Memphis Ellis Auditorium

AKA Memphis Auditorium and Market House

 




Ellis Auditorium was located in downtown Memphis on the corner of Poplar and Front Street.  The completion of the Auditorium in 1924 made Memphis one of the first cities in the nation to offer comprehensive meeting and convention facilities.  The auditorium was way ahead of its time, offering 30,000 square feet of display space and seating for 12,000.  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 would be 50 years before a new facility was needed..

   

Memphis saw a building boom beginning in 1920, with many new buildings going up.  George Awsumb designed plans for a new auditorium and it was built not long afterwards at the North End of Front Street.  When it opened, Memphis finally had a venue for Opera, Exhibitions, and large theatrical productions.  Promoters hyped its removable, hardwood floor ('unexcelled for dancing") and its connections for steam as well as for hot and cold water.  The original name for the structure was "Memphis Auditorium and Market House".  It was a combination athletic arena, concert hall, convention center, and retail produce market.  Apparently, Memphis city fathers didn't believe income from the entertainment halls alone would sustain the $3,000,000   investment, and during the first ten years of operation, the rental income from the market stalls actually earned more money than the rental of the hall for entertainment purposes..

Construction 1924  

-  Click on small photos to see enlargements -

       

Foundation 1923

New Auditorium 1920s

Postcard 1930

Demolition 1999

     

The moving force behind the auditorium was Robert R. Ellis and after his death in 1930, the facility was renamed for him.  However the major drive behind the construction of the building was mostly economic.  Memphis had already become a significant distribution center by the 1920s. Many railroads and truck lines, along with the Mississippi River, made it one of the most accessible cities in the country.  Business and government leaders of the time wanted to make the city a great place for conventions.  When the new auditorium was dedicated in 1924, John Philip Sousa was the opening act.  From this beginning and throughout its lifetime, Ellis  hosted circuses, opera, symphony concerts, trade shows, movies, traveling theatrical shows, conventions, and big bands.  In segregated Memphis, Blacks had a separate side entrance at the Auditorium and sat in a separate balcony.  (The Harlem Globetrotters set record sales of more than 6,000 'white' tickets in 1953).  

 

Sousa Hepburn Martin Rachmaninoff Duncan Presley Barrymore
 

Ellis Auditorium brought such legendary performers as Katharine Hepburn, Mary Martin, the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, and dancer Isadora Duncan to Memphis.  This was also the Auditorium where Elvis first played to a sold out crowd.   Almost all Memphis High School graduations were held here.  Numerous touring productions also appeared, including the John Barrymore touring company.  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.   And there were the six decades of Memphis music that filled the halls. That's sixty years of Memphis music.

 

George Awsumb (1880-1959) was the architect for Ellis Auditorium.  He was born in Norway, emigrated to the U.S. as a child, and reared in Wisconsin.  Soon after winning the competition in 1919 for the Memphis Municipal Auditorium, Awsumb moved to Memphis from Chicago, where he had been a successful architect.  In partnership with Charles O. Pfeil, the final auditorium design and construction was completed, as well as the plans for Humes (1926) and Southside (1927) High Schools and Idlewild Presbyterian Church (1929).  The firm was also responsible for designing the  Dermon Building(1925) and the 1948 Baron Hirsch Synagogue.

   

Robert R. Ellis  (1878 -1930) was President of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce who spearheaded the Auditorium project at the request of Boss Ed Crump. He was born in West Point, Mississippi, became a trained Pharmacist and drug store owner who moved to Memphis and founded the Ellis-Hessig Wholesale Drug Company. Later a merger with Van Vleet Drugs soon become Van Vleet-Ellis Drugs, Inc. His civic leadership was so well recognized, he was elected Vice-President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; a position he held until his untimely death at age 52. After his death in 1930, the Auditorium was renamed 'Ellis Auditorium' in his honor.

