The Billboard First Annual Auditorium-Arena Review . December 22, 1951

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26-Year Span Points Up Many Major Gains

By CHARLES A. McELRAVY, Secretary-Treasurer,
International Association of Auditorium Managers

ADVANCEMENT in the auditorium and arena business has been tremendous in the 26 years I have been connected with the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, and it is my opinion that they will continue to grow in importance and service to the public.  And a large part of the credit for this colossal growth must fall to the International Association of Auditorium Managers, of which I have been secretary-treasurer for the past 12 years.

It all began this way. Shortly after I became manager of the Memphis Auditorium in 1924, I made a visit to some Northern cities - St. Louis, St. Paul, Milwaukee, Chicago - and talked with other auditorium managers.  It was decided there was a definite need for such an association. We held the first meeting in December of that year in Cleveland with eight managers present. Since that time the IAAM has grown to embrace 88 cities with 90 members.  The exchange of ideas and booking lists thru our monthly magazine, Auditorium News, has made the association a benefit, in fact, a must to all its members.

Wonderful Experience

And this auditorium business is a wonderful experience. If a man gets into it, he will never leave. Always something new, something interesting.  A host of memories have gathered in the time since I took over at the Ellis Auditorium as its ringmaster October 17, 1924. Memories, some gay, some sad, some merely an odd trivia that accumulates in mental files. And the face of a host of headline personalities, who have brightened the stage during those years, float thru one's mind.

Reaching at random, back into the past for a handful of assorted headliners who have played, sung, performed or fought at the auditorium in this span, there has been everything from grand opera to wrestling.  There were singers from opera's golden age, like Galli-Curel and Chaliapin. There were John Barrymore, Will Rogers, Jack Dempsey, Leopold Stokowski, Billy Sunday, Al Jolson, Bob Hope and scores more.

Reminiscences, anecdotes and stories drift thru the haze of billboards, stage props and temperamental prima donas. Like the time Will Rogers, the gum-chewing, cowboy humorist, suffered a stage crisis by losing his 'chaw' in a performance in the auditorium. A little girl in the audience gravely stepped up to the front of the stage, offered the lariat-swinging Rogers a fresh stick. People swore that was a plant, but it was absolutely on the level. Bill and the audience loved it.

Among the Guests

And Joe E. Brown; he's another great guy. He'd put on a show after the show was over. He'd pull out a chair, sit down in front of the curtain, stick out his feet in the footlights and just chat with the audience. It got so they were expecting it and nobody would leave when the regular show was over.

Gene Tunney was going to put on a boxing exhibition for the people of Memphis. Gene was sparring with a kid from Arkansas when the kid bopped the champ hard on the nose. The exhibition was halted abruptly after a little over a minute. That kid didn't wake up for over 30 minutes.

It is ironical that our longest running event at the auditorium was the grimmest - the Mississippi River flood of 1937.  Early in the year we were notified by city authorities that we must hold the building for an emergency. From February 14 until the 27th it was estimated that 53,000 people, most of them from the devastated lands of Arkansas, passed thru the building to be inoculated with serum, tagged, fed and registered for sleeping quarters.

Quick Change

At the time, I was running the biggest service station in the city. The auditorium schedule was cleaned out for that period, of course, but the day after the refugees moved out, a show moved in. It was that close.

Yes, we've had them all down thru the years - wrestlers and religious gatherings, boxers and ballet, conventions and concerts, horse shows and baby shows. Spike Jones and Sir Thomas Beecham, hit Broadway revues and Shakespearean revivals and indoor circuses. And I've loved every minute of it.  The Le Bonheur charity horse show started in the auditorium and has become nationally famous as an indoor horse show. Handling this kind of an attraction had its unusual aspects, too, with the laying of 900 yards of dirt in the building's North Hall.  The toughest show to stage was "Kiss Me, Kate." The producers built a huge set as a permanent fixture for the New York production, then sent it around out on the road. A show that takes six hours to hang is a big show. "Kate" took 12.

Confederate Reunion

Going way back it was surprising that a reunion of the past was the first event to take place in the new auditorium in 1924, several months before its formal dedication - the Confederate Veterans' reunion in June.

John Philip Sousa played the first attraction for the public, and that was immediately followed by the San Carlo Opera Company. Then the regular booking began, and in the years to follow the ever-varying parade has marched thru that building.

My "Hundred Years in Show Business" could be said to have started with the old Duquesne Theater in Pittsburgh, where I started as a film machine operator. Movies were so new then that the film was run off into a sack, then rewound before it could be used again.  I came to Memphis in 1904 and built part of the concessions and rides for an amusement park. After the parks came the district manager-ship of a theater chain, and when the Auditorium opened, I moved in.

On November 1 of last year the city retired me, but I'm booking shows into that same auditorium today. Can't seem to get away.  In these days of rapid change and double-quick time, 26 years may seem like only yesterday on the one hand while on the other, the events of that time have already taken on a tinge of ancient history.

Show Goes On

Today the show goes on - all over the amusement world - but it is obvious, even in Memphis, that it is a very different show world from the one I stepped into.  To begin with, back in those days, Memphis had its legitimate theaters. The auditorium was to be a great convention hall and opera house, also a market house. It was to be a big convention hall - though  at the time the city didn't even have a convention bureau. And an opera house, though in those days opera had seldom been known to pay its own way.  In short, the auditorium was to be an experiment. For me, it has proved an interesting one which taxed what ingenuity and wit I could muster. For the people of Memphis it has proved a place for celebration in good times and a place of refuge in bad.

Yes, auditoriums are a public institution, one just as important as the police department, the city hall or the daily newspaper.  Nobody knows, not even those closely associated with auditoriums, what may be next. But the road ahead does show more and better shows, and whatever the tends the show world will take, the auditoriums and arenas of the country will be ready to go along.

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