News Column

The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn., John Beifuss column

December 9, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 09--Respectable citizens of Memphis likely have paid scant attention to the facade of the Paris Adult Entertainment Center on Summer Avenue, not far from the northeast corner of Overton Park.

The "XXX" warning on the marquee is forbidding, but look up and you'll see the theater's venerable original front, built in 1939, and its original name, cast in concrete: LUCIANN.

The name has a story: The Luciann was intended as a loving homage to Lucy and Ann, daughters of the theater's builder and owner, Michael Cianciolo, who operated as many as four neighborhood movie houses in Memphis from the 1930s through the '70s.

Hovering above an interior of adult novelties and private viewing booths, the name is an incongruously innocent reminder of an era when neighborhood theaters, elaborate movie palaces and rural drive-ins dotted the Mid-South map -- an era when moviegoing was arguably America's most popular form of entertainment.

That era is celebrated in a new book, "Images of America: Memphis Movie Theatres," a lavishly illustrated love letter to Bluff City cinema by local author, historian, memorabilia collector and film buff Vincent Astor, who scoured police, fire, library, university, newspaper and private archives to find his book's 220 photos. (An exhibit featuring movie theater photographs and artifacts from Astor's collection will be on display through December at Howard Hall, the Memphis Heritage headquarters building at 2282 Madison.

Astor -- who celebrated his 60th birthday Friday -- credits his fascination with movie theaters as opposed to movies in general to a screening at the venue that would be his place of employment for many years, the headquarters Malco movie palace on Main Street (now an all-purpose entertainment venue with its original name restored, the Orpheum).

"I was sitting in the Malco Theatre; I think it was August of 1969. I was watching the original 'True Grit' with Kim Darby and John Wayne, and I looked up, and I had never noticed how gorgeous the Malco was, and I got more interested in the building than the film."

Soon he became fascinated with the history of motion picture exhibition in Memphis, which he traces to the opening of candy magnate Charles Dinstuhl's Theatorium on Main Street in 1905.

Close to 50 small storefront theaters were in business Downtown before the first of the designated movie "palaces," the Loew's State, opened in 1920; already in operation were the original Orpheum (built in 1890), the Lyceum (1893) and the Lyric (1911), entertainment palaces that increasingly included movies among the vaudeville acts and other items on their bills of fare. The Loew's Palace and the Warner followed in 1921; the original Orpheum burned in 1923, and its replacement theater, the current Orpheum, opened in 1928.

The following years and decades saw scores of theaters come and go, some all but forgotten, some still remembered: the Princess, the Paramount, the Strand, the Studio, the Bristol, the Ritz, the Rosemary, the Rosewood, the Joy, the Normal, the Strand, the Whitehaven, the Muhammad Ali, the Muvico Peabody Place 22, and on and on and on. Today, the Memphis area continues to support more than 180 movie screens, but they are divided among 16 theaters.

"Memphis Movie Theatres" is more than a roll call, however. The book also functions as a de facto social history of Memphis, as it traces the spread of motion pictures from the nickelodeons of the 1900s to the multiplexes of the suburbs and shopping malls, with stops in between that touch on such cultural themes as free speech (the sometimes-controversial "art" theaters), Memphis music (Willie Mitchell's Royal Recording Studio on South Lauderdale was built as the Royal movie house, while Stax on McLemore, with its famous marquee, was originally the Capitol cinema) and race.

A chapter on "'Colored' Balconies, 'Colored' Theatres" is a reminder that even the movies were segregated in the age of institutionalized racism, although Beale Street and various black neighborhoods supported their own movie houses. South Memphis alone supported the Ace, the Harlem and the Georgia, plus the Lincoln Drive-In. (Working with the NAACP in the early 1960s, the late Dick Lightman of Malco was instrumental in ending Memphis movie segregation.)

"Memphis Movie Theatres," which lists at $21.99, is a product of 20-year-old Arcadia Publishing in Charleston, S.C., a company that this year alone has published 660 new "pictorial history books" in its "Image of America" series. Titles in the series are as broad as "San Francisco" and as specific as "Lockport, Illinois: The Old Canal Town." Some other Memphis titles in the series include "African Americans in Memphis" and "Memphis Music: Before the Blues," while movie-themed books that appeared before Astor's Memphis volume have been devoted to the historic theaters of Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Greater Newark and South Jersey.

Typically authored by historians or enthusiasts, the books are standardized to a strict design format and 128-page count, room enough for 180 to 200-plus pictures, according to Joe Walker, Arcadia sales and marketing director. The initial press run per title is typically 1,200 copies; the company's biggest seller is "The Biltmore," which Walker said has moved more than 100,000 copies. "Memphis Movie Theatres" had sold more than 720 copies in its first month of availability, with no publicity.

"As long as a book sells, it will stay in print," Walker said.

He said Arcadia books are sold in pharmacies, hardware stores, souvenir shops and other businesses, in addition to bookstores. To this end, the busy Astor will sign copies of his volume this month at area Walgreens stores as well as at bookstores.

"Memphis is a very good Walgreens town for us," Walker said. "Almost every Walgreens has picked us up."

Perhaps impulse shoppers respond to the nostalgic aspect of Arcadia's "pictorials." Michael Cianciolo, 69, grandson of the man who built the Luciann, said it's easy to get lost in memories of the days when theater managers knew their patrons by name and worked directly with the studio representatives based in the business district known as "Film Row" on South Second.

Cianciolo was born in an apartment building attached to the back of the Luciann. He said his dad, Augustine Cianciolo, sometimes would open up the theater early so he and his friends could watch cartoons and Tarzan movies in the morning, before the regular show started at noon.

The business wasn't all fun and popcorn, however. When the Cianciolos booked "Inherit the Wind" at the Plaza (Memphis' first shopping-mall theater, built in 1960), the family received "harassing phone calls from pinheads all over the county," Cianciolo said. These angry callers objected to the film's portrayal of Tennessee's infamous Scopes "Monkey Trial," in which a science teacher was convicted of breaking state law for teaching the theory of evolution. Despite the outcry, the movie was "a huge hit," Cianciolo said.

In 1965, when the Plaza booked "A Patch of Blue," in which Sidney Poitier befriends a blind white girl, played by Elizabeth Hartman, "you might had thought they had crucified Christ again on the cross, from the uproar," Cianciolo said. "People set off smoke bombs in the theater."

Astor's book doesn't shy away from such controversies; among its images is a Studio marquee promising the 1959 French film "I Spit on Your Grave," which the Shelby County Grand Jury deemed "obscene." Nevertheless, "I have tried to keep it upbeat," the author said. "It offers nostalgia, and a touch of something beautiful. I tried to make it more about pleasant memories than sad. There's not a single demolition photo between those covers."

"Images of America: Memphis Movie Theatres"

Book signings with author Vincent Astor:

Burke's Book Store, 936 S. Cooper, 5:30 p.m. Thursday.

Walgreens, 824 W. Poplar, Collierville, 5 p.m. Dec. 16.

Walgreens, 9325 Poplar, Germantown, 4:30 p.m. Dec. 17.

Walgreens, 7790 Wolf River Blvd., Germantown, 5 p.m. Dec. 18.

Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center, 892 S. Cooper, 7 p.m. Dec. 19.

The Orpheum, 203 S. Main, Dec. 20. Astor will present a talk on Memphis movie theaters at 4:30 p.m. and begin signing books at 5, as part of a "Holiday Open House" that begins at 10 a.m.

To visit Astor's December movie exhibit at Howard Hall, 2282 Madison, call Memphis Heritage at 901-272-2727.

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(c)2013 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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