   

Charles A. McElravy (1878 - 1961) was General Manager of Ellis Auditorium from its opening in 1924 until his retirement in 1951. His many responsibilities included booking the talent, drafting the contacts, insuring each shows success, etc. The Auditorium was profitable the last 22 of his 27 year career. McElravy died in 1961.   In his honor, 'The Charles A. McElravy Award' was created in 1963, honoring the International Association of Auditorium Managers pioneer and citing current members "for contributions to the IAAM and the profession of auditorium management."  It is a very prestigious International Award.  Click here to read an article by Charles McElravy, summing up his years in the business.  Published in Billboard Magazine in 1951.

 

David Richard Williams  (1863 - 1936) The first Ellis Engineer.  Williams began his career as engineer for Chickasaw Cooperage Co, and then became Chief Engineer for the Gayoso Hotel, where he installed a large plant.  Afterwards he went to Chicago as Chief Engineer for a major hotel as well as in charge of the Machinery Hall for the 1893 World's Fair.  In 1925 when the Auditorium opened he returned to Memphis as Chief Engineer.  At the time of his death he had been the electrical expert with more than 22 leading hotels in the US and Australia.

Click here for David Williams 1936 Obit.

 

During 1956-57 Ellis was remodeled-updated and a new entrance was added in the early 1960sIn 1974 the Cook Convention Center was built adjacent to the auditorium.  But the city no longer properly maintained old Ellis.  The plaster began chipping off the ceilings. The electrical and mechanical systems became outdated. The auditorium's North and South Halls had been neglected for so long that the Convention Center Board of Directors decided that renovation was no longer an option.

 

        New Entrance in the 1960s

1974 Cook Convention Center

2003 Cannon Center for  Performing Arts

After 75 years of continuous entertainment, Ellis was razed in July of 1999 for the expansion of the Cook Convention Center and to make way for the new Cannon Center for Performing Arts which opened in January 2003.  Prior to the implosion of the old building, architectural terra cotta pieces from the nautical design of the building were salvaged and sold to collectors.  The last performance at Ellis was Bruce Springsteen, November 1996.

     
 

<>

 
Just when you thought you knew everything about the old auditorium...
     

Ever wonder why Ellis had a Poplar Street address instead of a North Main address?  Ever wonder why there was extra frontage on Main Street that was never used?  That extra frontage clearly shows in the dedication photos taken in 1924.  Well...

< This vintage postcard, mailed in 1931, is an illustration, which shows porticos on both sides of the auditorium.  These porticos were not on the building when it opened in 1924 and they don't show in the "under construction" photo above.  This partially explains why the auditorium had a Poplar Street Address.  But there was still that unused extra frontage on Main Street, which always seemed like an "after-thought".

     

During research, we learned that in 1924, the United Confederate Veterans held their  annual convention at the new Auditorium on June 4-6, 1924,  four and one half months BEFORE it officially opened.  Those Confederate veterans at the convention were issued badges.  Take a close look at their badges.    >

On the badge is an equestrian statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest and, of course, the Confederate flag.  But at the top  

 

is an engraving of the new auditorium building, which clearly shows the two side porticos that appear in the postcard above. 

But wait!  It also shows a great extension and  Grand Entrance on the Main Street side - just where that extra frontage is located.  The badges were obviously made in advance of the convention and were based on the architect's drawings.  Sometime between those drawings and the construction, a decision was made to eliminate the side and front porticos - perhaps due to cost overages.  Because of these badges, we now know what was originally planned for the Auditorium - or what might have been.  It answers some questions but opens up a lot more. 

 Main Street Grand Entrance

 - Thanks to Dave French for discovering the Postcard and the Badges

 

From this architect's drawing, published in 1923, we've now learned that the North and South Porticos were still part of the auditorium design, but the Grand Entrance on Main Street had already been eliminated before construction began on the building.  Click on the photo to see the drawing as it appears in the 1923 article about major musical talent being booked into Memphis during the 1923 season. 

 

1923  Architect's Drawing with North-South Porticos - No Grand  Main Entrance

< Two very revealing Postcards.   The postcard on the left is from 1925-26 and shows the finished Auditorium - minus the North and South  Porticos and with that "extra frontage" on Main.  The card on the right is from 1920 and is obviously an artist's rendering.  It shows the planned North and South Porticos and a Grand Entrance on Main which would exactly fit that "extra frontage" on Main.  Did the city plan to add this Grand Entrance later?

