Architect George Awsumb designed plans for a new auditorium and it was built not long afterwards at the North End of Front Street in 1924. When it opened on October 20-21-22, 1924, Memphis finally had a venue for Opera, Exhibitions, and large theatrical productions. John Philip Sousa was the opening act.
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.
Memphis Auditorium and Market House was situated on the corner of Poplar and Front St. in downtown Memphis. The completion of the Auditorium made Memphis one of the first cities to offer comprehensive meeting and convention facilities.
The auditorium was split into two halls, the North and South. The South Hall which seated 2000 was used for movies and shows while the North Hall which seated 5500 was used for concerts, ice shows, circuses, basketball games etc. The stage separated the two halls at roughly a third of the structure and was an elevator that could rise from the lower level for dramatic entries. The curtains could be opened to use the whole auditorium at once for larger capacities.
From the 1925 brochure these were known as the Concert Hall (seating 2,500) and the North Hall (seating 6,500). Total 9,000 with a possible increase to 12,000. These other seats were between the two prosceniums (at Balcony level) and were clearly visible backstage throughout the life of the theatre though they hadn’t been used in decades. The stage was about two-thirds of the way down and originally had flying proscenium arches and a stage floor that could be lowered. Thus, the entire building could be one vast amphitheatre. The double page view in the 1925 brochure is looking from the North Hall across the stage into the South Hall with the arches raised and the stage floor raised to platform height. The asbestos safety curtain in the North Hall was called the Wonder Curtain, as it was soundproof as well as fireproof so both halls could be used simultaneously. Each side had a colored entrance and balcony; each side had a Kimball pipe organ. The North Hall was equipped with projection equipment and Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” was screened in 1929.
The moving force behind the auditorium was Robert R. Ellis and 6 years later, in 1930, the facility would be renamed for him.
Ellis Auditorium was fortunate enough to have had two golden eras.
The first was back in the 1920's and 30's, when it was used by Victor and other "field" recording units to record such luminaries as Memphis Minnie, Tommy Johnson, Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, and Frank Stokes.
Productions like the John Barrymore touring company, in one of the actor’s last productions, My Dear Children. 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, much to the chagrin of the other actors. Barrymore was kept in check in Memphis and his company appeared at the Ellis Auditorium in 1939, with Barrymore in the lead.
Ellis Auditorium brought such legendary performers as Katharine Hepburn, Mary Martin, the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, and dancer Isadora Duncan to Memphis. (11)
Focus again turned to Ellis during the 40's and 50's when WDIA, "the "Sensation Station of the Nation" packed the auditorium for their annual Christmastime fundraiser, the Goodwill Revue. The proceeds established and maintained the Keel Avenue School for Handicapped Black Children.
Charles A. McElravy was General Manager of Ellis Auditorium from its opening in 1924 until his retirement in 1951. His many responsibilities included booking the talent, drafting the contacts, insuring each shows success, etc. The Auditorium was profitable the last 22 of his 27 year career. McElravy died in 1961. In his honor, 'The Charles A. McElravy Award' was created in 1963, honoring the International Association of Auditorium Managers pioneer and citing current members "for contributions to the IAAM and the profession of auditorium management." It is a very prestigious International Award.(11)
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.
A few Elvis gigs in North Hall
1) On February 6, 1955 Elvis, Scotty and Bill performed at Ellis Auditorium for the first time, in the North Hall, as part of Bob Neal's Five Star Jamboree.
2) On November 13, 1955 the boys made their second appearance at Ellis Auditorium, at 3:00 and 8:00 p.m. on Bob Neal's Western Swing Jamboree dedicated to departing KWEM DJ Texas Bill Strength, who was bound for Minneapolis.
3) On December 19, 1955 Elvis, Scotty, Bill and DJ performed a Memphis charity show at Ellis Auditorium to benefit the Memphis Press-Scimitar's Goodfellows Fund and the Commercial-Appeal's American Legion Basket Fund. Elvis and the Blue Moon Boys, along with Slim Rhodes and his Mountainair's and other musical artists, provided the singing introduction for an "all-star wrestling program." Rhodes opened with a thirty-minute set. He was followed by the Dixie Dolls, four tap dancers, who preceded 15-year old Jo Haynes, who twirled her baton to a pre-recorded jazz number.5
4) On May 15, 1956, Bob Neal's Cotton Pickin' Jamboree at Ellis featured Elvis headlining over Hank Snow and the Jordanaires as part of the opening of the twenty-second annual Cotton Carnival. Before Elvis performed, Bob Neal announced that he would be playing another show in Memphis, on
5) July 4, 1956 for the benefit of local charities. This show was the first time they performed and closed with "Hound Dog," an arrangement of a song they only recently picked up from Freddie Bell and The Bell Boys up while performing in Las Vegas just weeks before. The song would be their staple closer for the reminder of their performances.
