The Roxy Theatre ran movies for 22 years in East Nashville, but it's doubtful the old cinema on Meridian Street near McFerrin Park ever showed anything as colorful as its own history. A relic from the days when Nashville was dotted with neighborhood movie theaters, the property has housed a church, a Laundromat, a barbershop, a five-and-dime, even the makeshift home of one of Nashville's most famously eccentric honky-tonk producers.
Over the past two decades, however, the 76-year-old theater at 827 Meridian St. has fallen into disrepair. Its fortunes seemed drastically reversed in 2010 when the property's owner, Robert Solomon, owner of Woodland Studios, announced an $800,000 restoration campaign. But liens on the property involving the previous owner scuttled those plans.
This weekend, however, residents will get a taste of what a restored Roxy humming with live music, patrons and energy might bring to the neighborhood.
On Saturday, Nov. 9, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., residents in the McFerrin Park neighborhood who want to save the theater are sponsoring the Roxy Revival, a free all-day event that supporters hope will inspire a forward-thinking investor to come to the old movie house's rescue. Such action is needed, event organizer Dane Forlines says, to keep the historic theater from ending up another notch on an East Nashville land speculator's raze-and-flip portfolio.
"Nobody called it 'East Nashville' when I moved in," says Forlines, president of the McFerrin Park Neighborhood Association and an engineering teacher at MLK Magnet School. Back then, in 2007, the neighborhood was plagued by what he describes as "high crime, high poverty and low educational attainment." But in a mixed blessing, he says the East Side's changing fortunes have brought real estate investors with no stake in the neighborhoods, who are buying and flipping properties "at exorbitant prices."
Forlines and the other members of the Save the Roxy organization want to rescue the theater before some hustler bulldozes it for its parcels of property. According to historian Debie Cox, it started life as Red Cross Drugs, built by Maj. Ernest Hutton in 1914. In 1936, Tony Sudekum, flamboyant operator of the Crescent Amusement Co. (whose holdings included the majestic old Belle Meade Theater and the long-gone Hippodrome Skating Rink on West End), bought the property and began adding a 500-seat movie house. It operated as a whites-only theater from 1937 to 1959.
After 1979, it was owned by famed Nashville record producer Aubrey Mayhew, whose 1960s recordings with Johnny Paycheck for his Little Darlin' label are regarded as some of the finest honky-tonk singles ever cut. Mayhew operated the Roxy through the 1980s as a combination recording studio and live-music venue, while using the space to house some of his voluminous collection of JFK memorabilia. Having bought the Texas School Book Depository in 1970 — you read that correctly — he supposedly stashed the window from which Lee Harvey Oswald took his world-changing potshot at the Roxy.
By the time Mayhew died in 2009, Forlines says, he had been living a reclusive existence holed up in the Roxy's balcony. Current owner Solomon has been using the facility to house Woodland's studio gear, but he's allowed the Save the Roxy team to host outdoor movie screenings at the theater. For this weekend's event, he let the group actually move out all the equipment — with help from some 45 Vanderbilt frat kids and other volunteers.
That means Saturday's event will be a rare chance to go inside the old building and experience it as the venue it was (and could be). There will be bands performing inside and out booked by East Nashville Underground promoter Jared Corder, food trucks and vendors, even a showing of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes at 4 p.m. The event is free, but Forlines will accept donations, just in case.
"Unless I'm surprised by people's generosity, we don't expect any surplus — we're in the hole," Forlines says. "We just value the theater as a landmark and want to see it preserved." More information about the event and the theater can be found on Facebook and at savetheroxy.org.
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