The Fairgrounds Casino was built by a fellow named Lynn Welcher in 1930 for $100,000 — an enormous sum in those days. The high cost came from innovative features like a teak and rosewood floor mounted on felt, which gave it the perfect "bounce" for dancing, and a remote-controlled $15,000 lighting system that flashed as many as 96 colored spotlights off the spinning ball. The lights were operated by a keyboard from the elevated orchestra stand.
Louis Armstrong, Kay Starr, the Alabama Crimsons, Ted Weems, and other big names performed here, which hosted public dances every Friday and Saturday night. The Casino thrived for two decades. In the 1950s, when big bands were losing their audiences, it was handed over to the Memphis Park Commission for just $12,000. The new manager, Dick Morton, began a new policy — no alcohol. "We believe there are lots of people of all ages," he told the Memphis Press-Scimitar, "who don't drink but do dance, and would love to have a place where they won't be bumped around by a bunch of drunks."
Although he didn't mention the Lauderdales by name, we knew he was talking about our family.
People gradually lost interest in the old Casino; I don't really know why. The music stopped, and the park commission turned the place into a public basketball arena. Finally, the fire marshall decided the ramshackle structure was a fire hazard. The Showplace of the South, as it was called, was torn down in the summer of 1963.
These vintage postcards (click on each image to enlarge it) show how the place looked in 1933, according to a date scribbled on the back of one of the cards. The hand-coloring on these things is rarely accurate, but gosh-a-mighty just look at that wonderful interior. Whoever called the Fairgrounds Casino "The South's Most Beautiful Ballroom" may have been right.
And I wonder what happened to that giant crystal ball?
Memphis lost two of its "lions" this past weekend. Everybody knows about the contributions of Rendezvous founder Charlie Vergos, but even though his name may not be a household word here, many of us benefited from the contributions of my pal Tom Turner.
Born in 1924 in Atlanta, Tom attended Georgia Tech, served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and then moved to Memphis. He was a division manager of Buckeye Cellulose, but that was just his day job. In his spare time, he was actively involved in an astonishing number of organizations: the Volunteer Center of Memphis, Christian Brothers University, Agricenter International, Blue Shield / Blue Cross, the Rotary Club, the Memphis & Shelby County Airport Authority, LeMoyne-Owen College, MIFA, Goals for Memphis, the Salvation Army — oh, the list goes on and on.
I knew Tom and was proud to call him a friend. He was a true gentleman and scholar in every sense of the word and will be missed by many.
He was laid to rest this morning in Memorial Park. My sincere condolences to his loving family and many friends.
I had just found an interesting old news tidbit on Charlie just a few days ago, and I guess there's no better time to share it.
Lots of people think that The Rendezvous has always been in that exact same location, just across from The Peabody, but that's not true. When Charlie started the place back in the late 1940s, it was originally in a different alley — the one with the unusual name of November 6th Street — a block away. They always say "location, location, location" is the most important thing in the restaurant business, and I guess Charlie just had a thing for alleys. A December 1968 story in KEY magazine told about the move to the new location and included the rather dark and grainy photo that you see here.
Here's the story:
NEW LOCATION FOR CHARLES VERGOS
The changing Memphis skyline has made many firms relocate. When plans were announced to tear down the building above him, Charles Vergos had to move his Rendezvous. He is now open just a block away from his old address in the alley called November 6th Street. His new address is the Downtowner Alley behind the Downtowner Motor Inn, between Monroe and Union. Enter the alley from Union, between 2nd and 3rd Streets, which is between the present Downtowner Building and its new high-rise addition. Charlie has retained much of the captivating atmosphere of the old place with many surprising new features of the new location. Specialty of the house? His nationally famous charcoal ribs, of course.
It would have been interesting, I think, to see the Rendezvous when it was brand-new. The place seems ancient and rather timeless, and I hope it always remains so. But don't go searching for it in the "Downtowner Alley." City leaders renamed the lane Charles Vergos Rendezvous Alley years ago in his honor.
