A century of dedication: Malco Theatres kicks off 100th anniversary with humanitarian honor

Cinemas Features

“It is always an honor to be recognized by your peers and we are humbled by the choice of Malco Theatres as this year’s award recipient,” says chairman and chief executive officer Stephen A. Lightman about the circuit’s selection for ShowEast’s annual Salah M. Hassanein Humanitarian Award.

Lightman will accept the honor on behalf of the entire Malco family and company team. As this special FJI tribute will show, in the case of the Memphis, Tennessee-based circuit, they are very much the same. “Malco is unique in that it has been family-owned,” he confirms, “and it is run with our family values and commitment to serve as its backbone. This is expressed not only in bringing quality entertainment to the public, but in raising money for the charities we believe in.”

Lauding Salah M. Hassanein as “a wonderful man and a great asset to the industry,” Lightman says everybody in the Malco family still takes inspiration from their founding father. “We thank our grandfather, M.A. Lightman, Sr., for setting such a wonderful example with his leadership and generosity.” Malco is delighted “to continue our ongoing partnerships with the various organizations and knowing we are doing our part to help those most in need.”

As Robert Sunshine, publisher of Film Journal International and managing director of the annual ShowEast convention, seconds, “Family-owned and operated for nearly 100 years, Malco has not only brought entertainment to the Southern United States, but has given back to the community through their numerous charitable endeavors.”

The roots of Malco Theatres go back to the formation of the Sterling Amusement Company in February 1915 and operation of the Liberty Theater, as M.A. Sr. called the storefront nickelodeon he rented in Sheffield, Alabama. Nine decades later, Malco Theatres operates over 340 screens at 33 locations in five states (Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee), as well as several Bowling and Family Entertainment Centers (see “Incredibowl Development” later on in this special tribute). Gearing up for the birthday celebrations, Malco completed the renovation of the Ridgeway Cinema Grill in Memphis (FJI August 2014) and of the Forest Hill Cinema in Germantown, Tennessee. Additional locations are slated to open in Olive Branch, Missouri; Winchester, Kentucky; Millington and Jackson, Tennessee, along with several unannounced locations in development.

ShowEast organizers further note, “Malco Theatres is an amazing success story where family and community values have always prevailed and where human rights and charitable works have played a key role.” In the early 1960s, during a time of segregation and racial tension in the South, Malco was the first theatre chain in Memphis to introduce integrated seating. The family’s involvement with charitable causes goes back even further. “One of our earliest affiliations begins in 1938,” Lightman elaborates, “when my grandfather founded the Variety Club Tent 20 in Memphis to raise awareness and create support for the local Mother’s Milk Fund. Since then, we have built decades-long relationships with Variety The Children’s Charity, the Will Rogers Institute, Memphis-based ALSAC/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, LeBonheur Children’s Hospital, United Way of the Mid-South, the March of Dimes, Arkansas Children’s Hospital and many, many more.”

With so many worthy initiatives and so much aid needed all around, where does one begin to help? “While our main focus is supporting children’s charities,” Lightman replies, “we try to assist as many organizations as possible through in-kind and personal donations. At the local level, our theatre managers work tirelessly with community nonprofit organizations to cover a wide range of causes, from hosting blood drives to restocking food pantry shelves. We encourage employees to invest in civic organizations and give back wherever possible. Since 2005 alone, Malco has donated over $2.5 million toward these charities, with more on the horizon.” This past summer alone, Malco’s Kids Film Fest of reduced-admission family favorites generated $50,000 for local children’s hospitals.

During the upcoming anniversary year, “we will continue our regular schedule of charitable events.” But there will be “a twist added for this year’s ALSAC/St. Jude campaign,” he promises. “For the past 15 years during the holidays, 35mm movie trailers were formed into handmade bows and sold for one dollar each. After reaching the pinnacle of 100,000 bows sold last year, the program is being ‘retired’ with a special commemorative photo frame and magnet being offered instead.” Even as digital technology dictates change, the human heart continues.

Lightman says, “Visiting with the kids at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and seeing the dollars at work” makes his heart beat with happiness. “Stepping foot on the campus and feeling like you are part of something much bigger is a very rewarding experience.”

Click here for a roundtable with some of Malco's top executives.