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.
The restaurant at 3135 Poplar, across from East High School, didn't always look that way. In fact, a more traditional eatery called Friedel's Restaurant opened there in 1940. In the 1950s, the building housed The Old Master Says restaurant, topped with a giant plaster head of the owner, John George Morris (apparently this building was a magnet for giant heads). At any rate, in the late 1950s, Dobbs Houses, which was already operating a number of smaller, diner-type joints around town, purchased the site and converted the building into a full-scale steak restaurant.
But in 1959, they transformed the building into the Luau, and Memphians had never seen anything like it. Diners walked past a 12-foot-tall concrete head by the entrance, and then entered a lush tropical paradise, with tables sheltered by palm leaves and palmetto fronds. The Memphis Room at the main library has an old Luau menu in its collection, which lists some rather unusual fare. This was almost certainly the only eatery in town where diners could enjoy barbecued suckling pig ("cooked whole with a smile on his face and a lei of carved vegetables around his neck"). Come on, now. Do you really think it was a smile? There was also Lobster Cantonese, Susu Crab Curry, and Buttered Euphrates Waferettes. For dessert, you could gulp down coconut ice cream, watermelon sherbet, or something called Huk-Al-Pie ("a sorcerer's blend of dark chocolate and rum").
The Luau was extremely popular, as you might imagine, and Dobbs Houses eventually opened similar establishments in Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Dallas, Miami, Orlando, and Lexington. But the novelty eventually wore off, I suppose, and it closed in February 1982. The owners told reporters, "It is simply the end of an era." Last time I looked, the main building was a doctor's office.
But what happened to that giant head, made of concrete sprayed over wire mesh? Several people insisted it had somehow ended up at Rooke Sails, a boat place at Lamar and Prescott. But I couldn't find it there, so I pestered the owners until they put me in touch with Stan Johnson, who owned a swimming pool and boat business on Getwell called Water Sports, and he told me about the last days of the Luau head.
According to Johnson, the head was moved to Tiki Pools on Getwell after the restaurant shut its doors. How it got there I have no idea. But when the pool business also closed in the 1980s, the head remained behind. Not for long. One of Stan's customers was a well-known local musician named Bill Cunningham, who saw the head in the lot one day and bought it. "He told me he had purchased a house for his mother and was going to put it in the backyard," said Johnson, "with a barbecue pit set into the base so the smoke would come out of the ears." That would have been something to see, and I'm sure the neighbors would have loved it.
But it never happened. One day Cunningham brought over a big crane, and workers began to hoist the head onto the back of a flatbed truck. "They put a harness around it and began to lift it vertically, but then it tilted at a 45-degree angle," Johnson told me. "Then we heard the biggest crash, and everybody started running." The big head had snapped in half and crashed down on the truck, shattering into a million pieces.
Today the giant head — and the Luau it guarded — are just memories of Lost Memphis.