Written by Ethan Williford
When imagining luxury theaters in the greater Memphis area, the mind is torn. Elder generations may conjure images of the Orpheum, its unappealing brick exterior opening to a gilded auditorium, laced with marble and crystal. Most Memphians will forever judge it as the pinnacle of theatrical beauty.
Younger minds may consider the Paradiso, with its Iberian-inspired courtyard lobby and nostalgic murals, or the Ridgeway, treasured for its posh seating and readily available alcohol. Even the newly constructed Powerhouse Cinema, fully equipped with state-of-the-art theaters, can assert a claim to the throne of luxury.
But, perhaps, the most breathtaking contenders for the title are lost to the annals of time, particularly the Cianciolo Cinema group. Combining modern styles with exquisite craftsmanship, the Art Deco theaters operated by the Cianciolo family represent an era of glamour, progress, and prosperity in Memphis cinema.
Michael Cianciolo, the patriarch of the Cianciolo family, was born on the island of Sicily in 1886. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, he immigrated to Memphis. There, he met and married his wife, Leboria, with whom he had 11 children. A lover of the newly burgeoning cinema industry, Michael opened a movie house known as the New Theater, but the ambitious entrepreneur had even grander visions for Memphis as a cinema city.
Opened in 1929 at the awkwardly positioned intersection of Jackson Avenue and North Watkins Street, the Rosemary represented the Cianciolo’s first attempt to bring the majesty of cinema to a Memphis periphery community. Named for his eldest daughter, The Rosemary operated under Michael Cianciolo’s management for 10 successful years, but in 1939, he relinquished administrative duties to his son, Augustine.
The elder Cianciolo oversaw the theater’s construction, and though its design was simple, it featured several engaging, ornate elements. The building was long and slender, a product of the oddly shaped lot upon which it was built. Above the front entrance hung a large marquee, adorned with stair-stepping embellishments. The Rosemary’s titular sign was reminiscent of old-style vaudeville theaters. In addition to the main entrance, a side staircase was added to accommodate the segregated population of Memphis. The interior contained only an inner foyer and one massive viewing room, both decorated in the elegant Art Deco style.
The Rosemary closed in 1965 and was demolished soon after. However, long before the Rosemary’s demise, the Cianciolo family fortified its theater fiefdom by expanding even farther eastward.
In 1939, the Cianciolos began construction on a new theater. Though the Rosemary was designed by the elder Michael Cianciolo, the family instead elected to hire Claude Northern as lead architect for the project. Northern would go on to design several theaters in south Memphis. Following his own precedent, Michael christened the theater The Luciann, named for his two young daughters, Lucy and Anne. The elder Cianciolo passed away in 1943, shortly after the theater’s opening.
Located a stone's throw from the intersection of Summer Avenue and North Parkway, the theater is yet another incredible example of the Art Deco style. Its floors were once lined with terrazzo tile, and an impressive triangular marquee hung above the entrance. Above this marquee, a concrete centerpiece continues to tower above the street. Lettered with Luciann, the front facade achieves a quilted look, with two sun-like cogs adorning each side.
The cinema closed in 1958. For the next eight years, the building operated as a bowling alley until 1966, when the theater was transformed into a nightclub known simply as The Party. The club became a popular hot spot among local music enthusiasts and touted one of the first lighted dance floors in the city.
By the early 1970s, the building was sold to the Paris Adult Group. The once-shining example of Memphis Art Deco had been reduced to a porno palace. The terrazzo tile was overlaid with low-quality linoleum, and the Luciann marquee was replaced with a suggestively cursive “Paris Adult” version. The main auditorium, originally constructed to seat more than 1,000 patrons, was partitioned into multiple viewing booths.
Michael Cianciolo III, grandson of the cinema patriarch, told John Beifuss of The Commercial Appeal, “Dad asked [the Paris Adult Group] to cover up the name 'Luciann' out of respect to my aunts, and they actually did do that for a while, they covered it with a giant piece of plywood. But a storm came along and blew it off and they never did put it back.”
The Paris Adult Theatre officially closed in October 2017 after a checkered seven-decade history. Its future remains uncertain.
In the design and erection of their previous two theaters, the Cianciolo family enjoyed a certain level of constructional control. However, this was not the case with the Plaza Theatre.
In the early 1950s, changing socio-economic dynamics pushed the city’s commercial center away from Downtown and toward east Memphis. The Poplar Plaza, positioned at the intersection of Poplar Avenue and Highland Street, represented the culmination of this shift.
The entirety of Poplar Plaza, including the theater, was designed by famed local architect Everett D. Woods. Where Woods contributed a baroque beauty to the city in his design of East High School, he showed a calculated attempt at Art Deco modernism with the Poplar Plaza, especially in the architecture of the theater.
The cinema consisted of only one screen, and it seated approximately 1,400 people on a single level. A party room and cry room, for unruly children, were available on each side of the projection booth. Still standing, the face of the Plaza Theatre is covered in limestone, and a rectangular marquee hovers above the entrance. A gridded structure of stainless-steel and glass extends upward, originally culminating in a chrome spire. Memphis architectural historians Eugene Johnson and Robert Russell hypothesize that the spire, conceived by Woods, represented the “unfolding Spirit of the Cinema.”
The Plaza Theatre was opened in 1952, leased by Augustus Cianciolo. It enjoyed many years of success and was even a favorite hangout spot for Elvis Presley. The rock ‘n’ roll King was known to rent out the entire cinema for massive viewings of his own movies.
However, despite its perpetual success, the Cianciolo family could not retain the prized theater. In 1961, the lease was purchased by General Cinema, and by 1987, the Plaza Theatre closed for good. Bookstar, a once popular bookseller, purchased the property in the early 1990s, choosing to keep the theater's front facade intact. The chrome spire, however, was removed and transferred to the University of Memphis campus, where it remains today. In 2012, silver screen yielded to Japanese cuisine. Declining business forced Bookstar to sell the space to the Osaka Restaurant chain.
The cinema industry has changed. Many Art Deco theaters have faded into memory, though cities like Las Vegas and Miami have chosen to preserve Art Deco theaters as cultural centers.
The Memphis community has yet to make such an effort. Our priorities lie elsewhere. Once satisfied by a slew of locally owned theaters, the city’s thirst for entertainment can never be quenched. However, Memphians now drink from the corporate cinema spout.
Once a competitor of the Cianciolo Cinema group, Malco largely monopolizes the Memphis theater industry since the closing of the Plaza Theatre. However, the remnants of the Cianciolo family and their opulent line of Art Deco theaters remain. Their shells continue to catch the eyes of Memphians on a daily basis.