GRAND OPERA          195-197 S. Main

Grand Opera Opened in 1890    Became HOPKINS Grand in 1900 .  Renamed ORPHEUM 1907

There's been a major Memphis Theatre on the corner of Main and Beale for over 122 years.  The Grand Opera House opened at the famous corner in 1890 and was touted as the finest opera house outside New York City.   But this fine theatre was not the first in Memphis to have the name "Grand Opera".  That distinction belongs to the Greenlaw Opera House.  In 1872, the Greenlaw was extensively renovated and renamed "Grand Opera".  That name does indeed appear for the Greenlaw address in the 1872, 1873, and 1874 Memphis Directories. 


Frank Gray was the manager of the Grand Opera.  He had been a Memphis newspaperman who was interested in Theatre and had begun work as an usher at Leubries Theatre.  He graduated to Business Manager, Acting Manager, and Manager.  He was manager at all of the leading theaters of Memphis, but was particularly known as the manager of The Lyceum.  Gray was considered a clever and capable manager who booked only the best attractions, and he was known as the "Dean of Southern Theatre Managers". 

The GRAND and HOPKINS GRAND OPERA are listed in the Memphis Directories from 1899 to 1907.


Grand - c 1893-95

Grand - c 1899

Frank Gray

1891 Directory

1892 Bond for Grand Opera

HOPKINS GRAND OPERA  195 - 197 S. Main


John D. Hopkins purchased the Grand Opera in 1899 - renaming it Hopkins Grand Opera.  His background was in Vaudeville and Minstrel Shows and he already had vaudeville theaters in Chicago and in St. Louis.  Once he took control he immediately hired his own resident Stock Company, and went about changing the house into a Vaudeville Theatre.  He replaced the gas lighting with 586 sparkling lights and changed the color of the foyer from a drab olive to a brighter gray and gold.  He completely renovated the house in 1903 and the color scheme was changed again to rose and gold, with the boxes accented with green and yellow.  Of course the primary fare was Vaudeville, but in 1906, the most popular act was the great Sarah Bernhardt.  


When Hopkins took over, he made Anderson B. Morrison the manager and Morrison remained in that position for the next 6 years.  He was considered one of the most popular theater managers in Memphis.  But Hopkins was a wheeler-dealer.  Around 1906 he was involved in a lawsuit because he planned to sub-lease the Opera House to a Burlesque Circuit.  All the criticism prompted Hopkins to try and sell the theatre.  This experience may have led to the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit being able to take over the house in 1907.

Col Hopkins

The GRAND and HOPKINS GRAND OPERA are listed in the Memphis Directories from 1899 to 1907.


   Hopkins 1906

Hopkins 1908

   Hopkins Interior

   Hopkins Interior

 Stock Co 18988


Sarah Bernhardt-Camille

Hopkins Alley 1906

Bert Young 1902

A. B. Morrison

Ad for Hopkins 1906


Billboard 1902

Burlesque ??? For Sale 1906 Unsold 1906 Theatre Description

 1906 Take Over ???





1906 Directory

 Hopkins Obit 1909

 Orpheum - 1907

ORPHEUM   Re-named 1907 .  Burned 1923    Rebuilt 1928 .  2500 seats

Vaudeville soon became the bulk of the acts at the Grand Opera, and in 1907 the theatre officially became part of the Orpheum circuit.  It was renamed the Orpheum Theater that same year.  In 1923, a fire broke out during a vaudeville show and the old Orpheum Theater burned to the ground. Five years later, on the foundation of the old theater, a new Orpheum Theater was built at a then-staggering cost of $1.5 million. Twice as large as the old theater, and much more ornate and luxurious, decorated in the style of Francois I, the Memphis Orpheum was beyond anything the builders of the old opera house could have ever dreamed, with brocade draperies, enormous crystal chandeliers, gilded moldings, and that mighty Wurlitzer organ.

Orpheum 1910


It opened on November 19, 1928.  The auditorium, which seated 2500, was decorated in shades of gold, red and cream, and included a huge stage, orchestra pit, balcony and domed ceiling.  The grand lobby had twin staircases, enormous crystal chandeliers and gilded plasterwork. The Orpheum Theater also contained a nightclub called the Broadway Club, as well as smaller lobby spaces to the sides of the grand lobby.  The complete souvenir program of the opening night is posted below.

