Hidden Memphis: A step back in time at The Belle Venue

The Belle Venue is a unique piece of Hickory Hill's history that's still serving Memphians from across the city.

Built to mimic the steamboats that traveled the Mississippi River in the late-1800s, the venue is both a history lesson and the ultimate party location. Since it first opened its doors in 1972, the Belle Venue has hosted hundreds of parties, proms, weddings, family reunions, corporate events, conferences and other special occasions.

Artifacts, memorabilia and historic objects line the venue's halls and accent its rooms, giving it a bit of a museum feel. Next to many of the artifacts are plaques with details of their history.

“That's why a lot of people like it. It is vintage,” said Jammie Johnson, who's co-owned the venue with her husband since 2011. “People use it [as] a historic museum kind of thing because it does look like its Downtown. If you see the picture, you'll think it's Downtown.”

But even folks who aren't history buffs love the elegance and careful detail of the space.

There are fine, imported woods, antique chandeliers, luxurious carpets and shining, polished brass. The ceiling, tables and chairs are handcrafted.

Every detail, down to the sconces and other fixtures, replicate steamboats of the late-1800s.

A central focus of the design is a replica paddle wheel made from red oak. It's 9-feet in diameter and turns actual water. Downstairs is the venue's helm, a ships steering wheel. Murals in the grand hall complete the allusion of a floating palace heading slowly down the river on a balmy summer evening. 

Melanie Anderson has attended a few events at the venue. Her cousin was married there 10 years ago, and she chaperoned a prom once.

“People say it's spooky,” said Anderson. “Everything feels so old. There's so much history. It makes you feel like you're on the Titanic or something, but that is what makes it cool. There's no other place in town quite like it.”

The Belle Venue was designed to mimic a steamboat from the late-1800s. It opened in 1972. (A.J. Dugger III)

A Brewery Builds a Boat

The Belle Venue originally opened as The Schlitz Belle. Its grand opening in October 1972 was billed as a 'maiden voyage' for the invitation-only crowd of 500 people.

The venue, located at 5241 East Raines Road, was built onto the side of the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company's brewing facility. The venue was designed by Milwaukee-based designer H. Russell Zimmerman, who spent two years researching stern-wheel paddle boats.

The completed project cost half a million dollars.

As the brewery changed hands, the name of the venue also changed. It's been the Schlitz Belle, Stroh's Belle and Coors Belle, before its most recent rebranding as The Belle Venue. Inside, the space itself has seen few alterations since 1972.

“This room holds up to 250 [people]," said Johnson of the grand ballroom. "We keep it around 240 because of the room space and mobility, and you can have a wedding up to 220 and still have your aisle space." 

“Some people have baby showers that use the whole room,” she added. 

The venue also offers the Texas Deck, which can hold 65 guests.

Fletcher Williams has lived in Hickory Hill for 40 years and is proud that the Belle Venue is part of the neighborhood.

“We’ve got something no one else has," he said. "I’ve had friends want to put on events and they’d first ask me what is available Downtown. But I correct them and say we’ve got something amazing that Downtown doesn’t offer right here in Hickory Hill.”
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Read more articles by A. J. Dugger III.

A.J. Dugger III is an award-winning journalist and native Memphian who joined High Ground as lead writer for its signature series, On the Ground, in August 2019. Previously, he wrote for numerous publications in West Tennessee and authored two books, “Southern Terror” and “The Dealers: Then and Now.” He has also appeared as a guest expert on the true-crime series, “For My Man.” For more information, visit ajdugger.net. (Photo by April Stilwell)