The Billboard First Annual Auditorium-Arena Review . December 22,
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26-Year Span Points Up Many
By CHARLES A. McELRAVY,
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.