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Ellis Auditorium: A Brief History

HISTORY of the auditorium:

Ellis Auditorium

255 N Main Memphis TN.

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. 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.

Ellis Auditorium under construction in 1924 (across street from former Poplar Station) Photo by Bill Strong

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. There was even an unexpected appearance by Elvis Presley in 1956 that brought down the house. In 1954, a memorial service at Ellis for the Blackwood Brothers drew national attention. The auditorium was razed in 1999 to make way for a performing arts center.

Do you remember Ellis Auditorium or Auditorium North Hall? Ever even heard of them? These downtown venues were the lauching pad for many careers, including Elvis. Years later when the KISS army had not been been fully drafted, KISS played the relatively intimate North Hall to the faithfull. Their return trip a year later was a sellout for the Mid South Colisem.

Ellis Auditorium 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. Ahead of its time and costing $3 million in 1924, the auditorium offered 30,000 square feet of display space and seated 12,000 (appx the same as The Mid-South Coliseum). 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 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.

The building was finished in 1974 at a cost of $31 million. The addition of the Convention Center was one of the first major projects marking the attempt to revitalize downtown during the second half of this century.

Twenty-five years later, the Convention Center needed to undergo major renovation and expansion to remain a player in the competitive meeting and convention services industry.

In 1995, County and City mayors, the Convention Center Board, SMG and the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau commissioned a feasibility study. Once the results were in, the decision to expand was agreed upon and the group began to draw up plans for the exciting expansion.

The goal was to upgrade the Convention Center in order to draw major meetings and conventions in the future. The expansion came at a time when the city’s reputation as a hot city to visit grew nationally. It is just part of approximately $2 billion in development planned or underway downtown.

Throughout it all, the Convention Center stayed open for business, despite unexpected explosions, numerous delays and even some very surprising bones.

The components involved in the renovation and expansion were renovations to the existing structure (including restrooms, elevators, five new meeting rooms and an 80,000 lb. truck lift); brand new space (including: a 35,000 square foot exhibit hall and a 28,000 square foot ballroom, which is the largest in the Mid-South); and the 2,100 seat Cannon Center for the Performing Arts (home to the Memphis Symphony). All of these components work together to allow Memphis to compete for nearly 90 percent of the conventions and meeting scheduled across the country.

Live with Elvis The Ellis Auditorium Memphis, Tennessee February,1961

Comedian Steve Martin brought his wild humor to The Auditorium Dixon Myers Hall on 7 Apr 1978. His two shows drew about 9,000. Dave Darnell / The Commercial Appeal files.

Why Must We Give Up Ellis For Chrome and Glass?

Sounds great - the spin that is between the lines of the "official" story, above. We now have a glass and steel masterpiece of a building. But at what cost? Ellis Auditorium was where Elvis first played to a sold out crowd. In 1978 both Montrose and Van Halen played there. J Geils, Blues Caravan and a host of East High School graduations. All pretty recent stuff, but Ellis also saw people like John Phillip Sousa and 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. Or what about the SIX DECADES of Memphis music that filled the halls. Six decades......

Jun 5 1971 US CONCERT - Ellis Auditorium, Memphis TN - lton John

1999, July- Demolition begins on Ellis Auditorium

Look at some of the ornate facades that came off of the historic building we threw away for Cannon. Nashville managed to keep the Ryman and still build a new Opry a few years down the rod - the Opry home is functional, but tired and decidedly none historic. But the Ryman? Still there, still meaningfull and as popular as ever.

Terra cotta flower from the cornice of the Ellis Auditorium, 255 Main st. Memphs TN.

Face and side view, the side view shows that due to hanging upside down they had the unusual configuration of having threads like screws so that they were self screwed and cemented in! Flower is about 6" across.

Photo of the cornice before removal, the red circle shows where the flowers were installed

Ellis Auditorium Pipe Organs

Did you know that Ellis had great, gigantic pipe organs that would rattle the rafters? It did. Purchased in 1924 by The Exchange Club who raised $10,000, and school children came up with another $8,000 in nickels and dimes it was a city treasure. When Ellis was to be torn down to make room for an expanded Cook Convention Center, visionary city leaders quickly recognized the historic trasures value and arranged for the organs to be saved.

Wouldn't that have been nice - for Memphis to have "visionary" leaders? Not these days, bucko.

Thanks ONLY to a private group known as "Friends of the Organ", money to have the instruments disassembled and cataloged had been raised. However, they were left suffering water damage in a storage room at the convention center. A leaking storage room? Perhaps we should have torn down The Cook Convention Center and expanded Ellis Auditorium.

This piece of Memphis and Ellis history was saved, no thanks to city leaders.......Ellis Organs

Ellis Auditourium WPA Mural


There are many historic examples of decoratively painted interiors across the state of Tennessee. While some of the paintings have been lost, many works from the late eighteenth century to the New Deal era have survived, indicating the wide variety of techniques, styles, and motivations for adorning both private and public interiors with architectural paintings.

Using painters' manuals and their own imagination, both itinerant and local artists employed the common and inexpensive techniques of graining and marbling to imitate rare and costly woods and marbles. Others painted landscapes to serve as a focal point of the room, often in the form of an overmantel painting or firescreen. In the twentieth century, academically trained artists created mural paintings for numerous public buildings through President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal art programs of the 1930s and 1940s.

From the mid-1930s to the early 1940s, a more professional and systematic contribution was made to Tennessee art through the New Deal cultural programs. The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the federal government's fine arts project of the Works Progress Administration, authorized the creation of murals for Tennessee post offices, courthouses, and other public buildings. Reflecting the current artistic style of Regionalism, these paintings illustrate city or regional history and identity, and some even promoted New Deal projects like the TVA. Picking Cotton by Carl B. Nyquist in Bolivar, Electrification by David Stone Martin in Lenoir City, and Wild Boar Hunt by Thelma Martin in Sweetwater are among the nearly thirty murals created for Tennessee post offices. Other public buildings received federally funded art as well; both the Davidson County Courthouse and the Sevier State Office Building, for instance, feature murals painted by Dean Cornwell.

Memphis resident Burton Callicott created a mural depicting Hernando De Soto's arrival in West Tennessee for the lobby of the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, then the Memphis Museum of Natural History.

In Memphis's Ellis Auditorium, 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.

These federally funded art programs came to an end as the United States entered World War II. Occasionally administrators sacrificed murals during building expansion and renovation. Fortunately, some have been recovered, like Dimond's murals at the Ellis Auditorium and Wendell Jones's post office mural, Farmer Family, now in the Administration Building basement at East Tennessee State University. While little is known about the artists who created these New Deal paintings or those of earlier centuries, many Tennessee murals have been preserved as a testament to the rich and diverse artistic heritage of the state.

Albums Recorded At Ellis Auditorium

Chance Records Inc. Recorded live at the Ellis Auditorium Memphis, TN. April 30, 1974.


Lost New York

Ellis Photo