Memphis Ellis Auditorium
Memphis Community of Faith members will remember the Ellis Auditorium as one of our first meeting places when we began 60 years ago. It looks like we were in good company.
Ellis Auditorium was located in downtown Memphis on the corner of Poplar and Front Street. The completion of the Auditorium in 1924 made Memphis one of the first cities in the nation to offer comprehensive meeting and convention facilities. The auditorium was way ahead of its time, offering 30,000 square feet of display space and seating for 12,000. It even featured a movable stage that was entirely electric. A period brochure boasted that the mechanical marvel took only 12 hours to move! The auditorium was so advanced, it would be 50 years before a new facility was needed.
Memphis saw a building boom beginning in 1920, with many new buildings going up. George Awsumb designed plans for a new auditorium and it was built not long afterwards at the North End of Front Street. When it opened, Memphis finally had a venue for Opera, Exhibitions, and large theatrical productions. Promoters hyped its removable, hardwood floor ('unexcelled for dancing") and its connections for steam as well as for hot and cold water. The original name for the structure was "Memphis Auditorium and Market House". It was a combination athletic arena, concert hall, convention center, and retail produce market. Apparently, Memphis city fathers didn't believe income from the entertainment halls alone would sustain the $3,000,000 investment, and during the first ten years of operation, the rental income from the market stalls actually earned more money than the rental of the hall for entertainment purposes.
The moving force behind the auditorium was Robert R. Ellis and after his death in 1930, the facility was renamed for him. However the major drive behind the construction of the building was mostly economic. Memphis had already become a significant distribution center by the 1920s. Many railroads and truck lines, along with the Mississippi River, made it one of the most accessible cities in the country. Business and government leaders of the time wanted to make the city a great place for conventions. When the new auditorium was dedicated in 1924, John Philip Sousa was the opening act. From this beginning and throughout its lifetime, Ellis hosted circuses, opera, symphony concerts, trade shows, movies, traveling theatrical shows, conventions, and big bands. In segregated Memphis, Blacks had a separate side entrance at the Auditorium and sat in a separate balcony. (The Harlem Globetrotters set record sales of more than 6,000 'white' tickets in 1953).
Ellis Auditorium brought such legendary performers as Katharine Hepburn, Mary Martin, the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, and dancer Isadora Duncan to Memphis. This was also the Auditorium where Elvis first played to a sold out crowd. Almost all Memphis High School graduations were held here. Numerous touring productions also appeared, including the John Barrymore touring company. Barrymore’s alcoholism made every performance a test of nerves; he would skip lines, demand to see cue cards, or treat the play as a joke. And there were the six decades of Memphis music that filled the halls. That's sixty years of Memphis music.
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