Main Street extra frontage - 1925s

1920 - Artist's Rendering Postcard

 

The final chapter actually found us in August of 2012, when we received the 50 page booklet "The Story of the Memphis Auditorium" from the "Greater Memphis Chamber".    In the booklet we learned that the grand front portico on the Main Street side was actually meant to be City Hall.  So our Auditorium was originally planned as a combo-building - Auditorium-Market Place-City Hall. That might have happened if the construction hadn't taken so long (partially due to WWI).  Before the architect's plans were finally agreed upon, it was already certain "that the funds available would not be sufficient to provide quarter for officials of the city, without detracting from the appearance and conveniences of the auditorium proper.  The Commission therefore abandoned the city hall plan and instructed the architect to revise his building plans in such a way that quarters  for city administration might be added in later years if deemed advisable".

1926 Booklet Cover:  Story of Memphis Auditorium

The same was true of the porticos on the north and south sides of the building  "...will adequately perform the function suggested by the designer, but may, if lack of funds demand, be omitted without serious detriment to the architectural beauty and utility of the building".   So that front foundation on Main was "available" if the city ever found funds to add their City Hall and the north and south porticos were simply omitted all together.   In the meantime Memphis submitted the architects original auditorium drawings to the United Confederate Veterans who simply used them in designing the medals for their 1924 Reunion.  Plus the city was apparently so proud of their grand plan that they submitted the same drawings to postcard manufacturers.   Click on the Program Cover (above) to see and read the entire booklet "Story of the Memphis Auditorium"

August 2013 Update.  Once again when we thought we knew it all:  This very rare medal  for the 1930 Memphis Convention of the Tent and Awning Manufacturers (on the right) was discovered on eBay by Historic-Memphis.com team member Dave French.  The convention was held at Ellis and that original design for the auditorium with the North, South Porticos, and the Grand Entrance on Main is still used on this medal 6 years after the auditorium opened.  It brings up more questions than answers:  Did the convention organizers go to the same medal design company that the UCV had used? Did the City of Memphis furnish the original design drawing to the Tent-Awning Manufacturers by mistake?  Did the City of Memphis still have plans to build that Grand Entrance?  >  

   

Another Update ... September 2013:  This medal for a 1940 Shriner's Convention in Memphis was recently found on eBay by Dave French.  Once again it continues to show that original design for the auditorium with the North, South Porticos, and the Grand Entrance on Main, which is still being used on a medal 16 years after the auditorium opened.  We continue to have those unanswered questions and we will continue digging until we have the answers. >

 
 
 
Ever wonder what was on the Auditorium site before Ellis was built?

The Overton Hotel opened on the corner of Poplar and Main in 1866 and was used by both sides during the Civil War.  The Grand Duke of Russia stayed here in 1872.  In 1874 it was sold to Shelby County and was used as a Courthouse until 1919.  When the city purchased the building, they knocked off the top floor but left the two front corner sections as "towers".  The historic building was demolished and Memphis Ellis Auditorium was built on the site in 1924.

 

  Shelby County Courthouse

   

The historic Ellis Auditorium lives on through the collection of photos, publications, and memorabilia posted below.  Special thanks to the Memphis Public Library for many of the photos on this page.

 


 
 

Memphis Auditorium and Market House Interior Photos  

       

1926 Market

North Hall Market

North Hall 1926

North Hall

   Ellis South Hall 1944

         

Auditorium Market

Auditorium Market

Market 1924

Market c. 1924

5000 at Gospel Concert

         

Kimball Organ

Smaller Organ

Organ Pipes

Committee Room c 1924

Entrance c. 1924

         
     

Ellis - 1954

     

1937 Flood Refugees  

         
 

 
 

Vintage Photos of the Performers ...

