Early History of Memphis THEATRES

        ...and the famous artists who "trod the boards"


Judge J. P. Young edited this "Standard History of Memphis, Tennessee" in 1912.  Among it's parts are this section on The "Drama" which was the first of the arts to receive serious attention in the city.  By 1929, there was a Memphis "theatrical society.  The first building used for theatrical performances was on the NW corner of Jackson and North Front.  In 1838 a more commodious theatre was fitted up on Market Street when an old frame building was converted into a theatre.  In 1841, a large stable on Main, near Adams, was converted into a "genteel looking theatre" by John S. Potter, where good scenery was introduced.  This theatre grew in popularity until 1845, Shakespearian plays were performed and prominent actors came to the city.  In 1849, Thomas Lennox converted a church at Washington and Center Alley into a good theatre.  During the existence of this Washington Street Theatre, a building was erected by James Wickersham at 82 Jefferson for the express purpose of a theatre.  This was called the "New Memphis Theatre" and opened October 19, 1859 by W. H. Crisp.  Plays were now produced by a Stock Company. 


"Blue Ruin" New Memphis Olympic Green Law Opera   Leubrie's Theatre

Lyceum - Grand Auditorium-Lyceum Auditorium -Bijou  East End Park Jefferson 

 Jefferson  -  Lyric


See individual listings of each theatre  in THEATRE SECTION of the website.



The first theater productions in Memphis were presented in 1831 in a section of buildings called "The Blue Ruin" located on the Northwest Corner of Jackson and Chickasaw (now Front Street).  In 1838-40 a second theatre began operating on Market, near Front Street.  It was an old frame building with a rough stage, scenery and a Drop Curtain used to change scenes. 



First Theatre





New Memphis .  Crisp's Gaiety . Memphis  .  Leubrie's  The location of the Memphis Theatre was "on Jefferson, near 3rd, or on NE corner of Jefferson/3rd", according to the Memphis Directories.  It was built around 1857 and opened as Crisp's Gaiety Theatre.  The theatre's name  changed every time a new manager took over or when the theatre was renovated.  The sequence of names was Crisp's Gaiety .  New Memphis Theatre  .  Memphis Theatre  .   Leubrie's Theatre .  New Memphis Theatre.  It's no wonder that the newspapers gave up and simply called it "The old Memphis Theatre",  But of course that caused more confusion because of that  OTHER "Old Memphis" Theatre on Washington.



Theatre location ...today

Memphis Theatre

Memphis Theatre?

Memphis Theatre?  No!


Auditorium  .  Bijou  The Auditorium Theatre opened 1894 at the corner of Main and Linden, where the Chisca Hotel building is located.  It had originally been a trolley barn and was converted into a theatre.   By 1903 after a renovation, it was renamed The Bijou.  It burned in 1911 and was not replaced.



Auditorium -1900


Mozart Festival at the Auditorium...1901 Paderwerski 1908 UCV 1909

Lyceum  The  Lyceum Theatre was built by Hugh Brinkley around 1894 at the corner of 2nd and Jefferson  .    It seated 2010 and was the first Memphis theatre to feature electric lights.  Although considered the finest theatre in the South, it was demolished in 1935.


Lyceum 1900

Lyceum 1907

Loew's Lyceum

Lyceum 1935


East End Park  .  Grand Opera House  .  Greenlaw Opera House  East End Park originally opened in 1889.  It was an amusement park with rides, midway, beer gardens, and a theatre-playhouse.  After it closed in 1913, the land was sold and the lake was filled in.   The Grand Opera House opened in 1890 at Main and Beale.  It became the Hopkins Opera House in 1900 and the Orpheum in 1907 .  The Greenlaw Opera House opened in 1860 and was listed in the Memphis Directories from 1865-1883.



East End Park

East End Park

Grand Opera House

Greenlaw Opera


Jefferson  .  Lyric  The Jefferson Theatre opened in 1906.  By 1911, it had been renamed The Lyric and was one of the city's prominent theatres.  The Lyric closed in 1962.



The Jefferson

The Lyric - 1929

Lyric 1916

Program 1919

Program 1920


World Renown Artists .  The list of world-class performers who came to Memphis in the early years is very impressive - if not totally astounding.  Below are pictured just a few of the major artists who appeared at these early Memphis theatres during the period before Vaudeville or Motion Pictures became "big".  It's literally a "Who's Who" of entertainment.  The artists names were taken from the pages of "The Standard History of Memphis" at the top of this page.  If you don't recognize them, just "Google them".  Among the group, you'll find stage actors, vocalists, pianists, violinists, poets, lecturers, dancers,  comedians, and magicians.   (The names are not listed in alphabetical order).


Annie Podley

Ben DeBar

Blind Tom Carlotta Patti Charles Dillon

Christine Nilsson


Clara Morris Edwin Adams Edwin Booth Edwin Forrest Ellen Terry

Frank Mayo

Frank Daniels George D. Chaplin Graziella Ridgeway Heni Vieuxtemps Horace Greeley

Jenny Lind


John Wilkes Booth Josef Hoffmann Joseph Jefferson Kathryn Kidder Laura Keane

Lawrence Barrett


Little Dolly Theobold Lydia Thompson Marie Wainwright Mary McVicker Maude Adams         Mrs. Fiske

Ole Bull       Oscar Wilde Paderwski Pasquale Brignoli Prof.  Haselmayer

Robert Houdin


Sarah Bernhardt

Feranti Rosnati

Sol Smith Russell Lillian Lewis James O'Neill

Harry Lacy   


Margaret Mather Maude Jeffries Otis Skinner Patti Rosa W. H. Crane

Cora Tanner    


Metropolitan Opera

World Opera Companies

World Ballet Companies

Helen Butler Ladies Brass Band     


See individual listings of each theatre above in THEATRE SECTION of the website.





The Historic-Memphis website does not intentionally post copyrighted photos and material without permission or credit.  On occasion a "non-credited" photo might possibly be posted because we were unable to find a name to give credit.  Because of the nature of our non-commercial, non-profit, educational website, we strongly believe that these photos would be considered "Fair Use.  We have certainly made no monetary gain, although those using this website for historic or Genealogy research have certainly profited.  If by chance, we have posted your copyrighted photo, please contact us, and we'll remove it immediately, or we'll add your credit if that's your choice.  In the past, we have found that many photographers volunteer to have their works included on these pages and we'll  also do that if you contact us with a photo that fits a particular page. 


The "Historic-Memphis" website would like to acknowledge and thank the following for their contributions which helped make this website possible:  Memphis Public Library, Memphis University Library, Memphis Law Library, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Memphis Press Scimitar, Shelby County Register of Deeds, Memphis City Schools, Memphis Business Men's Club, Memphis Chamber of Commerce, Memphis City Park Commission, Memphis Film Commission, Carnival Memphis, Memphis Historical Railroad Page, Memphis Heritage Inc, Beale Street Historic District, Cobblestone Historic District, Memphis Historic Districts, Vance Lauderdale Family Archives, Tennessee State Archives, Library of Congress, Kemmons Wilson Family, Richard S. Brashier, Lee Askew, George Whitworth, Woody Savage and many individuals whose assistance is acknowledged on the pages of their contributions.  Special thanks to Memphis Realtor, Joe Spake, for giving us carte blanche access to his outstanding collection of contemporary Memphis photos.

We do not have high definition  copies of the photos on these pages.  If anyone wishes to secure high definition photos,  you'll have to contact the photographer  or the collector.  (To avoid any possibility of contributing to SPAM, we do not maintain a file of email addresses for anyone who contacts us).

Historic Memphis Website