The Memphis Malco Monarchy

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Malco Theatres Memphis

Unless you happen to know about and visit the few obscure and outdated movie theaters in Memphis, it may not have dawned on you that Memphis is experiencing a monopoly–a good monopoly! Before you start, No, it is not Memphis Light Gas & Water! The Malco Theatres are a family owned and operated cinematic dynasty, which has stood on its own for over nine decades. The Malco Theatres were founded by M.A. Lightman, Sr. in 1915. There is some back history that takes place from 1915-1929; starting in Sheffield, Alabama, moving up to Nashville, Tennessee, and spanning across to Little Rock, Arkansas. Today however, the history that I am hankering for is all about Memphis, baby!

The History of Malco Theatres

Linden-Circle-Theatre
Linden Circle Theatre

In 1929, the family business officially changed its name to Malco Theatres, Inc. (It was Arkansas Amusement Enterprises at the time.) It was also in 1929 that Malco really started to acquire movie theaters in Arkansas,  Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Missouri. Now, no one will ever know if the thriving success of Malco in 1929 was due to the re-branding and name change, the implementation of equipment that allowed the Ligthtman’s to have sound in their theaters, or the moving of its operations to Memphis; but I, however, choose to believe the latter. Starting with The Linden Circle Theatre, a one screen theater that entertained 941 people at one time, Malco Theatres, Inc. buckled up and enjoyed the roller-coaster ride that would follow. The Memphian, The Malco (currently The Orpheum, not owned by Malco), and The Crosstown were all movie palaces opened in Memphis between 1935-1951, which helped with the continued growth and success of Malco Theatres, Inc.

With an influx in cinematic features, movie theater companies saw a need for multi-screen theaters. In 1970, M.A. Lightman, Jr. announced that Malco was breaking ground on its first 4-screen theaters. The Highland Quartet was built, quickly followed by the Ridgeway Four. In 1987, Malco Theatres, Inc. built their first multiplex theater housing an unprecedented 8 screens. Today single, twin, trio, and quartet screen theaters–along with drive-in movies–have all but closed. This is not based on the quality of the theaters, just the fact that it is economically unsound to run a theater that only shows a few movies, when the average Malco movie theater now shows 14-16 screens.

Studio-on-the-Square
Studio on the Square

Malco Today

Hands down, my favorite Malco theater is the Studio on the Square. It is a 5-screen theater, which gives it a cozy and laid back feeling. It has all the amenities that you would expect from the newer theaters, but it doesn’t make you feel as if you are attending an arena event. Besides, I don’t know of any of the other Malco locations that serve wine, do you? 

6 COMMENTS

  1. Memphis is experiencing a monopoly–a good monopoly!

    Interesting topic. Here’s a question for you though: If there is a monopoly in Memphis, regarding movie theaters, has Malco Inc., engaged in unfair tactics which might have cause competition in the Memphis area to go out of business? Some examples of predatory business tactics include buying out competitors. Malco unquestionably did that. They might also have used their muscle in memphis to cause the suppliers of their competitors to charge their competitor higher prices for supplies. When it costs four dollars for a snicker’s bar, I question whether having a movie monopoly in memphis is good.

  2. Every movie theater charges crazy prices at the concession stand, it’s the only way movie theaters make any money.

    What competitors did Malco buy out? Muvico failed on its own. The theater on Summer Ave is limping along on its own.

  3. I am a fairly knowledgable historian of movie theatres and their operations. I believe that for some time probably from the thirties through the fifties that MALCO theatres were associated with Paramount Theatres in their operations, where Paramount would book the theatres and you would have that clout — in return they would split the profits in equal shares with Paramount. There were lots of Paramount operating partners like Interstate Amusement in Dallas Texas, and Paramount-Richards Theatres in New Orleans. Am I correct that MALCO was a Paramount theatre partner?

    • Hmmm…I don’t know if it was or not. I couldn’t find anything. Malco did own a few theaters called “Paramount” though. Here is a picture of the one that was in Memphis, Tennessee.

      http://wp.me/a2DVIq-2dG

      [Edit]

      I just heard back from Malco, and the Vice President of Corporate Communications answered your question with the following:
      “This was the case for our Kentucky locations only.”

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