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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Death of Vance Lauderdale

Posted By on Tue, Sep 1, 2009 at 2:30 PM

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Apparently I have been dead for more than a year, and I didn't even realize it. I admit I've been feeling a bit sluggish lately, and perhaps crankier than usual. But if this is heaven, then it's really not half as nice as I had expected. If anything, I thought I'd at least get a newer car, and perhaps an upgraded computer. You know, a Mac with "Snow Leopard" already on it.

Unless — UH OH — I ended up in "the other place" way down below. If that's the case (and I really can't think why it wouldn't be), then my bleak surroundings make sense. Though it's not quite as hot as what they used to tell us in Sunday School.

What AM I blathering about? Well, one of my many, many readers sent me this clipping from his Columbia University alumni magazine, which tells of the unfortunate demise of another Vance Lauderdale — clearly some rascal who stole my identity and even tried to pass himself off as a doctor. Then look what happened to him.

Let this be a lesson to us all. Or something. I'm not sure what to make of it.

At any rate, rest in peace, Vance.

Monday, August 31, 2009

President William McKinley's 1901 Visit to Memphis

Posted By on Mon, Aug 31, 2009 at 11:03 AM

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I really have no idea how many U.S. presidents have visited Memphis over the years. Somebody I'll have to look through the Lauderdale Mansion guest books and make a list. But I do know that William McKinley paid us a visit here on April 30, 1901, because I found proof of it, in the form of an old stereopticon card, showing him making a speech in Court Square.

Our 25th president had been elected to a second term in office in 1900 and, for reasons that he never made clear to me, decided to embark on a goodwill tour of the country the following year, taking with him five of his cabinet members. The party left Washington, D.C., by train in mid-April and made a looping journey through the sunny Southland. Newspapers reported that the individual railroad cars, "among the handsomest ever constructed in this country," were given names. The president's special coach was the Olympia. Others were Omena, Guina, St. James, Pelion, and Charmion. Just in case anyone asks you.

After a brief stop in Corinth, Mississippi, the train arrived at the Calhoun Street Station (site of today's Central Station), on Tuesday afternoon, April 30th. An artillery squad fired a 21-gun salute, and Company A of the Confederate Veterans (yes, there were plenty of them still alive) formed an honor guard as McKinley and his entourage filed into fancy carriages for the drive to Court Square. The newspapers of the day noted the irony, "as the men in grey with the western sun beaming fiercely on their grey heads and stooped forms marched as a guard to the former leader of the blue and the Grand Army of the Republic." We were still cranky about the way that whole thing turned out, you see.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Joseph Culligan: "The Iron Man of Memphis"

Posted By on Tue, Aug 25, 2009 at 9:09 PM

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For more than half a century, if you wanted ornamental ironwork done for your home in Memphis, you paid a visit to Joseph C. Culligan.

He was apparently quite a character. Born in Ireland in 1889, he served an apprenticeship with blacksmiths and foundries in Liverpool, England, before emigrating to the U.S. in 1915. He moved to Memphis, so I understand, because his sister was already living here, and by the 1920s had established Culligan Iron Works, a thriving business that survived until the mid-1970s.

Culligan became good friends with Holiday Inns founder Kemmons Wilson, and as a result his company wound up forging most of the decorative ironwork — railings, signs, bannisters — for the majority of Holiday Inns around the country, which was a plum contract, let me tell you. He pretty much pioneered the ornamental iron business in this city, crafting ironwork for The Peabody, Methodist Hospital, the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, the old Shelby County Jail, and quite a few private homes here.

I know of a home near Rhodes College that has wrought-iron gates forged by Culligan Iron Works, which feature unusual twists and turns, with the top railing of the gates hammered into a pair of ducks' heads. He was known for creating elaborate and fanciful designs.

For a blacksmith, he led a rather elaborate and fanciful life. He did work for Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley (though he did NOT do the famous gates at Graceland), and in the files of the Special Collections Department at the University of Memphis are several photos of a dapper, tuxedo-clad gentleman dancing the night away at various social affairs around town.

