On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Since then, Room 306, where he’d spent the previous night, has become a shrine. “There are very few places on Earth where time stopped,” says David Gallo, the scenic designer for The Mountaintop, a play set on the last night of King’s life that opens October 13. Since 1991, the motel has been the National Civil Rights Museum, and the room, virtually untouched, is viewable through glass. For his work on the play, Gallo was allowed inside the room, spending eight hours measuring and photographing every fixture, wall panel, and cigarette burn. He walked us through his work.
Reborn for the Stage
“We started off with a perfect depiction,” Gallo says, “but we had to open it up to the necessities of the theater.” The room got bigger; the beds were reoriented. There were other changes, too: Though nobody’s stayed in Room 306 since 1968, “in the seventies and eighties, you could slip the night guy ten bucks, and he’d unlock the door.” Some visitors left with mementos, and those pieces had to be replicated.
“When I was presenting the set,” Gallo says, “I said to the company, ‘Almost nobody’s ever been in the room.’ But Sam Jackson [who plays King] came up to me during a break and said, ‘I have.’ He had volunteered at the museum a few years ago, and they’d let him go in. He got it. We talked about how amazing it had been to be in this piece of history.”
1. The Chair
The one in the room is a replacement, so Gallo had the original reproduced from photos.
2. The Door
The number on the outside of the front door was replaced sometime after 1968, but Gallo liked the fact that the zero had been mistakenly installed upside down and decided to mimic that in the set.
3. The Beds
When Gallo visited the room, he matched the bedspread’s color with a sample book and photographed its texture. The bed itself was built based on Gallo’s measurements.
4. The Telephone
Research revealed that the framed prints on the wall were later additions to the room. Lacking evidence of what they replaced, Gallo included them on the set anyway. Other items, like the lamps and the phone, were verifiably original.
5. The Curtains
Gallo found that in King’s room, the curtain track had been balky and the drawers stuck. “We deliberately put in some practical problems,” Gallo says, adding, “306 is one of the shabbier rooms—307, where King stayed on previous visits, is much slicker, but it only has one bed, and King didn’t like to be by himself.” (Fellow activist Ralph Abernathy shared the room that night.)
6. The Sink
It would have been too expensive to re-create certain items, like the sink and baseboard heater, and “people tend to collect beautiful antique fixtures, but no one collects the junk,” Gallo says. “We went into condemned apartments and salvage yards and just pulled stuff out. It was all mass-produced, so we were able to find stuff that was right on the money.”
7. The Finale
At the end of the show, the set undergoes an unexpected change, one that required some unusual construction specifications. “Almost every single piece of furniture is bolted down. The props have magnets built into them, and the surfaces are quarter-inch steel plates beneath decorative tops.”