When Mrs. Ernestine Lomax told friends, “Sure, I play a little piano,” she meant that literally. The Memphis woman not only played a teeny-tiny toy piano, she became a national sensation by appearing on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour.
For my three or four young readers, perhaps I should explain the nature of this memorable show. From 1948 until 1970, Ted Mack hosted what was one of America’s first “reality” shows — an hour-long production, aired on both radio and television networks, that was essentially a talent showcase. Contestants sang, danced, juggled, whistled, played all sorts of musical instruments, and did just about anything they could to win valuable prizes and college scholarships. If I recall correctly, viewers mailed in ballots, voting for their favorite performers.
I’m sorry to say that I was unable to locate any tapes or recordings of the remarkable appearances of Ernestine Lomax, who appeared on Ted Mack several times in the mid-1950s — playing a cheap little toy piano, not (as you might suspect) just a miniature version of a real one. The story goes that Ernestine gave her daughter a “Ring-A-Round-A-Rosy” brand toy piano some 15 years before. When the little girl grew tired of it — or simply outgrew it — the mother began plinking away at the keys one day and discovered she could bang out some pretty good tunes. And she wasn’t the only one who thought so. A Memphis Press-Scimitar article noted, “Soon she could play any tune after hearing it a few times. She got such tuneful, tinkling music out of that little baby grand piano that it amazed and captivated her audiences.”
I should point out that Ernestine did not actually sit down on a tiny bench to play her tiny piano. That would look silly! Instead, she tucked it in the crook of her left arm and played it with her right hand, just like in the photo above (that kid is another Ted Mack contestant).
Now that the weather is nice, it’s time to get outside and do some exploring. I’m not talking about ME; I’m saying that’s something YOU should do. And there’s no better (or nicer) place to start than by crawling underneath all those lovely magnolia trees in Chickasaw Gardens.
What are we — I mean, you — looking for around all those trees? Remnants of the little copper plaques stuck in the ground that identified the various people who were included in the Magnolia Tribute Circle. And when the Chickasaw Gardens security patrol asks what the heckfire you are doing, just tell them Vance sent you. They will laugh and laugh as they haul you off to jail.
Seriously, though: All those grand magnolias were planted in the 1930s around Chickasaw Gardens Lake, and the adjacent roads, once a part of Clarence Saunders’ famed Pink Palace estate. In 1931, Mrs. E.G. Willingham, chairman of the City Beautiful Commission, came up with the idea for the Magnolia Tribute Circle. Each year, four or five trees would be dedicated to prominent Memphians whose names were submitted to a secret committee who “selects those deemed worthy,” according to an article in The Commercial Appeal. This was a tough crowd, it seems. No selections were made in 1939 “because the committee felt nominees did not meet the requirements of outstanding public and community service without remuneration.” No doubt this explains why there is no marker devoted to the Lauderdales. An outrage, to be sure. But those who did meet such high standards over the years included Commercial Appeal editor J.P. Mooney, Temple Israel Rabbi Harry Ettelson, civic leader Mrs. Brinkley Snowden, philanthropist Abe Goodman, and Mrs. E.G. Willingman herself — “done as a surprise to her, and over her protests,” according to one newspaper story. Oh sure, I bet.
One of the Mid-South’s largest manufacturers opened here in 1936, moving into a massive factory in North Memphis vacated by a wood-products company, and greatly expanding it. Over time, Firestone Tire & Rubber Company’s huge, ultra-modern facility would cover almost 40 acres, and its soaring white smokestack was visible for miles.
Run by Raymond Firestone, the son of company founder Harvey Firestone, the Memphis plant served more than 25,000 tire dealers in a marketing region that stretched from Key West to southern Illinois. During World War II, the plant even produced rubber life rafts, gas masks, and raincoats for servicemen.
By the late 1960s, Firestone was rolling out more than 20,000 car and truck tires a day. On July 1, 1963, the company celebrated a remarkable milestone — the production of its 100 millionth tire in Memphis. That’s right: ONE HUNDRED MILLION TIRES. Beginning with just a few hundred employees, Firestone had grown into the biggest industrial employer here, with a work force exceeding 3,000. The Memphis plant, in fact, was the largest tire manufacturer in the company’s entire worldwide operation.
