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VOL. 125 | NO. 227 | Monday, November 22, 2010

Daisy Déjà Vu

History returns to Old Daisy stage

By Bill Dries

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Pat Thomasson of Night Train Productions works on a high tech lighting system inside the Old Daisy Theater, which will be opening on Nov. 26 as Purple Haze, a retro dance club. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

The head of the Beale Street Development Corp. (BSDC) plans to open the Old Daisy Theater on Beale Street in February as an interpretive center on the history of the entertainment district.

But before that, the theater will operate as a dance club called Purple Haze on Friday and Saturday nights beginning Nov. 26.

The move for the interpretive center by Randle Catron comes as Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has emphasized the need for such a center in future plans for the Beale Street Entertainment District.

The city, earlier this year, settled the part of a decade-long Chancery Court lawsuit that pitted it against Performa Entertainment Real Estate. But the part of the lawsuit between the city and BSDC is still pending.

The theater, which is more than 100 years old and the most iconic piece of architecture in the district, could play a key role should the talks devolve into more of a dispute.

The city leased the district, between Second and Fourth streets, to BSDC in the 1982 deal that created the redeveloped Beale Street. BSDC then had a sublease with Performa to operate the district and, as it turned out, develop businesses on Beale.

The BSDC’s agreement with the city was for BSDC to operate the theater as a nonprofit interpretive center. And when the district opened in the fall of 1983, it did for a brief time in which the entire district struggled financially to establish itself.

“The funding was there in the beginning. … The traffic wasn’t there to support it,” Catron said of the center. “The foot traffic is here now. The tourists are here now. This would be the better time to do it.”

When the center closed and the BSDC remained in conflict with the city and then with Performa, it became the organization’s fortress in the district, rented out for private events.

The theater has been recently refurbished.

Catron wants to have twice-daily free tours of the district that start in the theater. It would be open as a business in the evenings – early evenings for tourists and late evenings for locals.

He is attempting to get the public out of the habit of calling it the Old Daisy. He refers to it as “The Daisy.” The name Old Daisy has been used for decades to distinguish the theater from the New Daisy on the other side of Beale.

“It took us a number of years to collect all of the pictures and artifacts and memorabilia that we’ve got. Plus we had to put together and find the tapes that we needed in order to put on a decent slide show projection to tell the history and culture of African-Americans and their contribution to blues music,” he said. “Blues music was the reason that the federal government designated Beale Street as a historical landmark.”

In the federal bankruptcy court filings by Performa is at least the suggestion that the BSDC’s nonprofit status may be challenged at some point if there isn’t a settlement in Chancery Court.

Once the bankruptcy filing is settled by the court, it will signal the point at which the city of Memphis has direct control of the day-to-day management of the district and Performa along with founder John Elkington make their exit from Beale after 27 years.

Wharton has appointed a task force to make recommendations for the city’s next move once that happens. The group held its first meeting last month.

And what happens to BSDC in the transition was the elephant in the room that no one directly involved in the court case was willing to discuss publicly.

Catron said he agrees with the need for a center. He and city attorney Herman Morris have said both sides are talking about how to resolve the court case. But neither is offering much detail about what progress the talks are making and what are the specific issues to be resolved.

“That’s another story. I don’t want to go into that,” Catron said. “We are negotiating with the city and we are still in court. That’s a whole other ball of wax.”

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