Memphians lining the streets of downtown Memphis to watch the 1954 Thanksgiving Day parade probably gawked at the “space ship” (below) lumbering down Main. But the words “Mars Patrol” emblazoned on the side of the unusual float reassured them that no aliens were in their midst that day, for that was the title of a popular TV show hosted by a young Memphis State College student named Winston Conrad Martindale.
“Wink” Martindale, as he is better known today, was described by a reporter that year as an “atomically energized young man,” and that wasn’t just hype. He worked at three radio shows in his native Jackson, Tennessee, before moving to Memphis to take an announcer job with WHBQ — all this before he was 20. In 1955, he became captain of Mars Patrol, which showcased Flash Gordon films in between interviews with local kiddies.
Two years later, Wink became the popular host of a show called the Top Ten Dance Party (later renamed Talent Party and hosted by George Klein). Along the way, he recorded a handful of hit records, and his album Deck of Cards, a collection of religious and inspirational songs, sold close to a million copies.
Last week, I told you about a cheerful advertising campaign conducted by Johnson & Johnson in the 1940s that was designed to scare the heck out of parents. Either use J & J first-aid products, they warned, or live a lifetime of guilt dealing with your crippled child. Well, here’s another installment in this amazing series. The headline is “HEARTACHES … THAT NEEDN’T HAVE HAPPENED” and I think the copy speaks for itself:
“With heavy hearts, they watch their boy learning to walk again — on crutches.
“Crutches! They were things unthought of when he cut his foot … before germs entered the wound — and infection spread.
“But now! The tap, tap, tap brings heartaches — needless heartaches.
Most Memphians no doubt associate the name Digger O’Dell with the fine plant nursery out on Highway 64. But in the early 1960s, another Digger O’Dell showed up in Memphis, and he made his livelihood by planting something quite different in the ground.
In late September 1961, workers dug a hole in a parking lot at 739 Union Avenue, and Digger hopped down into a coffin-like chamber, where he promised to remain underground for 60 days as a promotional stunt for Bluff City Buick. An 18 x 24-inch plywood air shaft allowed him to receive air and food, and photos show that he carefully stocked “the world’s smallest apartment,” as he called it, with lights, reading glasses, and even packs of cigarettes. Buick customers could peer through a viewer at him, while a colorful banner overhead wondered, “How Long Can He Stay Buried Alive?”
The police decided 13 days was plenty long enough. In early October they ordered construction workers to dig up Digger because the cops wanted to charge him with “non-support” of a wife back home in Atlanta. Even buried underground, he couldn’t escape from her, it seems.
“I can’t even blame my wife too much,” he told reporters as he clambered out of the hole. “She just can’t help being money hungry.” No word on how much dough, if any, Digger earned for his underground stay.
Memphians who remember this stunt used to go to Digger O’Dell’s nursery all the time and ask if it was the same fellow, the nursery owner once told me. But that Digger — real name: Kenneth — retired years ago and moved to Kansas. The whereabouts (or more likely after all these years, the gravesite) of the Digger O’Dell who liked to be buried alive? I just can’t tell you.
PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES
Johnson & Johnson has manufactured first-aid and medical supplies for more than a century. Are their bandages, tape, and cotton swabs really that much better than anyone else’s? Hmmm, probably not. So in the 1940s, the company embarked on one of the most astonishing advertising campaigns I’ve ever seen. Employing a series of stark magazine ads — with such morbid headlines as “Never to Dance Again,” “Tragedy,” and “Loneliness” — they warned parents that using first-aid products from other companies would leave their children crippled, maimed, even dead. Oh, they laid on the guilt pretty thick.
I first noticed these ads while thumbing through a 1941 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine. A full-page advertisement carried the cheery headline, “WHAT’S FATHER BRINGING HOME TONIGHT?” And a close look at the photo revealed that Father, with a downcast face, was walking to the front door with a pair of brand-new CRUTCHES under his arm. Now why would Father be bringing home crutches? Let the rest of the ad tell the whole grim story:
Nobody who dined at Mario’s Pizza Palace ever forgot it. The stone cottage at 3836 Park Avenue was sheathed in handmade signs, urging patrons to “Protect Your Health Now!” and “Eat Well and Forget Di-Gel!” Diners crammed themselves into two little front rooms and munched on baked pizza and ravioli, sipped wine from mayonnaise jars, and were serenaded — in Italian, no less — by the feisty owner himself, Mario DePietro.
So many stories were told about (and by) Mario that it’s hard to sort them out: He won the indoor bicycle races at Madison Square Garden in the 1920s. He personally delivered an airplane-shaped chicken (huh?) to Charles Lindbergh after his transatlantic flight. He — and he alone — brought pizza to America from his native Naples, Italy (and for years displayed the battered tub he carried on his head as he walked the streets of New York peddling them).
“The planes of his face are hard and clean-hewn as are those on a freshly minted coin. It is the face of a Roman emperor — harsh and imperious … his body was that of a master gladiator, the neck falling sheerly into massive shoulders.”
No, that is not a description of ME, but thank you for thinking so. Instead, Commercial Appeal sports editor Walter Stewart was writing in 1958 about Gaylon Smith, widely regarded as the greatest athlete in the history of Rhodes College. And it may come as a surprise to some readers, but Rhodes — previously known as Southwestern — has fielded some mighty fine football teams over the years.
