Okay, it's an "estate sale," technically. But the point remains the same: There's gonna be a whole lotta selling going on in Nesbit, Mississippi.
Just think about it. This may be your one and only chance to own Jerry Lee Lewis' personal George Foreman Grill. Now, I can't say for sure that the Killer actually owns a George Foreman Grill, or that it will be for sale this Friday, but I can say for a fact — and if you doubt me, try me — if Jerry Lee does own such a device, and it is for sale, and there's somebody out there who thinks they're gonna buy it out from under my nose and steal my plan to launch a Great Meatballs of Fire food truck business, well... somebody's gonna get their ass whupped. That's all.
Now, if we're all clear about Jerry Lee's George Foreman, here's what the Facebook announcement had to say.
"Jerry Lee and Judith Lewis, have decided to sell some of their long time belongings. Furniture, smaller items,kitchenware, personal JLL Memorabillia, and more available
Sale is Friday June 24 8am-6pm and again Saturday 8am-6pm
Some items will be posted to this event page as for sale, but any shipping or handling will be buyers responsibilty.
All items sold on property become the responsibility of the buyer to ship or handle.
Since I have had a lot of personal inquiries into the matter Dad(Jerry Lee) wants everyone to know he is not selling his property or leaving his home. After so many years of traveling the country, furnishing other homes, and then getting said furniture back he and Judith just have to much and would like to let some of it go."
I've got a mini-feature in this week's issue of The Memphis Flyer about artists Robin Salant and Terance Brown who are turning the abandoned building at 82 S. Main into an interactive, multi-story art installation. Instead of repeating that story here, I'll link it as soon as it comes on line. (LINK) But here's the short version.
Salant and Brown want to give the empty building a pulse. More than that, they want that pulse to respond to external stimulus, like an actual human heartbeat.
It's great to watch how projects like "Urban Meridians" and Salant's previous solar-powered work at Sears Crosstown, can capture imaginations and change the way people think about and respond to big, empty spaces. It's also fun going into old buildings before they're revitalized, just to see what's left over from its previous lives.
This Friday night at 8:30 Salant and Brown will flip the switch on "Urban Meridians," and 82 S. Main will start working hard to get your attention by lighting up, throbbing with light, and mysteriously knocking against its own ground floor windows (thanks to industrial fans and ball-pit balls). In the meantime, here are a handful of images from inside one of Main Street's empty containers
The periodic table of elements has four new entries, and one of them bears the name of the Volunteer State. Element 117 was discovered in 2010 by the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR), a collaboration between Russian and American scientists who are trying to create ever-heavier elements. 117 was tentatively named “ununseptium”, but today the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry announced that its official name will henceforth be “Tennessine”. Since the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research discovered two different elements at the same time, the Russian team was allowed to name element 115 “Moscovium”, and the American team, based in Oak Ridge, was given rights to name 117 Tennessine. Its chemical symbol is Ts. The “-ine” suffix indicates it is a part of the group of elements known as halogens.
Like most elements that far down the periodic table, Tennessine is extremely unstable, with a half-life of less than one second. Nevertheless, the JINR researchers believe its existence proves the longstanding theoretical concept of the “island of stability”, a predicted set of superheavy atomic nuclei whose configurations would lead to much longer-lived elements.
The two other elements named today are 113 Nihonium, which was named for Japan where it was discovered, and 118 Oganesson, which was named for its discoverer Yuri Oganessian.
Here’s a delightful video with more information on this late breaking chemistry news.
Memphis looms large in American pop culture history, and your pesky Fly on the Wall likes to keep readers informed when the Bluff City’s notably name-checked in movies, TV shows, comic books and other media. For example, the rooftops of Uptown were showcased in Invincible Iron Man #4, which was originally published last December, but just became available to digital Marvel Unlimited subscribers last week.
Here's the shot: Billionaire industrialist/Golden Avenger Tony Stark was supposed to visit sick kids at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital but, in typical Stark fashion, he forgot about the appointment and tried to bail.
Always the futurist Stark anticipated this craven moment and pre-recorded a video of himself shaming his future self for being such predictable dick. So, of course he goes to St. Jude, brings his Iron Man armor, and has a great time with all the kids. Well, until Dr. Doom shows up and things get weird.
So yeah, the images aren't all the Memphis-y. Even the rooftop conversation with Doc. Doom is pretty generic. Nevertheless, that happened.
Why does there need to be a documentary about the Memphis Country Blues Society, and the Country Blues Festivals of 1967, ‘68, and ‘69? So director Augusta Palmer can get local treasure Jimmy Crosthwait to tell stories like this one about scolding the Rolling Stones, convincing them to play in Memphis for free, and how the whole thing gets screwed up in the end. That's why.
