I thought I’d share two postcards today, just to show you how confusing it can be for historians when they are trying to find an accurate image of a long-lost Memphis establishment. Or maybe it’s only confusing for me.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the intersection of Summer and White Station was a major gateway to our city, so owners opened quite a variety of attractions there that were designed to appeal to motorists — well, and Memphians, too. Nestled close to that corner were the Skateland roller-skating rink, the original Summer Drive-In (before it moved east and became the Twin, then the Quartet), a handful of small restaurants, and a rather interesting motel called the Crescent Lake Tourist Court.
The owner of the Crescent Lake was a fellow named Frank Ingalls, and he erected a row of handsome cottages around a small crescent-shaped pond. I have two postcards, and each one brags that the Crescent Lake was “recommended by Duncan Hines” and is “one of America’s finest.” The place featured steam heat and 100% air-conditioning, “each cottage with tile bath,” “attached garage with overhead locked doors,” radio and telephone, and Beautyrest mattresses and box springs. What’s more, the Crescent Lake was supposedly just “20 minutes from Main Street” (traveling at 60 mph, I imagine) and there was a restaurant “within two blocks.”
And what a bargain: A single room was just $4, and doubles went for $5 and $6.
Old high school yearbooks can be surprisingly good resources for photos of "Lost Memphis." Case in point: The Dobbs House Luau on Poplar, one of our city's most popular eateries, and a place that has been on my "wish list" of photographs for years. But looking through a 1961 White Station High School Spartan the other day, I came across this photo of the entrance, showing the giant "tiki" head that was a Memphis landmark — and came to an ignominious end. The very phrase that, I fear, will be engraved on my tombstone!
I should explain, first of all, that the Luau was our city's answer to the Polynesian-themed restaurant craze that inexplicably swept across this country in the 1960s. I have no idea what prompted it. Every city had such a place, it seems, featuring exotic interiors with waterfalls and coconuts and lots of bamboo, thatched roofs and palm trees on the outside, and a menu that — well, more about that later. Many of them were also decorated with those giant stone heads like you've seen on Easter Island.
What do you mean, you've never been to Easter Island? Well, surely you've seen pictures of the place, haven't you? If not, stop right here and Google it, and then resume reading. Ready? Okay then. Let's move on.
If you've been paying the slightest bit of attention, you'll know that I've recently written about the (in)famous Whirlaway Club — not just on this blog, but also in the June issue of Memphis magazine. In the magazine's "Ask Vance" column, I focused on two dancers — Betty Vansickle (stage name: Betty V) and Sue Sennett, who got into trouble with the law in the early 1960s by appearing on stage in scandalously skimpy costumes and "bumped and grinded" for customers. I was especially intrigued by Betty's costume (which she probably designed herself), featuring a long white glove stretching down her torso.
Yes, that's her in the photo above. The black lines are crop marks and the "haze" around her was added by the Press-Scimitar so she'd stand out from the dark background; that's where this photo first appeared, in 1966. Sexy, huh?
Well, today I received an email from Betty Vansickle Bendall, who told me that "Betty V" was, in fact, her mother, who is still alive and living in Memphis — though no longer dancing, unfortunately.
Here's what she had to say:
"It is 1956 and Elvis travels to New York to tape The Steve Allen Show. His on-air performance includes 'Hound Dog.' The next day he takes the train from New York to Memphis.
"Somewhere in the area of White Station (on Poplar) the train stops and Elvis gets off alone so he can walk to the Presley family home on Audubon Drive. It is believed the train stopped somewhere between Mendenhall and Colonial Roads.
"This is a special moment in Elvis' life as he had not yet reached the level of fame that prevented him from walking home alone in Memphis. The scene is part of the DVD Elvis 56 and it shows Elvis waving to the train. Photographer Albert Wertheimer captured the moment from the train of Elvis walking on Poplar Avenue (above) in the direction of downtown (perhaps waiting for the train to pass so he could cross over the tracks?).
"In one of Wertheimer's photos, a Town and Country Barber Shop is visible in the background. Do you have any way of locating where the barber shop once stood? Does the building still stand?
"Thank you, Shane McDonough, Lowell, Massachusetts"
Last year, I posted a photograph of a rather strange metal sign (above) that I had discovered dangling by chains from the underside of the Frisco Bridge. Who was S.L. Lipe, I wondered, and why was he memorialized in this unusual fashion?
Well, a reader named Phoebe researched back issues of a publication called "All Aboard," which is the company newsletter for the Springfield Division of the BNSF (Burlington Northern & Santa Fe) Railroad, and in the July 2004 issue she actually turned up an obituary for Scotty L. Lipe. Here's what it says:
In the early 1960s, a new form of entertainment opened all across the country, and Memphis wasn't immune to this crazy fad. Called "trampoline pits," these were essentially big rubber trampolines stretched over rectangular holes in the ground. You paid a quarter (I seem to recall) and bounced and bounced for 10 minutes or so.
They were usually low-rent affairs, set up outside abandoned gas stations and drive-ins. At first, the trampolines were mounted on steel frames above the ground, but to avoid disasters the owners eventually placed the mats over shallow holes surrounded by sand, just like in the pictures here — so somebody wouldn't bounce off the things and break their necks, you see. And that's why they were called trampoline PITS.
Still, there were casualties. Kids would hop and leap and tumble and suddenly bounce off the side of the mat and land smack on their little heads. Schools across this great land were filled with poor little children, their faces battered black and blue, their heads swathed in thick bandages, groaning in agony as they shuffled down the hallway, dragging their broken legs behind them. You'd see them and think "Another senseless trampoline tragedy."
Sometimes a faded photograph, battered postcard, or yellowed newspaper clipping can reveal the most amazing stories. Case in point: a folder I stumbled across one day in the Memphis Room at the main library labeled “Clay Eaters.” Thinking this might be the name of a defunct rock-and-roll band (and admit it: It would make a good name), I found the folder contained a single newspaper article about one of the strangest episodes in our city’s history.
Back in 1934, it seems residents south of DeSoto Park noticed that a portion of the riverbluff near Wisconsin Street was slowly but surely disappearing. Police set up a stillwatch to nab anyone hauling dirt away from city property, but what the cops discovered was something they weren’t expecting.
People were creeping up to the bluff at night and — EATING IT.
The Commercial Appeal reported that men, women, and children were chewing away at the banks “like so many cheese hills” and had already removed more than a ton of clay and dirt.
If you're not a subscriber to Memphis magazine — which should be a Class C felony, or at least a misdemeanor — then you should go right now to the nearest newsstand and pick up a copy of our June issue. Because in it, I tell the dramatic story of the Whirlaway Club, one of our city's most (in)famous nightspots. And I also include some rather risque images of two "exotic dancers" who got the place closed in the 1960s for "aiding and abetting obscene acts."
Now, if that won't get you out of the house to buy that magazine, well, I just don't know what will.
Anyway, space prevented me from including in that column a couple of old magazine advertisements for the Whirlaway Club, so I thought I'd include them here, for your viewing pleasure. Man oh man, you can tell it was one happening place. Why, it stayed open until 4 a.m., which would be — let's see — oh, about 8 hours past my bedtime. The ad at the top is from 1972, and the one below shows the stage and dance floor in 1968. Take a close look at that picture. What's really interesting, to me, is that back in 1968, the Whirlaway Club band was integrated. Well, at least the band was.
Does anybody know who these guys were? Or any of the dancers, for that matter?