The Lyceum

Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.

This building at Second and Jefferson was once the gathering place for Memphis society.

Dear Vance: What can you tell me about our city’s old Lyceum Theater? I’ve heard of the Orpheum, Warner, Loew’s State, and Loew’s Palace, but I’ve never read much at all about the Lyceum. — T.Y., Memphis.

Dear T.Y.: An architectural masterpiece. A gleaming symbol of a progressive, educated city. A glittering entertainment palace that was a magnet for the finest families of Memphis. And, in its last days, an eyesore and an embarrassment.

I’m talking, of course, about the Lauderdale Mansion.

But all these phrases could, and have been, applied to both the old and the new Lyceum Theaters, for there were actually two of them, you see. And since I’ve got two pages here, I’ll tell you about both. And I’m able to do that because I ventured to the main library, hoping to find at least a few yellowed newspaper clippings on this equally faded establishment, which I could stretch into a halfway-decent column.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the librarian brought out not one, not two, but three whopping books devoted to the Lyceum — each one a master’s thesis composed of some 200 pages devoted to a particular phase of both theaters’ creation, growth, and destruction.

So let me offer my thanks right now to the amazing work compiled by: Carolyn Powell, 1951 author of The Lyceum Theater of Memphis: 1890-1900; James Wesley Ouzts, 1963 author of The History of the Lyceum Theater, Memphis, Tennessee, 1900-1910; and Gordon Batson, 1971 author of The Theatrical History of the Lyceum Theater of Memphis, 1910-1935. I hope they were awarded their degrees, because these three scholars pretty much covered everything you could possibly want to know about this old place, T.Y., during its 47-year history.

The Lyceum got its start way back in 1888, when the Memphis Athletic Association erected a stunning new clubhouse at the northwest corner of Third and Union. Newspapers described it as “a handsome structure of pressed brick and iron, with stone trimming.” The five-story building mainly served as a gymnasium and offices for the club members, but the first floor was devoted to a 1,200-seat theater. Not for movies, of course — it was way too early for that — but for plays.

The first Lyceum wasn’t as ostentatious as later theaters like the Warner or Orpheum. In fact, Powell writes that it was “decorated in quiet, restful shades. The woodwork was very plain and highly polished, with here and there bits of finely wrought carving.” The chairs, of all things, were apparently unique, though I’m not sure why, exactly. Powell notes that a Chicago company made them “especially for this house, and they were known as the Lyceum chair and were copied all over the country.”

The first Lyceum was a nice enough building, I suppose, but Memphians didn’t get to enjoy it for very long. On the night of November 7, 1893, all that polished woodwork and those Lyceum chairs somehow caught fire, and the two-year-old building burned to the ground.
From the ashes, however, came a much grander Lyceum, the fine building shown on this old postcard. Civic leaders, led by local businessman Hugh Brinkley, purchased a lot at the southwest corner of Second and Jefferson and erected a new Lyceum. I’ve often wondered why they didn’t use the old site on Union, but they didn’t consult with me about that.

The “new” Lyceum was considerably more fancy. It was constructed of “buff Roman brick and Bowling Green limestone, with Ionic columns of blue Ryegate granite.” A two-story arched entrance beckoned visitors, and The Commercial Appeal wrote, “If architecture be frozen music, the new Lyceum Theater was an example of the floritude of Orpheus.”

I really have no idea what that means. Floritude?

At any rate, as with the other building, the theater occupied the ground floor. Other sections housed the Theater Club, the Nineteenth Century Club, and — as you can see if you squint at the old postcard — even such mundane businesses as dentists’ offices. In the basement was a barbershop, Turkish bath, and — so the story goes — a private swimming pool for Brinkley.

The interior was lavish, decorated in an overblown Spanish motif, with everything painted “imperial green, rich yellow, and gold.” Four huge murals painted by Victor Torghetti, “the celebrated figure artist of this country,” depicted music, comedy, drama, and dance. The whole effect, according to the newspaper, was “refreshing and exhilarating.”

Theater-goers obviously thought so. The curtain rose on December 4, 1894, for a performance of The Count de Grammot, and the actors faced a packed house. So it was, night after night. In fact, the Lyceum almost immediately became the place to go in Memphis. The Commercial Appeal observed that it “was always a place for style and dress. Night after night victories and barouches [those are forms of carriages, you understand] pulled up before the dazzling theatre and the well-dressed passengers stepped forth to the chief enjoyment that the day afforded.”

