Just look at this photo. Nine women in starched white uniforms face the camera. Dimly visible behind them are elaborate lighting fixtures, marble walls, and ornate plaster moldings and other ornamentation. Nurses at an old hospital, perhaps? Waitresses at a fancy hotel?
Nope. Meet the elevator operators of the brand-new Sterick Building.
When the Sterick opened at Third and Madison in 1930, no detail, it seemed, was spared from the $2.5 million landmark. The exteriors of the lower floors gleamed with Minnesota granite and Indiana limestone; upper stories were carved “artificial stone” capped with a green tile roof. Inside, the main lobby “rivaled the beauty of a Moorish castle,” said the newspapers, and a cluster of chandeliers cost more than $1,000 each.
The boundary between East Memphis and Midtown has always been rather vague. Some Memphians insist that East Parkway serves as the border between the two neighborhoods; others say it’s Highland — which these days is still many miles west of the development that you might call “East Memphis” today.
Heck, you might as well consider the I-240 loop as the boundary, while you’re at it.
But in the 1940s, a gas station could be called the East Memphis Motor Company, and no one questioned the location — even though it stood right in the heart of today’s Midtown, at the northeast corner of Cooper and Madison, today’s Overton Square.
Last week, I told you about a cheerful advertising campaign conducted by Johnson & Johnson in the 1940s that was designed to scare the heck out of parents. Either use J & J first-aid products, they warned, or live a lifetime of guilt dealing with your crippled child. Well, here’s another installment in this amazing series. The headline is “HEARTACHES … THAT NEEDN’T HAVE HAPPENED” and I think the copy speaks for itself:
“With heavy hearts, they watch their boy learning to walk again — on crutches.
“Crutches! They were things unthought of when he cut his foot … before germs entered the wound — and infection spread.
“But now! The tap, tap, tap brings heartaches — needless heartaches.
Most Memphians no doubt associate the name Digger O’Dell with the fine plant nursery out on Highway 64. But in the early 1960s, another Digger O’Dell showed up in Memphis, and he made his livelihood by planting something quite different in the ground.
In late September 1961, workers dug a hole in a parking lot at 739 Union Avenue, and Digger hopped down into a coffin-like chamber, where he promised to remain underground for 60 days as a promotional stunt for Bluff City Buick. An 18 x 24-inch plywood air shaft allowed him to receive air and food, and photos show that he carefully stocked “the world’s smallest apartment,” as he called it, with lights, reading glasses, and even packs of cigarettes. Buick customers could peer through a viewer at him, while a colorful banner overhead wondered, “How Long Can He Stay Buried Alive?”
The police decided 13 days was plenty long enough. In early October they ordered construction workers to dig up Digger because the cops wanted to charge him with “non-support” of a wife back home in Atlanta. Even buried underground, he couldn’t escape from her, it seems.
“I can’t even blame my wife too much,” he told reporters as he clambered out of the hole. “She just can’t help being money hungry.” No word on how much dough, if any, Digger earned for his underground stay.
Memphians who remember this stunt used to go to Digger O’Dell’s nursery all the time and ask if it was the same fellow, the nursery owner once told me. But that Digger — real name: Kenneth — retired years ago and moved to Kansas. The whereabouts (or more likely after all these years, the gravesite) of the Digger O’Dell who liked to be buried alive? I just can’t tell you.
PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES
Johnson & Johnson has manufactured first-aid and medical supplies for more than a century. Are their bandages, tape, and cotton swabs really that much better than anyone else’s? Hmmm, probably not. So in the 1940s, the company embarked on one of the most astonishing advertising campaigns I’ve ever seen. Employing a series of stark magazine ads — with such morbid headlines as “Never to Dance Again,” “Tragedy,” and “Loneliness” — they warned parents that using first-aid products from other companies would leave their children crippled, maimed, even dead. Oh, they laid on the guilt pretty thick.
I first noticed these ads while thumbing through a 1941 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine. A full-page advertisement carried the cheery headline, “WHAT’S FATHER BRINGING HOME TONIGHT?” And a close look at the photo revealed that Father, with a downcast face, was walking to the front door with a pair of brand-new CRUTCHES under his arm. Now why would Father be bringing home crutches? Let the rest of the ad tell the whole grim story:
Nobody who dined at Mario’s Pizza Palace ever forgot it. The stone cottage at 3836 Park Avenue was sheathed in handmade signs, urging patrons to “Protect Your Health Now!” and “Eat Well and Forget Di-Gel!” Diners crammed themselves into two little front rooms and munched on baked pizza and ravioli, sipped wine from mayonnaise jars, and were serenaded — in Italian, no less — by the feisty owner himself, Mario DePietro.
So many stories were told about (and by) Mario that it’s hard to sort them out: He won the indoor bicycle races at Madison Square Garden in the 1920s. He personally delivered an airplane-shaped chicken (huh?) to Charles Lindbergh after his transatlantic flight. He — and he alone — brought pizza to America from his native Naples, Italy (and for years displayed the battered tub he carried on his head as he walked the streets of New York peddling them).
“The planes of his face are hard and clean-hewn as are those on a freshly minted coin. It is the face of a Roman emperor — harsh and imperious … his body was that of a master gladiator, the neck falling sheerly into massive shoulders.”
No, that is not a description of ME, but thank you for thinking so. Instead, Commercial Appeal sports editor Walter Stewart was writing in 1958 about Gaylon Smith, widely regarded as the greatest athlete in the history of Rhodes College. And it may come as a surprise to some readers, but Rhodes — previously known as Southwestern — has fielded some mighty fine football teams over the years.
Raised near Beebe, Arkansas (a town so dinky that another writer observed “an automobile can’t go through it”), Smith was wooed by schools throughout the region. He eventually picked Southwestern, and from 1935 to 1939, the “Bull from Beebe” stunned the crowds with his astonishing feats in baseball, basketball, and track. But it was as an unstoppable running back with the Lynxcats that he caught the attention of sportswriters across the South. The coach at the University of Alabama, of all places, even commented, “If I had been able to use him as a fullback, I wouldn’t have lost a game.”