Of all of our city’s parks, downtown’s Court Square probably seems the unlikeliest place for anybody to die by drowning. After all, it’s blocks away from the Mississippi River, and the square’s historic fountain is too shallow to be a hazard. Besides, there’s a cast-iron fence around the entire basin.
But when the massive fountain was unveiled back in 1876, topped with the statue of Hebe, that octagonal basin was actually a concrete moat more than six feet deep, often stocked with catfish, turtles, and — if you can believe some accounts — a couple of alligators. And there was no fence around it. If anybody thought the showpiece of Court Square was a hazard, they never worried about it until the afternoon of August 26, 1884.
That day, 10-year-old Claude Pugh, described as “a newsboy and small for his age,” was sitting on the stone rim of the fountain, playing with a toy boat in the water. He leaned too far over and tumbled in, and since the bottom of the fountain was sloped, and slippery from algae, he couldn’t regain his footing.
Back in September, I talked about a visit to Shelby Farms, where I investigated a corner of the park that contains several mysteries: an ancient gravestone, the remains of an old cemetery, a tumbledown barn or stable, and even a pair of wrecked cars. Since then, several readers have suggested that other oddities exist in that area, so I hopped in my Daimler-Benz and decided to make another exploration.
After traipsing back and forth over the entire northeast corner of the park, this is what I discovered. First of all, stretching northward from Walnut Grove, about 100 yards west of Germantown Parkway, is an almost-overgrown stretch of asphalt that was once a driveway leading to a 1930s house on the property that everyone calls the “ranger’s house.” There was no park ranger when this house was occupied, however; it was actually the residence of a county agricultural agent, back when the park was the Shelby County Penal Farm.
The house was demolished years ago, but if you look closely, you can find some concrete walls that were apparently part of the basement, lots of bricks, and even some cast-iron pipes. That’s all that remains of the house. Nearby are plants that you normally wouldn’t find growing in the wild: rows of daffodils, yucca plants, and even a huge (but quite dead) prickly-pear cactus — apparently all that is left of a garden.
The driveway stops just past where the old house once stood, but if you keep following a trail into the woods (as I did), you eventually come to the ruins of the barn I discovered back in September. It’s much the worse for wear, but still standing, and if you follow the path a bit farther, you eventually come to the mysterious gravestone propped against the base of an ancient tree, inscribed with the birth and death dates of Robert and Mary Mann. As I said back in September, I don’t think anyone is actually buried here; for reasons we may never know, this fine grave marker was moved to this place. The stone was cracked when I first found it, and it’s now barely held together with a rusty metal brace bolted to the back.
I did make a new discovery this time: About 20 yards west of this mysterious marker is the base of another tombstone, almost overgrown with weeds. But I found no traces of open graves or brick-lined vaults, which some readers say they found in the area years ago. If they are still there, they are so overgrown (or filled in) that I couldn’t see them (and boy, I walked all over that area).
I should mention that I’ve done some other research as well, but came up empty-handed. A three-volume book on Shelby County cemeteries (which even includes solitary burials here and there in the countryside) does not include any mention of the Mann gravestone. And a search of Shelby County death records (online through the Shelby County Assessor’s Office) has no listing for Robert or Mary Mann in the late 1800s.
So it comes to this: My several visits to Shelby Farms have revealed just about all the physical clues that exist. But they have, unfortunately, brought me no closer to the basic question that was asked so many months ago: Who were Robert and Mary Mann, and why were they buried in such a lonely spot?
Where, oh where, is Debbie Haggard today, I wonder?
Years ago, when I was weary of wandering the lonely halls of the Lauderdale Mansion, I cheered myself up by fiddling with the broken aerial on our only working television, and tuning in to the coolest show in town, namely Talent Party, hosted by longtime disk jockey and tv/radio personality George Klein. But I didn’t stare at the TV to watch George, or even to see (and hear) some of the newest bands in town.
Nope, it was to gape at the gorgeous go-go dancers they called the WHBQties. They were called that since the show was aired on WHBQ Channel 13, you see.
The half-hour program premiered in 1964, and many years ago, Klein told me that he got the idea for the dancers from the old Shindig television series. It was a simple enough concept: Pretty go-go dancers in miniskirts and boots — recruited from local high schools — would dance with the local bands showcased on each program.