         

WPA Band 1930                          

Radio Show 1944     CBC Band 1948

CBC Band 1949

         

Ray Charles 1961

Agnes Moorehead Van Cliburn 1972 James Brown 1961

'61 Kingsbury Graduation

         

Elvis 1956   

Benton-Elvis '57 Elvis 1955 Ed Sullivan Show '53

Marguerite Piazza 1953

         

Maid of Cotton 1954 Maid of Cotton 1962 Brown-Day-Hope '48 Day-Hope '48

Blackwood Brothers

         
     

 Preston-Martin     Nureyev        

Hendrix 1969

Passion Play '52

Passion Play '52

Elvis-BB King '56

Gorgeous George

         

  Elvis 1962

Elvis 1956 Steve Martin 1978 Liberace 1954

Howlin Wolf 19600

         
 

Dylan 1966 Elton John 1971   Jack Benny 1973

Roy Rogers 1950

         
         

 

  1924 Dedication Program

Opening Act::  John Philip Sousa
                         ... and The San Carlo Opera Co
                        ... and Dancing Divertissements


Click on the Cover to see the entire Program 

 

1924 Program Cover

1925 Convention Brochure

Shortly after the opening of the Auditorium,  the Memphis Chamber of Commerce prepared this very nice photo brochure about Memphis to entice conventions to the city. 

Click on the Cover to see the entire Program

 

1925 Program Cover

 
 

 
 

PROGRAMS...Posters and Flyers... from 1924 to 1999

 
1920's

  1924 Dedication Paul Whiteman 1925 Paul Whiteman #2 Paul Whiteman #3

1924 Ad

           

< ........................ 1926 - Memphis Civic Music League - Opera Series ............................. >

           
 1926 Series  1926 Series 1924 UCV Convention 1924 UCV Flyer 1929 Arch.Expo

Music League 1925

           
 
           
1930's

   Grace Moore 1934 Dance 1934

Dance 1936     

Program 1935

Roller Derby 1939

           

?

?

Tech HS 1939 San Carlo 1938 Salzburg Opera 1937    

Program 1937

           
 
           
1940's

Ice Capades 1943

CBC Concert 1949

Ballet Russe 1942 Tech HS 1949

San Carlo Opera 1944

           

Berl Olswanger 1946

Berl Olswanger-2 Berl Olswanger-3 Berl Olswanger-4

Bob Hope c.1948

Bob Hope c.1948

           

Agnes Moorehead 1943

Humes High 1946 Passion Play 1946 Met Opera 1948 Veloz-Yolanda 1945 - Complete Program
           

?

?

1947 Harvest Stars

  1948 Helen Traubel   1948 Circus
           
 
         
1950's

 

Passion Play 1952

Passion Play 1952

Passion Play 1952

Elvis 1955

Elvis 1955

           

Jane Bischoff 1953

Liberace 1954 Liberace 1954 Skating Vanities 1957 Berl Olswanger

Berl Olswanger

           

Met Opera 1954

Met Program 1954 Maid of Cotton 1951 Amateur Hour 1951

Wrestling 1959

Wrestling 1958
           

Tyrone Power 1958 Clyde Beatty Circus Sonja Henie 1954 Humes HS 1953 Tech HS 1951

Tech HS 1951

           
Circus         

Holidy on Ice 1954

Holidy on Ice 1957

Holidy on Ice 1958

Holidy on Ice 1959

Sadler Wells Ballet

           

Rock n Roll 1955 My Fair Lady 1957 Helen Traubel 1952 Strike a Match 1953
           
 
           
1960's

 

Holiday on Ice 1960

Gospel Convention 1963

Man of La Mancha'68

Tech High 1969

Hendrix 1969

           

Paris Orchestra 1968

Holiday on Ice 1962

Quartets 1964 Treadwell HS 1960

Howlin' Wolf

Mphs Symphony 1965

           
 
           
1970's

  East HS 1972 David Bowie 1972 Van Cliburn 1972

Freddie King 1972

Messick HS 1973

           

    Steely Dan 1974 Davud Bowie 1973 Bowie Flyer 1973 Allman 1972 Trapeze 1972

The Who 1970

           

Cactus 1971 Memphis Opera 1970 Springsteen 1976 Civic Ballet 1970 Jack Benny 1973

Tech HS 1970

           

?

