by Chris Davis
While looking for information about Kemmons Wilson's Holiday Inn record label—an odd little footnote in pop history spiced up by the fact that Sam Phillips ran it for a while— I stumbled across a digitized copy of Billboard magazine dated October 7, 1967.
An article on page 6 titled "Holiday Inn Sets Table for First Cut" announced that the new label, an extension of Wilson's successful hotel chain, was open for business and seeking new talent. The piece ended with a bit of information about another of Holiday Inn's excursions into the entertainment industry: Dinner theater.
Holiday Inn veep Hugh Jones said the company was launching what would become the largest chain of dinner theaters in the world, and wouldn't rule out the possibility of featuring talent from the new Holiday Inn label. Jones also said that the hotel theaters would initially concentrate on plays under the direction of Eugart Yerian, namesake for the annual award for lifetime achievement in Memphis theater.
I've never known very much about Yerian, aside from his reputation as an actor/director/producer and motorless flight enthusiast. I knew of his involvement with Theatre Memphis but the Holiday Inn dinner theatre project is all new to me so I asked the great Vance Lauderdale if he could fill in the blanks. Here's what he shared.
The main dinner theater in town was The Olde West Dinner Theater, opened in 1967 on Brooks Road. It was such an immediate success that Holiday Inn decided to open their own, tucked behind their world headquarters on Lamar. It wasn’t long, though, before both companies realized Memphis couldn’t support two similar attractions, so they merged into something called United Productions, and even though they kept their separate theatres, they shared actors, props, marketing, etc.
The Old West was located on Brooks at the intersection with Elvis Presley Blvd.
It changed its name to the Candlelight Dinner Theater, and then the Gaslight Dinner Theater, before closing in 1988.
I arrived in Memphis in 1985 and remember the Gaslight Dinner Theater well enough. The rest, however, is uncharted territory and I'd love it if readers could share some memories of Yerian and these establishments. Who's got the scoop?