Unearthed: Memphis

Unearthed: Memphis

Season 2: Episode Six: 1969 Miss Memphis Review

June 28, 2021

We have to thank a supporter/friend that we’ve yet to meet, Jerry, who sent us kind of a suggestion for this topic. On one of his daily walks, he took a picture of a plaque on the side of the Evergreen Theatre. It was commemorating the 1969 Miss Memphis Review pageant. Having not ever heard of this, we decided we’d investigate and thus it became our Pride Month episode.

The Miss Memphis Review, which later came to be known as the Miss Gay Memphis, began as a protest to the city ordinance that banned crossdressing.

But let’s take a step back in time to talk about the aforementioned theatre location before we get to the pageant. The current Evergreen Theatre has gone through a few owners and name changes over the years. We’ll start at the beginning, in 1927 (or 1928), the Ritz Theatre was built as a 900 seat movie theatre. It showed mainstream films and foreign films. It remained so until around 1955, when there was a fire and it was damaged. When rebuilt, it became known as the Memphis Guild Art Theatre. It was still showing foreign films but by the 60s, when Bill Kendall began running it, the shows became a little edgier. 

The Guild Theatre showed what people would consider arthouse films. They were foreign films, LGBTQ films, and other films the city considered illegal “smut”. Kendall was known for bringing eccentric movies to his theatres, he had another theatre on Highland that had midnight showings of the most controversial films, actual gay films. The flamboyant cinephile was even indicted on several indecency charges, luckily they were eventually dropped. 

Bill Kendall

So who was William “Bill” Kendall? Well, we know he was born in Memphis and attended Southwestern College, which is now Rhodes. He was also a WWII veteran.  

I can only imagine what it would be like to be a gay soldier during WWII. According to a Memphis Flyer article, he was unafraid to be loud and proud about being gay. 

When Kendall managed the Guild, it became, as he called it, a safe space for self expression. Clearly, he was not afraid to show movies that were considered controversial. When he showed “I Spit on Your Grave”, it caused “one of the most hotly contested obscenity cases in Memphis.” 

I’ve not ever seen that movie, so I looked up the plot to see what all the hubbub was about. That being said, look up the 1959 film, not the 70s film because that is a waaaay different story. 

According to the TMC website this is the synopsis of the film... 

Joe Grant is a vengeful light-skinned black man who leaves Memphis (MS) and moves to a small town in New Jersey after his brother is brutally lynched for attempting to marry a white woman. Joe's skin is so light that he is able to pass himself off as Caucasian and find work in a local bookstore. To get revenge on white society, Joe seduces a rich young white girl and then plots her death. At the same time, Joe discovers that the bookstore where he works is a front for an extortion ring. A short time passes and he finds himself falling in love with the girl. She too loves him until she learns that he is of African descent. Knowing this complicates matters (she is engaged to another man), but loving him just the same, she suggests they run away together to avoid the blackmailers. After Joe is beaten by the blackmailers, he decides this is a good idea and together the lovers flee. Back in town, the girls enraged fiance organizes a posse loudly claiming that Joe has abducted the girl and plans to rape her. Tragedy ensues just as the fugitive lovers are about to cross the Mason-Dixon Line.

It doesn’t seem too scandalous to me,