Memphis' Bill Kendall: eccentric champion of art cinema

William Kendall

William Kendall

Fearless and flamboyant, the late William Kendall was an outspoken champion of art cinema and gay pride at a time when both concepts were met with suspicion or even hostility by most Memphians.

As manager of the Memphis “art” movie houses of the 1960s and ’70s, Mr. Kendall was the city’s eccentric and proudly contentious patron saint of art, foreign, classic and experimental cinema — or “smut,” as some of his bookings were defined by prosecutors.

Mr. Kendall was indicted on obscenity charges by the Shelby County Grand Jury for exhibiting such frank films as “I, A Woman” (1965) and “Without a Stitch” (1968), both from Sweden, and “I Spit on Your Grave” (1959), a forgotten French film — no relation to the notorious 1978 revenge movie of the same name — about a light-skinned African-American who heads South to investigate the lynching of his brother.

He always beat the rap, as Bogart or Cagney might have said in one of the classic Hollywood movies Mr. Kendall sometimes revived when he was manager of such now defunct movie houses as the Guild Art Theatre (now the Evergreen) on Poplar, the Studio on Highland and the Bristol on Summer.

He enjoyed the spotlight, but by the time he died April 19 of natural causes at age 88 at the Westminster Commons care home in Atlanta, he was more or less alone, although he still corresponded with some faithful and far-flung friends via shakily handwritten letters.

He had no children or surviving close family members, and was essentially indigent. Funeral arrangements were handled by the Fulton County Department of Health and Human Services, and Mr. Kendall was buried May 2 at Lakeside Memorial Gardens in Palmetto, Ga., in a “potter’s field” gravesite marked by a number rather than a name.

News of his death traveled slowly, reaching friends mostly through Facebook postings. Citing privacy rules, Westminster and other agencies refused even to provide death and burial information for days. Friends were frustrated, but perhaps timeliness wasn’t particularly important to Mr. Kendall, who championed such timeless filmmakers as James Whale, Buster Keaton and Orson Welles, as well as Fellini, Bergman, Antonioni and Andy Warhol.

A lifelong film fanatic, he brought acclaimed, controversial and unusual movies to Memphians in the era before VHS, DVD, Netflix and the Internet, when there was almost no way to see “La Dolce Vita” or “The Bicycle Thief” except on a movie screen. He also revived classic slapstick comedies and such camp favorites as “Flash Gordon.”

“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.

“Local cinema historian Vincent Astor said Mr. Kendall was “a dedicated film fan, to the point of spending holidays in Europe inside movie theaters.”

Also, “he was unafraid to be gay and frank about it, and was a pioneer in the local GLBT movement,” Astor said. “His contribution was topical films, glitter, sequins and a safe space for self-expression at the Guild theater.”

Born in Memphis, William Wilkins Kendall was a graduate of Memphis Technical High School. He attended Southwestern College (now Rhodes) and was a veteran of World War II. 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.”

He often battled the infamous Memphis Board of Review, which banned or restricted many of the movies he brought to town, including Truffaut’s “Mississippi Mermaid” (1969) and “Promises! Promises!” (1963) with Jayne Mansfield.

A 1964 story in The Commercial Appeal about the “I Spit on Your Grave” controversy described it as “one of the most hotly contested obscenity cases in Memphis history.” The case ended with the Tennessee Supreme Court declaring the state’s 106-year-old obscenity law unconstitutional.

Ellis said Mr. Kendall might have been amused by his final resting place. “Mozart was buried in a potter’s field in an unmarked grave, and that’s good enough for me. I hope it’s good enough for Uncle Bill.”

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Comments » 1

Mary writes:

I remember Mr. Kendall from the Guild. I was grateful that my friends and I were able to see films there that we could not have seen otherwise. I hope he had some much-deserved very enjoyable years before his death.

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