drawn to the facility and its cast of characters. Since then he’s worked closely as an actor, director, and board member. “We’re as good as any regional theater in the country, and there’s great pride in being associated with that.”
The very act of sitting on the board, Chipman says, is to be active in the theater and community. It’s the sort of involvement Fairfax Proudfit Walkup would have insisted upon, and it fosters a sense of pride in what’s being accomplished. “It’s not a lend-your-name-only (position),” Chipman says. Board members serve on an array of committees and, on opening night, may be seen greeting patrons and pouring champagne.
“Theater has a big place in the community,” says Hartzog. “The great thing about Memphis is that the talent pool is so good.”
For more information, go to theatrememphis.org.
MBQ’s Foundations is a recurring feature honoring Mid-South businesses and organizations that are 50 years and older.