   Construction 1927
The ORPHEUM is listed in the Memphis Directories from 1909 to 1923 ... and again from 1929 to 1939.  The 1913 Julius Cahn-Gus Hill Theatrical Guiide lists the old Orpheum with 1929 seats (See below).


Orpheum at night 1911     

Orpheum 1916

Sold Out ! - 1919

1921 Armistice Parade

1921 Armistice Parade


1921 - Marquee     


Blossom Seeley -1923

Fire -1923

Marquee 1923

 Fire 1923


1928 Opening

Stage 1928

Staircases 1928





1930 Review

Lobby 1934

Snack Bar 1934



Mae West 1938


Chalmers Cullins

 Orpheum sign - 1930

Variety 08







1908, 1912, 1913, 1914 Orpheum Theatre Programs . These rare Programs (Below) are from the Orpheum's early Vaudeville years and are in the collection of George Whitworth.    Click on the Program Cover to see entire program.


     1908 Cover

1912 - January

1912 -March


             1914 -January


   Opening Night:  New Orpheum Souvenir Program . November 19, 1928

This very rare Opening Night Orpheum Souvenir Program is posted in its entirety
(40 pages).  Of particular interest is the section of excellent vintage photos of the entire Keith-Albee-Orpheum Circuit Theatres.  Many have never been published before.  ... Collection of Dave French

     November 1928  

ORPHEUM ... under Construction 1927-28

This very rare photo of the Orpheum Theatre under construction has recently been located.  It's amazing that with only the steel frame in place it easily captures the look of the finished theatre.  The photo dates to circa 1927-28 and is by Memphis photographer Oscar M. Goodman of Goodman Photography  .
 ... Collection Gene Gill    >


Under Construction


Update - April 8, 2016:  Truly amazing!    >
Nathan Ashby, Creative Director of the Orpheum writes that during the 2016 remodel of the upstairs administrative offices, behind a layer of plaster, that 80+ year old Coca Cola advertisement on the brick wall was "unearthed".


Check the Coca Cola sign...


Peabody-Orpheum Postcard      

Orpheum Ticket

MALCO   Renamed MALCO 1940  .   Closed:  1977   .    2500 Seats

By 1940, after the heyday of vaudeville, the Orpheum Theater was purchased by the Malco chain and switched to a movies-only format. The renamed MALCO Theater continued to run first-run films until it closed in 1977.  After the closure, there was even talk of demolishing the old theater to build an office complex.  In 1977, the Memphis Development Foundation purchased the Malco and began bringing Broadway productions and concerts back to the Theatre.  Fifty-four years had taken a toll on the grand old Theatre.  It closed in 1982 to begin a $5 million renovation to restore its 1928 opulence.  The MALCO is listed in the Memphis Directories from 1940 to 1977.


Malco 1946

Malco 1959

Malco 1959

Malco 1970

Main-Beale 1955


Colored Entrance


1941 Night

Milton Slosser

Brides of Dracula 1960


1950 Ticket

The name MALCO comes from M. A. Lightman Co.  The legacy of the company, now in its fourth generation, has been passed to Stephen Lightman, Jimmy Tashie, and Bobby Levy.  The three share ownership responsibilities and insist their ability to work together throughout the years has saved the family from separation.   The Malco company always displayed a passion for the movie business and was on the cutting edge of technology in presentation, seating and sound.  M. A. Lightman was highly respected throughout the industry.


M. A. Lightman

Malco logo

Brides of Dracula  1960

Brides ... - 1960

Uniform Patch

Milton Slosser

Ad 1953

        Elvis  - 1956

Premiere 1941
ORPHEUM  Re-opened as Orpheum  1984
"Friends.." - 1981

When the Memphis Development Foundation acquired the Malco Theater in 1977, they began bringing Broadway productions and concerts back to the theatre.  As "Friends of the Orpheum", they closed the theatre in 1982 and undertook a $5 million renovation project which brought the palace back to its 1928 glory after decades of decline. In January 1984, a grand reopening ceremony was held.  This signaled the rebirth of entertainment in downtown Memphis. 