See, the Rolling Stones had recorded Reverend Robert Wilkins song, “Prodigal Son” without giving him credit as a writer. Well, at some point, while organizing the ‘69 festival, [Insect Trust Guitarist] Bill Barth and Chris Wimmer went over to Reverend Wilkins’ house and was able to get in touch with the Rolling Stones from Wilkins’ phone. I think they probably called Stanley Booth who was writing his story on the stones, “Dance with the Devil.” And that’s how they got the number. So, in the end they're talking to Mick Jagger who's apologizing, and wanting to make it all right with the reverend Robert Wilkins. Well, Barth asks, “How would you like to play the ‘69 Memphis Country Blues Festival?” And they said, “Fine." If the city can come up with some plane tickets, and put them up, they’d be more than happy to do that gratis. So then they asked the Reverend Robert Wilkins if he would like to talk to Mick Jagger. And Robert, he says, “No, you tell that boy I'll talk to him in person.”
Money for plane tickets and lodging never materialized so the concert never happened. But even if it had, a Stones appearance would have just been icing on a big, bluesy cake.
The first Memphis Country Blues festival was assembled with almost no money. According to legend it was kickstarted with $50 from Jim Dickinson’s paycheck and a chunk of hashish that ranges from baseball to softball size depending on who’s telling the story.
“I think all the old blues players were paid money, but everybody got paid in red Lebanese hash,” Crosthwait confirms. Barth, he says, wanted to make sure everybody was happy with their compensation.
The festival showcased artists like Slim Harpo, Bukka White, Fred McDowell, Moloch, Johnny Winter, Joe Callicott, Furry Lewis, Albert King and Canned Heat. It attracted huge crowds and was the subject of a 2-hour PBS special hosted by Steve Allen in ‘69.
“Somebody told me [Last Train to Memphis/Sweet Soul Music author] Peter Guralnick and his brother drove in from Philadelphia in a VW bus. That the ‘69 festival really ignited the spark of his love for Memphis music. Robert Gordon shared the clip of Guralnick in my trailer. I didn't shoot that, but hope to interview him.
“I feel like all these people involved in the festival were really seekers,” Palmer says. “Some of that was just following along with the party, of course. It was a very psychedelic time and the tendency is to think that's all just about having a great time and getting really messed up. But I think there was also the sense that they were really seeing the world in a new way and trying to remake the world.”
Palmer tells the story of young white musicians going to older black artists for mentorship. Crosthwait illustrates the point by recalling the 1968 festival, which was held in what is now the Levitt Shell on July 20, 3-months after Martin Luther King was assassinated at the nearby Lorraine Motel.
“We had a complete roster of black and white musicians, and a complete audience of black-and-white people there at the show,” Crosthwait says. Nationally there was division and unrest, but not at the Memphis Country Blues Festival. “I didn't really think about it until until years later. In its own way, that was a very special event, and an interesting unification of black and white participants on both sides of the stage.”
“[The Shell] was a place to create this community that hadn't really existed before,” Palmer says. “It still feels aspirational to have people of all races together celebrating American culture. It happens sometimes, but it doesn't happen all the time.”
If you’re interested in the Memphis Country Blues Society you can read more in this week’s Memphis Flyer cover story. The Levitt Shell has been given another extraordinary (and necessary) facelift. Instead of just cataloging all the fantastic improvements I wanted to present them on the context of an amazing cultural resource that we almost lost more than once. Not to take anything away from the Levitt Foundation — the heroic cavalry of this story. But the Shell’s decline is closely related to a story of shifting cultural attitudes, and we owe a lot to folks who kept it standing when others wanted to turn it into a parking lot.
Pictures or it didn't happen. Isn't that what they say these days? But mobile phones didn't have cameras in 1997. And even if they did have cameras back then, I didn't own a mobile, and wouldn't for another five years. I didn't own a camera either, and the phone I answered that sweaty August morning was attached to the wall of my townhouse in the Greenlaw neighborhood, which was three years away from its rechristening as Uptown. My friend Kelly was calling because she had news she thought I'd want to know.
"PRINCE IS PLAYING A SECRET CONCERT AT THE NEW DAISY TONIGHT OMG!," she said. Well, she didn't say "OMG." Nobody said OMG back then. But that was the gist.
Kelly didn't have details. She didn't know when it would happen, or how much it would cost. She wasn't 100% sure it was even happening, or if Prince was really playing a second show or just hanging out while someone else played. But she was 99% sure something involving Prince was happening, which was good enough for me since he was definitely playing a concert at the Bass Pro Shop formerly known as the Pyramid, and the last time Kelly was 99% sure about something the two of us went to the Peabody Hotel, called the front desk from a pay phone, asked for Tom Waits' room, and Tom answered. So, as far as I was concerned, Prince was absolutely playing the New Daisy at some point in the next 24-hours, and I was going to go stand in front of the theater so I could be the first person in the door. There was only one problem: My mom was in town for a rare visit.
