Studio Theater

535 South Highland Street,
Memphis, TN 38111

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Studio Theatre in its heyday

Viewing: Photo | Street View

The Studio Theater was on the West side of Highland Street in what was sometimes called the “Highland Strip” area near Memphis State University. MSU had been founded in the nineteen-teens as West Tennessee State Normal School. Normal School was a term used at that time for a teachers' college. The whole area/suburb was called Normal for many years and the Studio Theater was originally named the Newman Theater when it was built and opened in 1927. It later becoming the Normal Theater. The joke in the 1960’s was that “Abnormal” would have been more accurate.

It was renamed the Studio Theater when the Art Theater Guild took it over in the early-1960’s. It was a plain, barnlike auditorium with no balcony. The marquee was flat against the wall above the very narrow entrance and the lobby opened up inside. The Park Theater was about six blocks to the South at Park and Highland, and the Plaza Theater was about the same distance to the North in Poplar Plaza at Poplar and Highland. Both are listed on this site.

I first saw the Studio Theater in 1963 while a student at Southwestern at Memphis (later renamed Rhodes College) and the first movie I saw there was “David and Lisa” with Kier Dullea and Janet Margolin. Late in my sophomore year I went to work for the Art Theater Guild tearing tickets at both the Guild and the Studio Theater. I used to bicycle about seven miles from the Southwestern area to work at the Studio Theater and then back after the show, usually getting home well after midnight. I narrowly missed getting arrested there in 1967 when the vice cops busted a porno (excuse me—art) movie; I think it was “I, A Woman” with Essy Persson. I arrived to tear tickets at the second show just as they were locking the place up and carting the previous shift off.

The Guild showed more legitimate foreign and art movies but the Studio Theater was a little steamier, with such classics as “The Dirty Girls” and “Mondo Freudo”. On the other hand I also saw “Darling” with Julie Christie, “The Hill” with Sean Connery, and “King Rat” with George Segal there. While I was in the Air Force 1967-72, the Studio Theater and the Art Theater Guild were involved in a long and expensive court fight over an art/porno movie called “School Girl”. They eventually won, and it resulted in a general loosening of all the Memphis movie censorship laws. It might have been a hollow victory, though, because when I returned to Memphis in 1973 it was well into decline, showing such double features as “Blacula” and “The Thing with Two Heads”. In 1977, it was known as the Movieland Theater, and was screening the X rated “Oh Calcutta”.

Eventually the Art Theater Guild pulled out and both the Guild and the Studio Theater were taken over by another group which obtained beer licenses and reopened them as cabaret or lounge theaters. By that time I was a grad student at MSU and living on Mynders Avenue just across the street from the Studio Theater so I could walk over and have a few beers while watching the movie and didn’t have to drive home. Later I moved back across town to the Southwestern area and lost track of the Studio Theater. I think it was still operating when I left Memphis in 1983, but when I drove by in the late-1980’s it appeared closed and detriorating. Ah, memories.

It is now the concert room for Newby’s bar next door. The tiny, one-person box office still exists.

Contributed by William H. Wingo

Recent comments (view all 9 comments)

JackCoursey
JackCoursey on October 4, 2005 at 5:04 pm

Is/was there a Studio at 2105 Court St? I think that it is a multiplex.

Backseater
Backseater on October 4, 2005 at 9:57 pm

In 1973-74 I had an apartment at 1390 Court Avenue in Memphis. 2105 Court would have been somewhat East of there. In Memphis, “Streets” run North and South, and “Avenues” East and West. Mapquest shows no listing for “2105 Court Street”; but “2105 Court Avenue” is right where I thought it would be, in the Overton Square area not far from the Memphian Theater which is on South Cooper just South of Overton Park. I seem to remember that there was a small theater of some kind in Overton Square at or very near this location but I don’t think I ever went there and don’t recall any details about it. If there was one it was probably a live theater or music venue rather than movies. Any multiplex there now is almost certainly a recent addition. The last time I was in Memphis was the summer of 1998, and then not in that area.

Backseater
Backseater on October 6, 2005 at 6:00 am

It just occurred to me that if there was a theater on Court Avenue in Overton Square, it may have been the original Playhouse on the Square before it moved to the reconfigured Memphian. That would make sense.

Backseater
Backseater on October 10, 2005 at 6:01 am

Update: this web address
www.cinematour.com/theatres.php?db=us&province=TN&page=2
describes Malco’s “Studio on the Square,” a 5-plex at 2105 Court Street [sic]. I couldn’t find a map link on the site, but the name and address are certainly consistent with an Overton Square location, given the confusion of ‘street’ and ‘avenue’ as described above. Cinema Tour is a good site with lots of period photos, but without the commentary we have here; by all means, check it out. This was the first I had ever heard of such a theater, but then I haven’t been in Mempho in about 7 years and not in Overton Square for longer than that, so my speculation that it’s a recent construction is probably right. Malco stands for the M.A. Lightman Company, which operates multiplex theaters all over the mid-South. Just what Overton Square needed, a Malco 5-plex… Best wishes.

JackCoursey
JackCoursey on January 21, 2006 at 9:08 pm

The former Normal Theatre building is still standing on Highland readily identifiable by its box office and marquee. The theatre is now part of Gill’s Bar & Grill and includes a shadowbox from the Loew’s State Theatre.

Will Dunklin
Will Dunklin on November 29, 2007 at 10:49 pm

Jack et al, Funny, working late tonight, I suddenly thought of the Studio after 25 years and wondered if it had a listing on this site. Sure enough, you all had already documented it. I attended MSU from 1982 to 1984 and saw my very first porno (though pretty tame) film (or was it an “art film” that was pretty lame) at the Studio. I too remember the flat-front marquee, a tiny lobby and I believe a no-slope auditorium floor. I’m surprised to see it seated 400. I would have guessed half that. However, when I saw it, no matter how many seats it had, they were all sticky. Sad that this one still stands, but the Park is gone.

vastor
vastor on August 11, 2012 at 10:57 am

Recently have discovered that the Newman Theatre, which pre-dates the Normal name, was at the same address. Anyone have any insight whether it was the same building? It now houses a concert venue attached to Newby’s, the bar next door. The most recent photo posted here shows that it’s pretty messy looking these days. It also had its share of name changes: Normal, Studio, Highland Cinema, The Movie House and finally Newby’s.

vastor
vastor on November 6, 2012 at 5:35 pm

New information from the county register. The building was built in 1927—ergo the Newman/Normal/Studio/Movie House/Highland Cinema are the same building. Still operating as the concert hall for Newby’s. Looks pretty dismal on the inside.

DavidLP
DavidLP on December 13, 2012 at 5:53 pm

i remember going to The Movie House when it was open on Highland Strip….cheap beer and cheap admisson

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