Memphis police are trying to figure out why an unusually big crowd of teenagers gathered at Malco's Paradiso movie theater in East Memphis Saturday night, causing a swarm of police cars to respond and rattling patrons and neighbors.
The incident has prompted Malco to change its policy toward underage teens being dropped off by their parents. They will no longer be allowed in the building.
Police spokesman Karen Rudolph said an initial report that three squad cars responded was wrong. In fact, 23 cars responded, including every available car in three substations, plus special units. She said the crowd in the parking lot numbered at least 500 people between 7 and 10 p.m., when police began closing entrances on Mendenhall, Sanderlin, and Poplar Avenue.
The Paradiso is a something-for-everyone multiplex that shares the parking lots west of Clark Tower with Houston's, Ben and Jerry's, Whole Foods, McAlister's Deli, and other popular businesses. The center is common ground for different ages, races, high schools, and neighborhoods and is especially popular with teenagers. Patrons are accustomed to lines, traffic snarls, and crowds of kids hanging around outside, but Saturday was different.
Rudolph said one possibility is that two horror movies showing that night were sold out, leaving hundreds of teens with nothing to do and time to kill. But Ann Forbis, who was there for a 7 p.m. movie, is skeptical.
"It takes a lot to rattle my cage, but that rattled me big-time," she said. "We could not go out the exit door, the lobby was packed, and there was an ocean of kids outside and cars cruising in the parking lot. They were not in line and were not there to see a movie. If I had been a parent trying to pick up my girls, I would have been mortified."
As she and two friends walked to their car, they saw a group of young men kneeling on the ground and thought that someone was hurt or performing CPR. When they got closer, they saw "six or eight guys were shooting dice."
Rumors began spreading Saturday night and Sunday. Cyndi Blair, who lives in East Memphis, said people on her neighborhood watch have been talking about a "fight club" outbreak. A man leaving the theater broke up a fight between two girls that was being videotaped. He reported that three security guards were "trying in vain" to tell people to disperse. A police report that night says 10 teens were charged with misconduct for fighting.
Jane Williams, an East Memphis resident, said there's a lot of buzz among neighborhood groups.
"We are now being urged to e-mail Mayor Lowery to see if we can get him to make a public statement and take action. What upsets many of us is that incidents like this in the Paradiso and Ben and Jerry's area have gone unreported for at least six weeks. This is dangerous."
Malco spokesman James Tashie said the crowd was drawn by a promotional flyer sent out by a local disc jockey touting the R-rated horror movies Halloween II and Final Destination.
Malco employees are instructed to card young people and deny them a ticket if they are underage, but teens skirt the policy by having someone else buy a ticket for them.
The flyer from "G. Webb & S.O.H.K." touts "Hanging With The Stars Part 2" at Paradiso "08.29.09."
"We were aware of it [the promotional flyer] and beefed up our security but had no idea it was going to bring in such a large number of underage kids," Tashie said. "Parents are dropping kids off and they are not old enough to go to the movie, so they are out there for two or three hours with nowhere to go."
Malco executives have been meeting about the incident for two days. They say they believe the Paradiso is drawing some of the rougher segments of the crowd that went to the Muvico theater downtown in Peabody Place before it closed. "We are going to hit [the situation] with all the firepower we have, because our investment there is so great," Tashie said. "We don't have car break-ins or muggings. The perception is worse than the reality."