6) Brian Petersen in "The Atomic Powered Singer", wrote that on July 27, 1956, Elvis did a typically unexpected thing when he turned up at the Blackwood Brothers All-Night Gospel Singing at Ellis Auditorium and sang the two songs "Jesus Filled My Every Need" and "You'll Never Walk Alone" with the Statesmen Quartet.
7) the WDIA Goodwill Revue brought in the best gospel, blues, R&B, and soul performers in the nation; the disc jockeys put on entertaining skits and many also performed. The Goodwill Revues were enormously successful and all the proceeds went toward charitable causes.8 On December 7, 1956, Elvis attended the otherwise segregated Goodwill Revue at Ellis Auditorium.
|Comedian George Jessel, the MC for the evening, and Elvis
- Feb. 25, 1961|
Photo by Bob Williams © The Commercial Appeal
Maysie Dimond painted a 7-foot-high, 152-foot-long mural to serve as a pictorial history of Memphis from Spanish exploration to the twentieth century. Using the ancient buon fresco technique of applying paint to wet plaster, she ensured that the colors would remain vibrant over time. During a 1950s renovation, the mural was covered by pink marble slabs, which have since been removed.
|Photo by Ernest C. Withers|
When Howlin Wolf played at the Goodwill Revue in 1960, the crowd was full of children, not a typical wolf audience. "Spoonful" was Wolf's big hit, and Sam Lay bought a large soup spoon at a flea market for Wolf to use as a phallic symbol while doing the song. Ernest Withers recalled, "Well, he did that 'Spoonful' in a vulgar fashion, which was not apropos to a kid audience, it just wasn't tolerated. They closed the curtains on him in order to discipline him. That was the only way to stop him because he got vulgar with the spoon."10
A new entrance was added in the early 1960s.
According to Fred Griffith of the Commercial Appeal, on August 19, 1966, a crowd of more than 8,000 filled the North Hall of Ellis Auditorium and part of the South Hall for the Memphis Christian Youth Rally. This was provoked by John Lennon's misinterpreted statement that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ, while across town the Beatles performed at the Mid-South Coliseum to a reported crowd of 20,128. A total of 7,589 attended the afternoon show and 12,539 showed up at the evening concert. The Cyrkle, Bobby Hebb, The Ronettes and The Remains also were on the bill. Tickets cost $5.50 and a chain link fence surrounded the stage.
On April 18, 1969 The Jimi Hendrix Experience, featuring Jimi Hendrix, Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums performed a double show at Ellis' North Hall. The opening act was "Fat Mattress", Noel Redding's new group.
|Jimi set fire to his guitar after the last encore.|
In 1974 the Cook Convention Center was built adjacent to the auditorium. But the city no longer properly maintained old Ellis. The plaster began chipping off the ceilings. The electrical and mechanical systems became outdated.
In 1978 both Montrose and Van Halen played there. J Geils, Blues Caravan and a host of East High School graduations.
Each event was jam-packed with talent from the station-- B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland--and such stars as Ray Charles, Clara Ward, and local fav's Phineas Newborn, Sr. and the Ben Branch Orchestra. In 1954, a memorial service at Ellis for the Blackwood Brothers drew national attention. There was even an unexpected appearance by Elvis Presley in 1956 that brought down the house.
When the KISS army had not been been fully drafted, KISS played the relatively intimate North Hall to the faithful.
The auditorium was so advanced, it was 50 years before a new facility was needed.
But that time came, and in 1974 the Memphis Cook Convention Center was built as an attachment to the auditorium and music hall.
Jerry performed here on
3/28/76 Jerry Garcia Band (South Hall)
1.)^Bond, Beverly, G. and Sherman, Janann, "Memphis: In Black and White"
2.)^ The Blackwood Brothers Quartet site
3.)^ Memphis Press-Scimitar articles courtesy reprints in Ger Rijff's Long Lonely Highway
4.)^"That's Alright Elvis" by Scotty Moore and James Dickinson
5.)^ Cotten, Lee, "Did Elvis Sing in Your Hometown?, courtesy FECC/Mississippi
6.)^ Guralnick, Peter and Jorgensenm Ernst, Elvis Day By Day"
7.)^ Peterson, Brian , The Atomic Powered Singer
8.)^ Gordon, Robert, WDIA History
9.)^ Withers, Ernest C. and Wolff, Daniel, The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades of Memphis Music Photographs
10.)^Segrest, Jesse and Hoffman, Mark, Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf
11.)^Astor, Vincent, http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/37642