Bill Kendall: The Man Who Brought Gay Films to Memphis

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by Vincent Astor | photos from the Memphis Public Library Collection
edited by Joan Allison and Chris Reeder-Young

The late William ‘Bill’ Kendall was no stranger to controversy. In the 1960s, he ran the Guild Theatre (now the known as Evergreen Theatre). The Guild had opened in 1927 at 1705 Poplar Avenue as the Ritz Theater. Until the 1950s, it showed mainstream movies and foreign films. In 1955, it changed hands and names, becoming The Guild Theatre. The Guild showed foreign films with little to no problem. But as the grittier and edgier 1960s emerged, so did the films that The Guild presented. By the time Kendall took the theater’s reins, the Guild was specializing in foreign and art films. By the late 1960s, both categories were considered risqué.

Kendall, an unabashedly gay man, became known for fighting the censor board to show edgier movies at The Guild, and at his art film theater, The Studio (Newby’s on the Highland strip occupies the site now). Kendall began two midnight film series, the Underground Cinema 12 and the Lavender Cinema (known to many as the Purple Picture Show) for the most controversial films. The Lavender Cinema was targeted toward gays and marked the first showings of several gay films.

Among other tactics, Kendall was able to dodge the grip of the vice squad by shipping the films elsewhere right after they had screened. In fact, one of his favorite stories to tell was how one night after a screening, the vice squad rushed the theater. He had not had time yet to pack the film off for shipping. Forced to act quickly, Kendall hung the reel out of his upstairs office window. When the cops demanded he turn it over, he politely exclaimed, “It’s not in the building.”

Kendall’s abilities to move forward while dodging censor boards and bigoted law were both significant for gay pride, and important conduits for expanding art and film in Memphis. He was lifelong film fanatic and brought acclaimed, controversial and unusual movies to Memphians. These included titles such as “La Dolce Vita,” “I Spit on Your Grave (1959),” “The Bicycle Thief,” Truffaut’s “Mississippi Mermaid,” “Promises! Promises!,” and as assortment of slapstick, good-time flicks like “Flash Gordon” and “Carry on Nurse.” He also produced a documentary about his experiences and the art-film era titled “Return to the Ritz: A History of Foreign Films in Memphis.” A 1964 story in The Commercial Appeal about the controversial movie, “I Spit on Your Grave,” a French film about a light-skinned black man as the lead looking for revenge, described it as “one of the most hotly contested obscenity cases in Memphis history.” Ironically, the case ended with the Tennessee Supreme Court declaring the state’s 106-year-old obscenity law unconstitutional.

Kendall’s cenotaph at Elmwood Cemetery.

In 1969, Kendall, along with Ric Morgan and others, dared to hold a drag pageant in public at the Guild. Folks in drag, in street clothes and women in flamboyant costumes and makeup (also called ‘Real Girls’) were in attendance although terrified of arrests and possible violence. Because the event was held on Halloween, the only day of the year where men could legally dress as women, there were no arrests. Jimmy “Candace” Cagle won the pageant.

This event was considered a major turning point in Memphis when gay and lesbian people were able to gather, celebrate and connect without fear. The pageant was held under different leaderships and, with a few gaps through the years, it goes on to this day.

In 2019, Memphis film maker Mark Jones wanted to honor the 50-year anniversary of the first pageant with an historic marker. Last year was also the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City. This writer, being a friend of Jones and having experience with historic markers, approached the Shelby County Historical Commission and Theatreworks, the managing body of the Evergreen. There was nothing but enthusiastic support. The procedure went smoothly, the project was funded privately, and the unveiling was held inside the theatre on October 31. Footage, photographs, a program, the trophy, and a plaque of winners exists and much memorabilia was displayed at the marker unveiling. Before his death, Kendall had the documentary reel of the 1969 pageant transferred to VHS, and it was later transferred to DVD. These mementos have spent many years in closets themselves in various places, but are now preserved in Special Collections at the McWhirter Library at the U of M.

The unveiling was filmed by the University of Memphis. Three of those who were present at the pageant (Ric Morgan, John Parrott and Richard Montalvo) attended the unveiling. In attendance were also the sponsors, board members from Theatreworks and OUTMemphis, Dabney Ring representing city/county government and Shelby County Historian Jimmy Rout III. A joint proclamation from the mayors was read. A sense of awe and appreciation pervaded.

Kendall left operating theatres after the company who booked for the Guild ceased booking (and a time trying to run it himself). His later years in Memphis were spent taking tickets at the Plaza Theatre at Poplar and Highland before it closed in 1987. Sometime after, he moved to Atlanta where he died in 2013. The fact that he was a Navy veteran somehow did not get mentioned, and he was buried in an Atlanta potter’s field for indigents.

When word got around to the Memphis community, the tributes started to flow. A fellow Memphis cinephile, newspaper columnist John Beifuss wrote a full story about Kendall’s life in a 2013 issue of The Commercial Appeal. Kendall’s friends staged a tribute in his memory at the Evergreen, and the documentary he had made about his years in the business was shown. So that friends and loved ones would have a place to pay their respects to Kendall, funds were raised for the purchase of a cenotaph. It was placed in Elmwood Cemetery a couple of years ago (on my personal plot). His epitaph reads, “A passionate lover of the movies.” Later the same year, the OUTflix film festival was dedicated to him, and a revised version of the documentary was shown at the festival.

“Any cinephile in Memphis, Tennessee, who saw a movie with subtitles during the ‘60s or ‘70s has one person to thank: Bill Kendall,” said Chris Ellis, a native Memphian and Los Angeles-based actor.

Besides the sponsor names, Kendall’s is the only name that appears on the historic marker dedicated to the Miss Memphis Review, a fitting final tribute to his legacy both in the film and drag communities that continues to inspire.