Now I know you might think those are photos of ME, but look closely, and they are indeed Joe Culligan.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Roy Noe — Exercise Guru

Posted By on Fri, Aug 14, 2009 at 3:35 PM

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While puttering around the Lauderdale Library last night, looking for squirreled-away bottles of Kentucky Nip, I came across a very interesting booklet called "Noe's Graduated Exercisers," written by a Memphian by the name of Roy Noe. So I thought I'd tell you about this fellow. That's him at the left. Got a minute?

At the age of 5, Noe tells us in his booklet, "a severe attack of spinal meningitis left me in a delicate condition. In my early youth, a siege of double pneumonia developed into chronic lung trouble. For years I was sickly and weak, spending all I could earn for medicine and doctor bills." Oh, it's a sad story.

While pining away, Noe says he read about a 45-year-old man who regained his health through regular exercise, so he set out to do the same, by purchasing a set of dumbbells. He soon discovered a problem with this approach: "During this period I was a salesman for a large corporation," he relates, "and my carrying these heavy dumbbells around with me created considerable joking and ridicule on the part of the other salesmen and hotel clerks." Well, no wonder. Who carries dumbbells in their luggage?

So Noe came up with his own, more portable, gadget — a pair of wooden handles clamped to a strip of rubber — which he called Noe's Graduated Exerciser. I'm not sure, exactly, what the "graduated" part of the name means. But you grabbed each end and pulled it, and Noe writes that this device, "primitive as it was, proved capable of doing all the things that the other, costlier exercisers failed to do, and more." In fact, in just 16 months, Noe claimed that his weight jumped from a puny 139 pounds to a robust 172, his chest expanded by 8 inches, and his waist size dropped from 31 to 28 inches.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Whirlaway Club Dancer Betty Vansickle

Posted By on Mon, Jun 22, 2009 at 2:43 PM

ec34/1245701496-whirlawayclub-bettyvee.jpg 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:

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tommy Doran — The Armless News Boy

Posted By on Sun, May 31, 2009 at 8:31 PM

f0ee/1243819992-armlessnewsboypostcard.jpg Last night, feeling a rare, unnatural burst of energy (I must tell my physicians about that), I began rooting through some of the 427,000 postcards archived in the Lauderdale Library. And by “archived” I mean dumped in shoe boxes, piled in file cabinets, and wedged under that wobbly leg of the dining-room table. My plan is to arrange them in some fashion, but invariably I find one card that is particularly odd or interesting, and then I get distracted. And before you know it, it’s almost 7 p.m. and time for bed!

But last night I uncovered this card, and you can see why it took my attention away from the others.

The image is a bit fuzzy, but it shows a handsome young man, dressed in a nice suit and dapper hat, holding a pen or pencil in his mouth, and apparently writing on a piece of paper “Thomas F. Doran — Armless News Boy.” And writing it better than I could, even if I used both arms. At the bottom of the card, much worn away, was this faded inscription: “LOST BOTH ARMS JUMPING ON FREIGHT TRAINS WHEN TWELVE YEARS OF AGE.”

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Charles Decker — Mystery Solved!

Posted By on Fri, May 22, 2009 at 9:06 PM

1733/1242787795-charlesdecker2.jpg Yesterday I posted an old photograph of Charles Decker, who billed himself in the 1800s as "The Smallest Person in the World." Here's another one I found recently. Somewhere I had seen a photograph of the little fellow labeled "Memphis" and I wondered if he was from our city.

Well, it only took reader Phoebe Neal a few hours to send me several fascinating old newspaper articles on Decker, which confirmed that he was indeed a Memphian.

Several of the articles (which I have posted below) are lists of famous "society" people staying at various hotels throughout the South. But one is a much longer article from the July 25, 1883, issue of the Galveston Daily News, which tells us quite a bit about Decker:

"Among the notable visitors here is an individual for whom is claimed the distinction of being the smallest human adult in existence. His name is C.R. Decker, and since the death of his illustrious contemporary, General Tom Thumb, he enjoys a clear title as to lilliputian laurels, with only Barnum's manikins, the wild men of Borneo, as possible rivals.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Clarence Saunders' Colors??

