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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Memories of Front Street Theater

Eons ago when I was probably in the eighth or ninth grade, a good friend (slightly older than I) provided me an opportunity to join her as an usher at Front Street Theater. It was a small venue in the basement of downtown Memphis’ Hotel King Cotton.

We got to dress up and guide theater patrons to their seats. In exchange, we got to take vacant seats in the back, if any were available, or stand and watch live theater – my first exposure. The experience was thrilling. We saw everything from musical comedy to the most serious pieces. I was intrigued, and I felt very special to be there.

The theater was the baby of actor, director and producer George Touliatos. He founded the theater in 1957 and left the project 10 years later. The theater limped along for a few more seasons and then disappeared, some aspects morphing into Playhouse on the Square.

I most remember Barbara Cason, co-founder of Front Street, who played a variety of roles. I have a clear mental picture of her wonderful, campy performance in Auntie Mame. A native Memphian, Cason began her career as a character actress at Front Street and on local television before relocating to New York City in 1967 where she became active in theater both on and off Broadway through 1973. She most notably starred in the original, critically acclaimed production of Noël Coward`s Oh, Coward! in 1972-1973. That’s when she moved to Los Angeles and appeared frequently on television until her death in 1990. She is probably best known for her roles as Cloris Phebus on Carter Country (1977-1979) and as Ruth Shandling on It`s Garry Shandling`s Show (1986-1990).

Until researching this, I did not remember that Cason appeared in a number of tv commercials including a series of ads for Tydibowl toilet bowl cleaner. In those commercials her beautifully expressive face registered surprise after lifting the top of her toilet tank and discovering the well-dressed mini-man in his tiny rowboat, who then waxed eloquent about the wonders of Tydibowl. If you’re around my age, you’re bound to remember the Tydibowl man. I regret that I didn’t realize that was Memphis’ own Barbara Cason.

Other notables gained early experience on the boards at Front Street. Dixie Carter (photo in costune), well known for tv’s Designing Women, is an alum of Front St. who also appeared in films and on stage. Paxton Whitehead also began at Front Street and later appeared in many films and on television in roles on Desperate Housewives and The West Wing.

How lucky we all were to have had Front Street in our lives.


Anonymous said...

Only site on the internet acknowledging Front Street ever existed.
I assumed Memphis State would have preserved photos etc in some kind of archive. Guess not.

Dan Phillips said...

Yes, it's a shame so little of the theatre's history remains. I am Dan Phillips and worked, as a fledgling actor at both venues. Geoorge Touliatos was the first speech major to graduate from what was then Memphis State College. My dad was the fist speech minor. They were both on the debate team. That's how I came to be there and how my life changed when I was introduced to life on the boards. I'm a bit short for time tonight; but I promise to leave a longer remembrance. It's significant for me that this year is the 50th Anniversary of my joining the First Pro theatre in Memphis' modern time. Just a short tidbit- George plays the Grandfather in the film "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants". He plays the tyrannical Greek grandfather. George? Tyrannical? Talk about type-casting. And the brilliant comedienne Barbara Cason (George's fist wife), played the female Police chief in the Dick Van Dyke film vehicle "Cold Turkey". One of my favorite memories of the two was their portrayal of Beatrice and Benedict in Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing". Maybe I'll tell the story of how when the lights came up one night after one of their battle scenes (preceded by a usual off-stage one)in which Barbara was discovered knocked down on stage when George 'accidentally' conked her while striking the bench on which they'd just played the scene. I'm on Facebook, if you'd like to leave me a post. Still in Memphis,

Michael Arian said...

Hey Dan-fellow Memphian here,Michael Arian.I was trying to find dates on when Myra Carter played Birdie in Little Foxes at Front Street and read your post.Front St and George T deserve a great deal of credit as a starting place for many famous and soon to be famous people at the start of their theater lives.You and I included.As A kid I saw King and I and Oklahoma both with Dixie Carter.Also in Oklahoma,Kelly Jean Peters who appeared in Memphis as Jeannie Peters and Leonard Graves the voice of the series of records-Victory at Sea.Later saw The Student Prince with Dixie and a heavily made-up George Hearn.Director Carl Weber,James Tolken,Dana Ivey.Barbara Cason played Ruth in my debut at 12 years old in Wonderful Town with Lynn Osborne as Eileen.Paxton Whitehead and Wallace Androchuck were there at different times and both were early on in the development of off off Broadway's Cafe Chino at the start of Experimental Theater in the 60's.The wonderful Polly Holliday pre Flo days,June Helmers Johnathan Frid from Dark Shadows even the beautiful Rita Gam.In fact The Circuit Playhouse founders owe some part of their knowledge and training to Front St.Memphis had a surprising number of talented singers,actors and dancers plus a great number of scenery,lighting and costume designers and technicians who came through leaving their mark.