Rest in peace, Mr. Vergos. You were quite a guy.
PHOTO COURTESY KEY MAGAZINE
The Reverend Vernon Lane not only took in those three boys, but converted the attic of the church rectory into a dormitory for more than a dozen others over the next few months. He named their humble abode Gailor Hall, after the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Memphis.
Lane and his wards quickly outgrew the space provided by the Church of the Good Shepherd. In 1940, he took a position with St. James Episcopal Church at Poplar and Claybrook, and moved Gailor Hall — boys and all — into the stunning nineteenth-century mansion at 1055 Poplar shown here (I'm sorry the image is so grainy, but it's all I have at the moment).
"What rats?" I asked them, in all innocence. I told them they were cute little kittens, but it still made them nervous.
And then others griped that the legs of their chairs were poking through the termite-eaten floors, the smell of a natural-gas leak (I've been meaning to put some duct tape over that rusty pipe in the basement) was making everyone whoozy, and when the lights flickered and went out — after a cascade of sparks from the fuse box in the hallway — well, the evening was pretty much shot. They didn't even stay for dessert — a nice platter of Circus Peanuts, served with toothpicks.
Here's a photo taken by my insurance company (click on it if you really want a better view), when those bastards canceled my homeowner's policy and tried to declare the Lauderdale Mansion "a public nuisance." Hmmm, maybe they've got a point. You know, a fresh coat of paint ought to do wonders for the old place. But the vase of flowers on the little table at the right is a nice start, though.
We went back and forth on it, fistfights broke out, beer bottles were thrown, and we finally agreed that oh, what the heck, it MIGHT be the Dobb's House Luau, the restaurant on Poplar across from East High School, though I had my doubts, especially since no one could recall actually seeing a decent photo of the Luau interior. Mainly they just remember the giant head outside by the front door.
Well, I'm not trying to start any trouble here, people, but tonight I was scrutinizing my old copies of KEY magazine with a magnifying glass — doesn't everybody do that? — and found a teeny-tiny photo showing the interior of the Luau, and if you compare the two images you'll see that it is NOT the place I had shown you before.
The image is rather grainy, since the original photo was about the size of a postage stamp, but you should be able to see that the tables, chairs, floor design, and other details don't match. Both places seem to have an arched ceiling, but even the slope of that is different.
Tally, Stein, and Ronnie, by the way, were a trio who performed at the Luau in 1972, but I don't have the time or energy to talk (or type) about that right now.
The caption at the top of the card says it was taken from the roof of the Randolph Building, which stood at the corner of Main and Beale. The postcard artists took some license, I think, when they painted in some of the signs, but certain landmarks stand out. The cluster of buildings in the left foreground is the old Gayoso Hotel. Illuminated signs for many long-gone businesses are dimly visible, especially the one for Brennan's Stag Hotel, which would have stood just a few doors down (if not right next door) to the Gayoso, and Goodman's, its huge sign mounted on the rooftop at the right. I'm not sure what Goodman's was, and yeah, sure I suppose I could look it up, but I don't feel like it.
I'm mainly intrigued by the penciled notation scrawled across the front of the card (this was before you were allowed to write messages on the back, which was reserved for the address). Somebody has written, "Della, Grandma says for you to take good care of Grandpa's face."
Oh gosh, what was wrong with poor Grandpa's face? And why couldn't Grandma take care of it herself? Has she gone off on a vacation, and left the poor man in the care of Della, who might have forgotten to "take care" of his face if not for this postal reminder? And who was this Della, anyway? She sounds very unreliable, if you ask me.
I'll never get to sleep now ...
Wow, that's really saying something, isn't it? But back then, you have to understand that bowling was a sport often undertaken in converted buildings and basements, with poor lighting, no air conditioning, and more inconveniences than a medieval torture chamber. Or so I gather from the glowing press releases about this establishment.