Raised near Beebe, Arkansas (a town so dinky that another writer observed “an automobile can’t go through it”), Smith was wooed by schools throughout the region. He eventually picked Southwestern, and from 1935 to 1939, the “Bull from Beebe” stunned the crowds with his astonishing feats in baseball, basketball, and track. But it was as an unstoppable running back with the Lynxcats that he caught the attention of sportswriters across the South. The coach at the University of Alabama, of all places, even commented, “If I had been able to use him as a fullback, I wouldn’t have lost a game.”
Anyone familiar with the 1932 cult-classic movie Freaks has seen members of the Doll Family — a family of “little people” (two brothers and two sisters) who performed in films and circuses for more than half a century. Grace, Harry, Daisy, and Tiny adopted the stage name Doll, but their real last name was Schneider, and they were born in Germany and then brought to America at an early age.
And why am I telling you this? Because I stumbled upon a 1936 Memphis Press-Scimitar article that discussed the Dolls’ “foster parents” — who just happened to live in Memphis, in a very unusual house on Poplar. The article was written by Eldon Roark for his popular “Strolling” column, and here’s what he had to say. The headline was “Business Good With Midgets”:
“If you want to know how business conditions are, just ask any sideshow midgets. They have a most reliable barometer. And if you don’t know any midgets to ask, then see Mr. and Mrs. A.E. Willis, 2599 Poplar. They are the “foster parents” of the famous Doll family of midgets, now on tour with the Ringling Circus, and they get regular reports from them. There are four in the midget family — Daisy, Grace, Tiny, and Harry. Professionally they go by the name of Doll, but their real name is Schneider. They are from Germany.
In a December 1963 issue of The Commercial Appeal, Goldsmith’s actually ran this ad.
“Look Who’s Here for Toyland Opening!” shouted the headline. “Those Two Lovable, Laughable Clowns Bo Bo and Jo Jo.”
I’m sorry, but these guys don’t look lovable OR laughable. Why didn’t the store run their actual photos? Instead, we have DRAWINGS of hideous creatures who would give any kid nightmares.
“Come and give the young folk the time of their life,” continues the ad, “and reserve a good slice of fun for yourself, too! BoBo and JoJo, those two lovable, laughable clowns, are back . . . getting into mischief and having a grand time in Goldsmith’s Toyland, Fifth Floor.”
Uh, thanks but no thanks, Goldsmith’s. I think I’ll just stay home, and hide under the bed, where BoBo and JoJo can’t ever, ever find me.
Roaming through the fourth floor of the Lauderdale Library last night, I came across several bound volumes of a now-defunct magazine called Night & Day. As I flipped through the yellowing pages of the July 1953 issue, my one good eye was caught by a story about a fellow named Max Palmer, who became known as the Clarksdale Giant, among other monikers.
The Night & Day story was short, so I’ll just quote it here: “Max Palmer was a normal-sized Clarksdale, Mississippi, boy until he was 14. ‘Then something went haywire,’ he says. Max stopped growing upward when he hit 8′6″ at age 19, but continued to add weight, to the tune of 450 pounds. He wears a size 10 hat, size 64 suit, size 20 shoe on his right foot, size 21 shoe on his left. He has a 22-inch neck, 50-inch chest, 49-inch waist, and 19-inch hands. At 25, he makes his size work for him in the movies. The man with Max [the photo I’ve scanned below] is a healthy 6″2″. Eat your Wheaties every day.”
Take a close look at this rather fuzzy image. It’s from an old postcard archived in the Lauderdale Library, and it shows just what you think it shows: A gentleman in long pants, jacket, and cap is WALKING down the middle of the Mississippi River. The photo was taken just as he passed Arkansas City, Arkansas, sometime in January 1907. And though it’s hard to tell from the blurry old photo, he accomplished this seemingly impossible task by strapping six-foot “water shoes” — basically little canoes — to his feet. And no, this wasn’t one of the Lauderdales, though my Uncle Lance was known for his decidedly eccentric behavior after imbibing a bit too much moonshine. This fellow’s name was Charles Oldrieve.
Oldrieve lived in Massachusetts. For reasons that were never made clear — not to me, anyway — he accepted a $5,000 wager (an enormous sum in those days) to “walk” the Mississippi River, all the way from Cincinnati to New Orleans, a distance of more than 800 miles. A former circus performer, he experimented with various devices for five years, and finally came up with his cedar “water shoes.”
I wonder what it is about Memphis that makes our city such a magnet for colorful characters? One of the most intriguing gentlemen in American history wasn’t born here, but he dwelled here for several years in the 1920s, met his wife here and married her at the old Peabody Hotel, and today lies buried in Forest Hill Cemetery.
His name was Dr. John R. Brinkley, and he gained fame around the world as the “Goat Gland Doctor.” He’s also the subject of an amazing book by Pope Brock called Charlatan, subtitled “America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, The Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam.”
Born in Kansas in 1888, Brinkley earned various medical degrees from quack establishments and set up practice in the little town of Milford, Kansas. One day a farmer visited him to complain about a condition that today we might call erectile disfunction. The good doctor wanted to sell him some worthless potions, but the farmer was skeptical. Looking out the window towards a nearby farmyard, he said, “Too bad I don’t have billy-goat nuts.”