Email from Vincent Astor - 1/20/2012: 

I would like to make an addition to the Auditorium page. The page is wonderfully comprehensive but its greatest wonder is not emphasized.

The Auditorium was built, as stated, as a multi-purpose facility. It always had two separate theatre halls. 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 in the North Hall was called the Wonder Curtain as it was soundproof as well as fireproof. Each side had a colored entrance and balcony, each side had a pipe organ.

Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis was built with a similar design, its concert hall is intact but its amphitheatre was replaced with a new concert hall within the past 20 years.

The two halls at the Auditorium went through several name changes, most of the time being simply the North Hall and South Hall. The 1960s entrance changed the main entries from Poplar and Auction to Main St. and included escalators to the second floor. It also included a long rentable area (not very ornamental) which could be an exhibit hall, ballroom or meeting room. The modern facade presented an updated look to the main floor (as in several other buildings downtown). In the freight elevator one could still see the terra cotta and tapestry brick of the 1924 facade. The North Hall had "Amphitheatre" over the entrance at this time, the South Hall being the "Music Hall" the home of the Memphis Symphony. During the final remodeling, the North Hall was renamed Dixon-Myers Hall (Hugo Dixon) and the South Hall became DeFrank Hall (after Vincent DeFrank, conductor of the Memphis Symphony).

During its long career, windows were bricked up, chandeliers removed, neon cove lighting installed and the prosceniums made permanent. That did not prevent the stage floor from being lowered for circuses, ice shows and other arena events until the Mid-South Coliseum was built in 1963. The final remodeling included permanent theatre seating in the North Hall and the stage floor was fixed in the raised position.

At one point, some of the pink marble in the foyer of the South Hall was removed to examine the mural beneath. The remodeling had changed the looks of the room and the mural was never completely uncovered. This writer was not impressed with the fragment's artistic merit.

An aside. The Ellis Auditorium was the only theatre I ever heard of where you could always get a hot dog (with mustard) at a perfomance of the Metropolitan Opera Tour.

The double organ was installed in 1928 (the same year as the Orpheum's) and was manufactured by W.W. Kimball and Company. It is Opus 7034 and had a total of 115 ranks--74 in the North Hall (controlled by a five-manual console) and 41 in the South Hall (controlled by a four-manual console) and 7,644 pipes. The North Hall console also had all the stops for the South Hall organ so, when both blowers ran and the right switch was engaged, an organist could play all 115 ranks. It was designed by Charles M. Courboin one of the foremost organ designers of the time. It is a concert organ, designed to be versatile enough for a wide range of music. It could sound like the finest classic or church organ or warble like a first class theatre organ or have a unique, massive sound of its very own. Two 32-foot bass ranks in the North Hall vibrated the entire building and the organ was installed above the ceiling. This meant playing it took some practice since the ear of the organist sensed the infinitesmal delay between the key being pressed and the pipe (eight stories above) actually sounding. Organists are accustomed to this and the ear adapts quickly but it was still much more obvious than normal (in the personal experience of the writer).

The organs, especially the South Hall, were used countless times, mostly for graduations. Either instrument could probably play "Pomp and Circumstance #2" without the aid of an organist since it was played on each so many times. Later years saw them used less and less with rudimentary maintenance. Volunteers in the early 1970s did a lot of work on both organs. During one major renovation a permanent orchestra pit was installed in the South Hall and the organ console placed to the left. A special lift was installed in the North Hall so that its console could be stored below when the floor space was needed. During the final renovation of the North Hall, the console got trapped in the basement. It was later removed to a permanent spot upstairs by volunteers.

A grand farewell to both organs took place before the Auditorium came down. They were both professionally dismantled and stored beneath the Cook Convention Center, due to local support and their resale value. They lay a long time and damage occurred. Bartlett Methodist Church acquired the South Hall organ and it was rebuilt, expanded and re-dedicated in 2002. The North Hall organ is presently being rebuilt for a private individual in Fenton, MO.

The organ also could play a grand piano which was at stage level. This never worked correctly because of the strange acoustic delay which made the piano and organ never sound together. The story goes that this very piano was purchased for Elvis Presley and is on display at Graceland. The Piano stops remain on the 5-manual console.

Your photos are of the 4-manual South Hall organ. Photos of the North Hall Kimball may be found at Marlin Mackley may send you some current photos (this is his website). He knows more about the Kimball than any person alive.

-  Vincent Astor


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