Today, the theatre has been re-named the Orpheum Theater and is Memphis' premier venue for touring Broadway shows. The Orpheum Theater has hosted more touring Broadway productions than any other theater in the US. In addition to its stage shows, the Orpheum hosts concerts and everyone from the Vienna Boys Choir to Patti LaBelle to Harry Connick, Jr. has graced the stage. It is also the home to two of the city's finest local arts organizations, the Memphis Ballet and the Memphis Opera.

The theater is still managed by the Memphis Development Foundation and presents 10-12 Broadway shows each year.  It's a non-profit organization and has flourished because of the support of the community.

Orpheum Today         



Orpheum lobby

Orpheum stage





"South Pacific"

Mitzi Gaynor 1984

 Carol Channing

Miniature Model        

Donald Canestrari, Memphis:  "My father loved the movies and vaudeville and would take my mother and my two older brothers and me  to the Orpheum to see a vaudeville show and movie.  He would park our 1936 Plymouth or our 1930 Ford Model A Coupe on Beale Street and we would walk up to the Orpheum passing Tony's Fruit Stand on the northeast corner of Beale and Main.  In those days, there would be an hour long vaudeville act followed by a new movie.  We always liked to sit in one of the loges off the mezzanine on the south side of the theater.  A Memphis orchestra under the direction of Nate Evans would rise up out of the floor in the orchestra pit and play for the performers.  One of the trumpet players (sometimes on clarinet) was Hilburn Graves, known as Pappy Graves. He was my first clarinet teacher when I took lessons at the old O.K. Houck Piano Company on S. Main near Union Ave.  During the WWII years, an organist, Milton Slosser. would rise up out of the floor and play the mighty Wurlitzer Organ and we would sing the words to his songs that would be flashed on the screen.  Lots of entertainment."   

Donald Canestrari, Memphis:  "One of the favorite shows to come to the Orpheum was Blackstone the Magician.  He would perform there for a week to packed houses.  He would always hypnotize a girl and saw her in half with a big buzz saw.  I can still hear her screaming as the saw made a loud terrible sound as it cut in two a piece of 2x4 lumber beside her.  Another performer that my dad liked was Dave Avalon, a Russian orchestra leader who brought his show there often" 
Gene Gill, Pasadena CA:  "Everyone enjoyed going to the Malco for first run movies in the 50's.  When the movie ended, the giant Wurlitzer organ would rise out of the orchestra pit and Milton Slosser would entertain the audience for about 20 minutes.  When the "bouncing ball" came on screen, we all sang along". 
I also remember seeing Marilyn Monroe at the Malco (1953), in town to promote the opening of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes". The city even renamed Monroe St. "Marilyn Monroe St" for the day.

Bob Mann, Albuquerque NM:  "I moved to Memphis from a small town in Arkansas in 1944, and was dazzled by the "big city".  Soon after I arrived, I went to the Malco and was awed by the grandeur of the theater, especially when I saw that gorgeous white organ rising out of the orchestra pit.  I will never forget Milton Slosser playing my favorite song of the day, 'Besame Mucho".

Eddie Cooper, Memphis:  "When I was a teenager, I worked one summer as an usher at the Malco, whose owners also owned the Princess.  The Malco had a huge popcorn machine, and the Princess had an ice machine that made more than it needed.  So one of the daily jobs of a couple of ushers was to transport popcorn to the Princess and ice to the Malco".

Julie Best Erwin -10/2011:  "...My grandfather, Chalmers Cullins was involved in the theater business since the early 1900s.  He began selling popcorn at the Orpheum and went on to work there.   Later, my grandfather owned the Idlewild with his brother Edward Cullins and I believe Nate Evans was also involved.  He also owned the W. C. Handy and The Sovoy theaters.  These two were for the Black Community and featured live music as well as movies". 

Gail Collins - 10/2011:  "...Chalmers Cullins was my grandfather and I have some interesting cassette tapes on which my grandfather is talking about the old days at the Orpheum. I remember dancing on the stage when I was about 5, when my grandfather was closing up the theater at midnight. I recall watching Blackstone perform from backstage and later eating a midnight dinner with him and my grandparents at Burkles Bakery. We had the roast beef and homemade rolls, mashed potatoes and vegetables. It seemed strange eating at midnight. Blackstone had the most piercing blue eyes I ever encountered". 




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