?

?

Met. Opera 1978       Awards 1971

Nitty Gritty DB 1972

           
 
           
1980's

?

?

  Showboat 1980 Showboat 1980

The Met 1983

 
           
 
           

1990's

?

?

?

9 Inch Nails 1994

Baryshnikov 1991

           

Please scan your program covers and send them in so they can be added to this page >  gene.gill@verizon.net

 

 


 

Ellis Auditorium Memorabilia

 

Ellis Seats   

Roof Decor

Roof Decor

Roof Decor

Roof Decor

         

Roof Decor

Els

David Bowie 1972

ZZ Top

 Springsteen'76

Elvis 1961

         

Mazie Dimond and mural

Organ-Today

Cheap Trick'79

C. '49-'50

Billy Joel 1974

Elvis 1956

These 9 terra-cotta architectural ornamentation medallions from Ellis now hang at the Cannon Performing Arts Center.

         

These 9 terra-cotta architectural ornamentation medallions from Ellis now hang at the Cannon Performing Arts Center.

         

      Wrestling Ads

Flyer:  Doll's House 1945

Recorded at Auditorium: Jug Band 1927 -Tom Johnson 1928 -The Memphis Area 1927-32.

1930 Ad for "Cherries are Ripe"

NGDB '76

Steve Martin '75

DaveMason '70

Dolphin Decor

            Market Ad - 1925's

1927 "Convention City" License plate

First photo ?? - 1924

1934 Grace Moore Reviews

Colonel Memphis

Wrestling

Kraft Werk '75

"New" Flyer c. 1960s

Elvis Charity Event 1961

 

Sousa 1924     

1937 Ticket Press Scimitar "Amateur Hour" Articles - 1951 (BIG FILES)

Amateur Hour 1951

Ernestine Lomax wins. 1951

 

1960 Ad

Blackstone 1946

Wrestling 1968

Wrestling 1968

Auto Show 1934

RARE:  1925 Tickets

 
     
1944 Quiz Kids Ticket  

1967 Minstrels

   
 
 
 

 

1957-1960s  Ellis is "new" again

Old Ellis was finally remodeled and updated over a several year period from 1956-early 1960s. There are no exact dates because it was "business as usual" during the remodel. The upgrades included the addition of escalators, plus new lighting and new sound equipment. But the major improvement was a "Sound Curtain". When this was lowered, it allowed two different events to go on at the same time in the two different halls - newly named "Music Hall" and "Amphitheatre".   The improvements are described in the Billboard article and the Brochure published by the Memphis Chamber of Commerce.  Click on the Brochure Cover to see the entire Brochure  


1956 Billboard


 
  Brochure Cover

 

 Note:  True to Memphis' inclination toward name changes, the "Music Hall" name was later changed to DeFrank Hall and the "Amphitheatre" name was later changed to Dixon-Myers Hall.

 


 
 


 
 

CREDITS: The "Historic-Memphis" Team would like to acknowledge and thank the following organizations for their contributions which helped make this page possible:  Memphis Public Library, University of Memphis Libraries, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Memphis Press Scimitar, Greater Memphis Chamber, Memphis Flyer, Vance Lauderdale Family Archives, Memphis Heritage, Tom Leatherwood Shelby County Register, Joe Spake, Lee Askew, George Whitworth, and many other individuals whose assistance is acknowledged on individual photos.

 

We do not intentionally post copyrighted photos and material without permission or credit.  We often find some great, un-credited photos and material on the Internet.  In addition we receive many unsolicited photos via email.  If we like the photos and material and they add to a particular page on this website, we do use them.  Should anyone write that we have a copyrighted photo or material posted, we will apologize for our mistake, and because the photo or material adds significantly to the page where it's located, we also ask to keep it in place and add credit for it, or if it's the owner's preference, we will remove it immediately.  We have only been asked to remove one, and that's because they wanted us to pay to use it.  We are 100 % non-profit volunteers and cannot pay.

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