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 boon in the mid 1920s with many new buildings going up.  In 1924, 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 -


New Auditorium 1920s

Late 1920s

Postcard 1930

Demolition 1999


The moving force behind the auditorium was Robert R. Ellis and 6 years later, in 1930, the facility would be 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.

Charles A. McElravy 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.


In the late 50's Ellis was remodeled and a new entrance was added in the early 1960s.  In 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 Cook Convention Center
Cannon 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 Performing Arts Center 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.



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 Union of 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 Forrest and of course, the Confederate flag.  But at the top of the badge


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

But wait!  It also shows a great extension and  portico 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 because of 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.  To be continued...

The Main Street Portico


1924 Calendar

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




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



The 1924 Dedication Program

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


          1924 Program Cover

Every page of this vintage Dedication Program is presented below.


Page 1 Page 2 Page 3 Page 4 Page 5

Page 6 Page 7 Page 8 Page 9 Page 10

Page 11

Page 12 Page 13 Page 14

Page 15



Memphis Auditorium and Market House Interior Photos  


1926 Market North Hall Market North Hall 1926 North Hall

Auditorium Organ

Organ Pipes

Ellis South Hall 1944

5000 attend Gospel Concert



1925 Memphis Convention Brochure


Shortly after the Auditorium opened, the Memphis Chamber of Commerce prepared this very nice brochure to entice conventions to the city.  The rare brochure is presented in its entirety.


Embossed Cover Parchment Over-lay Front Page Page 1 Page 2

Page 3

Page 4 Page 5 Page 6

Page 7


Page 8

Page 9 Page 10 Page 11

Page 12


Page 13

Page 14 Page 15 Page 16

Page 17


Page 18

Page 19 Page 20 Page 21

Back Cover - Embossed



Vintage Photos of the Performers ...

Please send your photos of performers at Ellis so they can be added to this page >


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

Gorgeous George '60s



PROGRAMS...and Posters from 1924 to 1999

Please scan your program covers and send them in so they can be added to this page >

Because this section is frequently updated and revised, it is not practical to post the programs alphabetically  or in yearly sequence.

1924 Dedication Paul Whiteman 1925 Paul Whiteman #2 Paul Whiteman #3 Passion Play 1946

Passion Play 1952


Passion Play 1952 Passion Play 1952 Skating Vanities 1957 Ballet Russe 1942 David Bowie 1972

San Carlo Opera 1944

CBC Concert 1949 CBC Concert #2 Circus Van Cliburn 1972 Elvis 1955

Elvis 1955


Hendrix 1969

East HS 1972 Jane Bischoff 1953 Liberace 1954 Liberace 1954

Roller Derby 1939


Man of La Mancha'68 Berl Olswanger Berl Olswanger Maid of Cotton 1951 Sadler Wells

Agnes Moorehead 1943


Paris Orchestra 1968 Trapeze 1972 Met Opera 1954 Met Program 1954 Tech High 1969

Cactus 1971

Steely Dan 1974 Davud Bowie 1973 Bowie Flyer 1973 Allman 1972 Duke Ellington

The Who 1970


Eddie Arnold Memphis Opera 1970 Tech HS 1949 Clyde Beatty Circus Ice Capades 1943

Holiday on Ice 1962


Holiday on Ice 1960 Gospel Convention 1963 1924 UCV Convention      



Please scan your program covers and send them in so they can be added to this page >




Ellis Auditorium Memorabilia


Ellis Seats             

Roof Decor

Roof Decor

Roof Decor




Roof Decor


David Bowie 1972

Cheap Trick '79     C. '49-'50



Mazie Dimond and her mural   Organ-Today                     ZZ Top    Springsteen '76 Elvis 1961


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



More Roof Decor

Wrestling Ads

Dolphin Decor



Elvis 1956   NGDB '76   -  Steve Martin '75 Billy Joel 1974 DaveMason '70 - Kraft Werk '75

 If you have more information, more photos, or corrections about Ellis Auditorium, please contact Gene Gill so this page can be updated. 

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Memphis Tech High School Alumni Website