Thank goodness the Southern, built for a whopping $150,000, changed all that. Not only were its 24 gleaming hardwood lanes well-lighted and air-conditioned, it boasted the unheard of luxury of "having no posts to mar the beauty of the alleys." Despite a rather traditional Colonial Revival exterior (as shown on this old matchbook), the interior featured "the latest streamlined effects," including such marvels as spacious dressing rooms for men and women bowlers, a restaurant, a ladies powder room, and a gadget called a "teliscore" for keeping track of the games.
The Southern Bowling Lanes' grand opening took place on August 11, 1941, with "dignitaries of the city, sports world, and other walks of life" singing the "Star Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America." That was just to open the show. These various celebrities — who included the president of the Memphis Bowling League, the president of the American Bowling Congress, and a fellow named Jim Kelly, identified as "the South's oldest bowler" — then dedicated each alley, one at a time (all 24 of them!) with grandiose speeches and ribbon-cuttings.
"A door estimated to cost $75,000 — probably one of the most expensive doors in the world — opens onto a room in one of the most unusual clubs ever formed in Memphis," said the Memphis Press-Scimitar, without bothering to mention that a similar door guarded the main vaults at the Lauderdale Mansion. "Nobody seems to know quite how long the vault has been there. It's been in the building for decades. Its brass still shines, but it looks venerable and expensive."
Oh, please. There was really no mystery to it. The vault was presumably installed when the building was constructed in 1907, since 81 Madison was originally home to the Tennessee Trust Company and later Union Planters Bank. Developer Philip Belz bought the 15-story property in 1958, one of the first steel-frame skyscrapers in the city, and converted it into offices.
The Vault Club, he told reporters, "would offer Memphis businessmen the same sort of fine surroundings in which to dine, relax, and talk business which they might find in New York." Assuming they liked to dine, relax, and talk business while locked away in a big bank vault, that is. Luncheon would be offered during the week, and there would be piano music on weekends, "but it is not envisioned as a place where there will be dancing and partying."
No, obviously not. Mainly because staying more than 10 minutes inside this thing gave people the heebie-jeebies. Or maybe that was just me?
The yellowed snapshot was taken during an excursion to Maywood, and even though it was the middle of June, Mother is wearing her beloved chihuahua-fur coat and stuffing a Hostess Twinkie in her mouth (she gobbled them down by the dozen). And there's Pa, smoking a Pall-Mall, which is what eventually set the house on fire, when he fell asleep — dead drunk, as usual — with a lit cigarette dangling from his tobacco-stained lips.
The picture brings back painful memories, you see, because just a few days later — having squandered what little was left of the family fortune — they abandoned me in Memphis and tried to evade the taxman by escaping to Canada. And there I was, a mere child of 27, left behind in the Mansion, unable to feed myself or even open a can of dogfood for my supper. Luckily, the lady from Social Services found me in time, and ... well, you know the rest.
This photo was the one used by the FBI on their WANTED poster. As blurry as it is, it worked, too. The authorities nabbed Mother and Father just as they were trying to sneak across the border into Nova Scotia, and — oh, I don't want to talk about it anymore.
Wells was a private eye in Memphis in the 1920s and '30s, then tried his hand writing stories about his exploits for True Detective Mysteries, Master Detective, and other magazines of the day and became quite a local celebrity. These (below) are just some of the many "true-crime" publications that contained his stories.
Don't miss it! Southern Routes airs on WKNO-TV this Thursday, March 4th, at 7:30 p.m. The show will repeat on Saturday, March 6th, at 9:30 a.m. and again on Sunday, March 7th, at 7:30 a.m.
Also on the show will be episodes that take viewers to Tennessee's Duck River, a profile of metal-detector guru Sid Witherington, and — a special treat — a segment on local fire dancer Nadia Sofia, who just happened to be featured on the cover of the Memphis Flyer's recent "Hotties" issue. Hot stuff, indeed.
Southern Routes is produced by my pal Kip Cole and co-produced and hosted by my good friend (and fellow historian/explorer) Bonnie Kourvelas, and they do one heckuva job, if I do say so myself.
Why, just keeping me sober for each episode is almost a full-time job for them.
Hope you enjoy it.