It was the gathering place for the Lauderdales and other elite members of society. Though she doesn’t mention my family by name (surely an oversight), Powell says, “The select of the town were to be seen in the rows of glittering boxes in the balcony known as ‘The Golden Horseshoe.’ Men, decked out in full tails — none of your compromise tuxedos or monkey-jackets in those days — were most conscious of their habit. The Lyceum saw the American gentleman at his dashing best.”

Part of the dazzle came from the theater’s new electric lights — supposedly the first playhouse in Memphis to have them — and so powerful that the Lyceum had its own generating station in the basement because “the city plant was unable to handle such a tremendous demand.”
Within months of opening, the Lyceum developed a reputation as one of the finest theaters in the entire South, attracting the most popular plays of the day. A thrilling production of Ben Hur, complete with rumbling chariot races, was somehow presented on the huge stage there. The most famous actors of our time took a bow at the Lyceum: Maud Adams, Lillie Langtry, Anna Held, William S. Hart, George M. Cohan, and Billie Burke — perhaps best known in later years as “the good witch” from The Wizard of Oz.

By today’s standards, admission seems a bargain. According to the old programs, a box seat was $1.10, floor seats were 50 cents, and a perch in the balcony cost you a quarter. (Those same programs asked ticket holders, “As a special favor, will you please be in your seats on time?”)
And it wasn’t just a place for plays. Singers and musicians performed before sold-out houses. “An enumeration of those who played or sung at the Lyceum would be like assembling a ‘Who’s Who’ of the drama, operatic, concert, and lecture stage,” wrote The Commercial Appeal. Among them were such prestigious groups as the French Opera Company and the Imperial Russian Ballet. In the 1920s, according to a nice collection of playbills archived in the Lauderdale Library (such as the one shown here), the Lyceum hosted rather elaborate productions of the Laskin Players and other stock companies.

One of those performances, a 1926 comedy called The Four Flusher, was described as “an almost excruciatingly jovial affair.” Next came Secrets, “a play that has swept across two continents, depicting the life of the English aristocracy and life on the American frontier. Lyceum patrons have a real treat in store for them.” Then there was Under Southern Skies (“with everything in it that makes up a wonderful entertainment — romance, love, hate, and revenge”) and The Organ Revue (“with 24 dramatic scenes, the most pretentious production ever attempted in the South”).

Okay, if it was such a grand place, what happened? Well, Memphians can be a fickle bunch. The newly opened East End Park offered rides and thrills and — yes — alcohol. Other theaters opened downtown. But the nail in the coffin, so to speak, was a new form of entertainment entirely. In his thesis, Batson says, “Competition from the ever-improving moving pictures contributed to the degradation of this theatre.”

Desperate to fill the house, the Lyceum management resorted to vaudeville acts — magicians, ventriloquists, performing dogs, and more. Nowadays we might find many of these acts enchanting, but it was considered cheap entertainment, and not for “the right people.” In 1920, the owners finally converted it to a movie house, but by then the crowds had already discovered the much fancier and larger Lyric Theatre on Madison, and the stunning new Municipal Auditorium on Main Street. When the Loew’s State, Loew’s Palace, and The Orpheum opened, the Lyceum was doomed.

“The movies sustained the life of the Lyceum until her outdated facilities lost the battle of survival to the newer movie houses,” says Batson. “The Lyceum became a theatrical bedlam, falling on progressively evil times. Movies, stock companies, and bits of vaudeville kept the life flowing in her veins.”

But not for much longer. Those dapper gentlemen who once arrived in their carriages stopped coming to the Lyceum, and by the late 1920s the Memphis Press-Scimitar declared the place “obsolete and outmoded.” Owners began to use it for political debates, dance marathons, and even wrestling matches. Perhaps the final blow was a burlesque production called “Scanties of 1934,” which featured “a chorus of 40 girls” who were apparently so scantily clad that the police closed the show.

In 1935, the newspapers announced a “one-act tragedy” would take place at the old theater, to be called “The Wrecking of the Lyceum.” They meant that literally. What had been one of the premiere theaters in the South fell to the wrecking ball in just three weeks. There’s no trace of the building today; a parking lot fills the former location. A newspaper story noted that many of the architectural features “had been scattered everywhere” and “bought for further use” but the reporter wasn’t more specific. I wonder what pieces of the old Lyceum have survived in Memphis? I could certainly have used those nice columns to prop up the termite-gnawed back porch of the Mansion. 

Got a question for Vance?

Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103

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