535 South Highland Street,
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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.
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