Posted By on Thu, May 14, 2009 at 12:32 PM

One of my readers recently sent an interesting query: What were the colors of Clarence Saunders' football uniforms?

Now, if you don't even know what I'm talking about, that hurts my feelings, because I've written many, many times in Memphis magazine about the semi-professional football team that the grocery store magnate fielded here in the 1920s. In fact, as recently as April, I mentioned it AGAIN, when I complained that his decision to turn down an offer to join the NFL was a really, really bad decision.

Here's what I said, in our cover story called "April Fools" (go here if you want to read the whole thing.)

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Lindbergh's Visit to Memphis in 1927

Posted By on Wed, May 6, 2009 at 10:37 AM

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Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 certainly captured the hearts of people around the world. Honors and awards were heaped on the young pilot, and every city in the country wanted to meet "America's Greatest Hero," as newspapers called him. And even though he was an aw-shucks-it-was-nothing kind of fellow (much like myself), the "Lone Eagle" saw that his fame gave him an opportunity to promote the commercial possibilities of flying. So, just weeks after returning from Europe (aboard the Navy cruiser Memphis, by the way), he clambered in his famous plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, and soared across America.

His journey finally brought him to Memphis on October 5, 1927 — the 62nd city on his itinerary, with 14 more to go. Even before he arrived, local businesses hopped on the Lindbergh bandwagon. His photo and name were dropped into all sorts of advertisements for such diverse products as fountain pens, candy, furniture, automobiles, and things like the card shown above, printed above for the Memphis Engraving Company, and now in the Lauderdale Library. (This is a neat little piece. According to the instructions, you stare at the image for 30-40 seconds, and then look at the sky or a blank wall, and a perfect image of Lindbergh will appear. Try it for yourself. It works!)

Copywriters, it seemed, worked overtime to come up with ways (often bizarre) to link his name with products. "Just as Lindbergh won the heart of the world with his daring deed," proclaimed an ad in The Commercial Appeal, "so has White Rose Laundry won the approval of all Memphis with their scientific method of dry cleaning." Oh, sure. And A.R. Taylor ran an ad that said, "Two Winners: Charles Lindbergh and Our Genuine Walnut Desks."

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Friday, April 3, 2009

The Sad Story of Harold Harvey — "Chunkie Boy"

Posted By on Fri, Apr 3, 2009 at 1:49 PM

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Not too long ago, I was wandering around Forest Hill Cemetery, as I like to do sometimes, and spotted a rather unusual tombstone. As you can see, it’s a marker for a fellow named Harold Harvey, who was born in 1924 and died in 1947. But what caught my eye was the nickname inscribed on the tombstone: “Chunkie Boy.”

Let me just say right now, that if anyone has given me an unfortunate moniker that I’m blissfully unaware of, please don’t inscribe it on my tombstone for all to see.

But I was intrigued by Mr. Harvey, who died at a rather young age, so I tried to find out more about him. Not much luck, I’m afraid — nothing in the files of the Memphis Room or Special Collections at the University of Memphis. But then I turned up his death certificate, and I learned more than I really wanted to know. He worked as a fireman for the Frisco Railroad, it seems, was married to a woman named Ruth Harvey, and they lived together at 1231 Wellington.

And then, precisely at noon on July 12, 1947, the medical examiner’s report says that Harold Harvey — for reasons that perhaps only he knew — walked into his backyard and shot himself through the head with a pistol. He died one hour later at St. Joseph Hospital.

I suppose we’ll never know why he was called “Chunkie Boy.”

Sorry this is so depressing. Not every story I encounter in Memphis has a funny ending.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Mr. Music — Berl Olswanger

Posted By on Fri, Mar 20, 2009 at 2:18 PM

3d3d/1241751465-berlolswangerad-1963.jpg In the March issue of Memphis magazine, I tell the compelling story of Berl Olswanger, a remarkably talented gentleman — musician, composer, music store owner, teacher, talent agent, and so much more. I’m not going to repeat that entire story here, so don’t get your hopes up. You’ll just have to pick up a copy of our March issue, or read it online. And if you’re not a subscriber, then I don’t want to hear about it.

All I wanted to do here was share a couple of old advertisements I found for Berl Olswanger (taken from 1960s Key magazines, I believe), which focused on his music school and his talent agency. The music school on Union Avenue (promoted above) could teach you either the “traditional” or “easy” way — which I suppose means the traditional way was hard. And just look at all the instruments you could learn, including the “uke” — which was, of course, hepcat jive talk for that super-cool instrument that always attracted the ladies — the ukelele.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Lura Grubb's Visit to Heaven

Posted By on Mon, Mar 9, 2009 at 3:15 PM

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The Reverend Paul Grubb was laid to rest in Memorial Park on Monday afternoon. Brother Grubb, as his many followers and friends called him, had been the pastor of Faith Temple on North Trezevant for more than half a century. He was also married to the Rev. Lula Grubb (left), and the obituary in The Commercial Appeal made no mention of his wife’s remarkable adventure — one that made her a national sensation in the late 1940s.

Lura Grubb died and visited heaven for five hours. Then she came back to earth to tell us all about it.

At the age of 17, while living on a farm in Mississippi, Lura supposedly “died” of meningitis. A doctor, she said, declared her dead. As she later recounted in her very popular book, Living To Tell of Death, she woke up in heaven, surrounded by angels who wore “unimaginably sheer, cobwebby robes.” During her brief visit, Lura says, “A fountain was opened above me, as if by the magic touch of a controlling switch on the arm of God’s throne. Then a warm, soothing oil began to run down over my body, healing me as it flowed.” Although she desperately wanted to stay in heaven, as you might imagine, Lura told believers, “God sent me back as a help and a warning to mankind.” All of her ailments, she claimed, vanished: “As the soothing oil of Heaven reached my internal organs, I had the sensation of a ball — the size of a baseball — uprooting in my abdomen and rolling rapidly upward until it came out of my mouth and disappeared.”

Sister Grubb spent the rest of her life telling this amazing story, and “she became the subject of wonder and firm belief from the pious farm folk.” That I can certainly understand. But what seems really strange is that Lura apparently visited stores across the country looking for the same material worn by the angels. “I’ve searched the stock of the hundred largest department stores and fabric centers, from New York to Los Angeles,” she told one newspaper reporter, “and have not yet found material to compare to the angel-spun robes of the sainted throng.” Why on earth would she think she could find such heavenly things — on earth?

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ernestine Lomax and Her Tiny Toy Piano

Posted By on Wed, Feb 25, 2009 at 3:26 PM

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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).

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

The WHBQties - Wow!

Posted By on Sun, Feb 1, 2009 at 9:05 PM

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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.

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Friday, January 9, 2009

Fat Ladies Anonymous

Posted By on Fri, Jan 9, 2009 at 9:47 PM

68bf/1241751060-helenputnam.png In these enlightened times, it would be hard to imagine anyone calling a group “Fat Ladies Anonymous” — but that was indeed the name of a women’s club that formed here back in 1953.

The founder was a woman named Helen Putnam (left), and yes, she was rather large. Newspaper stories about her organization, which employed such oh-so-clever headlines as “Women’s Group Here Carries Plenty of Weight” and “Club Gets Fatter,” said that Helen weighed 350 pounds and organized a club of other women like herself to help each other lose weight. “Being overweight is an emotional problem like alcoholism,” she told reporters. “Sometimes you need someone to talk to when you’re about to eat what you know you shouldn’t.”

So Fat Girls (later Ladies) Anonymous was born, though I can’t really explain the “anonymous” part of their name, since the members made no attempt to conceal their identities. The newspapers listed their names, ran their photos, and even published their addresses. In case you’re curious, some of the other “girls” who were original members included Mrs. J.F. Martin of 255 Merton, Mrs. W.H. Rouse of 2723 Fizer, and Mrs. Billie Ware of 3334 Tutwiler. Know any of them?

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