Time for an aside: There will be plenty of tributes in the days and weeks to come, where people attest to the genius of Prince Rodgers Nelson, who changed ideas about music, sex, and masculinity every bit as much David Bowie, and brought race, and sonic segregation to the mix. I'm not going to do that here, because if you're reading this, you already know. But "Sexy Motherfucker," was playing on the jukebox at Wolf's Corner (now American Apparel) the night the 500 lb woman fell down. She'd been having a good time (like the rest of us) and shaking that ass (like the rest of us), and then that ass shook (and cleared) the dance floor. This is that kind of story.
"Go," my mom said, without hesitation or even a hint of mom guilt. She already had a 20-dollar bill rolled up, and was sneaking it in my hand. See, my mom stalked Bob Dylan in New York in the 1960's. She says she wasn't stalking anybody, she just knew all the coffee houses where Dylan hung out to stare at his boots, and sometimes she'd go stare at him. I say "semantics." Either way, when it comes to musically cool moms, she makes Starlord's look like a poser. She grew up in Motown, collected records, and met musicians. She's got stories about Freddy and the Dreamers and introduced me to the Nashville Teens and tons of great garage bands. When other moms were using the TV as a baby sitter, she gave me a stack of Federal singles and a record player and didn't say, "sit still." Now she was giving me Prince — and a little spending money just in case I needed something. "Here you go, honey. Have a good time."
All that remains is the memory of a grin so big it threatened to crack my face. And a similar memory of so many other people wearing the same dopy expression.
And so it came to pass, my wife Charlotte, (who was still my girlfriend Charlotte) and I, left mom at home and headed toward Beale St. where we stood and waited for hours for something that might not happen. We weren't the first to arrive, but we were among the first. We certainly weren't the last, and over the course of the day the crowd outside the Daisy swelled into a mob. Then the mob grew into an impatient crush, pushing at times against the theater doors. It was pretty clear everybody wasn't getting in.
I'd never "camped out" for tickets before. But this was different. It was important. Charlotte and I had both grown up in small towns in the 1980's, without a lot of access to any new music other than what was being played on increasingly corporate radio stations. It's almost impossible to explain to anybody who's grown up with the internet, and instant access to everything, just how fresh the opening guitar lick of "When Doves Cry" sounded, as it squalled through the speakers of my cheap SoundDesign boom box.
Lots of songs have stopped me in my tracks. But only twice in my life has a new song I heard on a top 40 radio station made me stop everything I was doing and give it my full attention. "When Doves Cry," is the least interesting story, but it's the only one I'm telling. I was in my bedroom doing homework when it played on KQ101, a station out of Russellville, KY. The other song was, "Little Red Corvette."
It was late when the line outside the New Daisy finally started moving. I don't remember what time it was, but the sun was down. People who were tired of standing cheered because it was really happening. We were all about to see Prince tear a club to pieces.
Words like "magic" are overused, but there was alchemy involved in what happened next. Miracles were wrought. Wearing shiny lavender jammies Prince owned the stage, running through songs like "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker," "Baby I'm a Star," and "1999." He covered James Brown, Parliament, and the Staples singers. The highlight of the show, however, was when Prince — always the biggest star in the room— introduced his special guest: 80-year-old Stax royalty, Rufus Thomas, who made his supremely groovy appearance in shorts and knee socks. Then the unflappable Purple one proceeded to nerd the hell out, saying he didn't want his time on stage with Rufus to end.
There was conflict too. And drama! Thomas, who was grooving along with the band, didn't seem to be clear as to what was expected from him. When Prince encouraged him to cut loose and freestyle, he balked: "Oh no." There was a back and forth. Something was said about "nursery rhymes," and then, with increasing confidence, the two men started improvising together. I wish I could tell you what was said and sung, but the details have slipped (or were possibly sipped) away. All that remains is the memory of a grin so big it threatened to crack my face. And a similar memory of so many other people wearing the same dopy expression.
So, about "
Caption story: I was not quite 16 when Purple Rain hit movie theaters. That meant I was unable to see an R-rated film without my parents. So I bought a ticket for Meatballs 2 and snuck in. To this day I've still never seen Meatballs 2.
Little Red Corvette." I heard it for the first time on my first ever "parking" date with an older woman (she was 16). Now that sounds like a lie because "Little Red Corvette" is a song about riding around and "parking" with an experienced (ahem) driver. This isn't a teen bragging story though, because nothing happened. Some kissing almost happened, I guess, but before it could really happen I turned up the radio, and said I wanted to listen. To the whole song. In silence. And that's when I learned you're not supposed to ignore your date, especially if she has the drivers license and the car. Cue Floyd Cramer.
I really wasn't going to tell the parking story because it sounds too perfect to be true. But I needed a way to wrap this memory up, and sometimes the universe gives you weird little gifts. Sometimes it's "Little Red Corvette" on a first date. Sometimes you find yourself front and center for something amazing nobody else will ever get to see. Like the night the 500 lb woman fell down while dancing to the jukebox at Wolf's Corner. Or the time Prince and Rufus Thomas got funky together on Beale St.
I've got no pictures, but I swear to God, Wendy, and Lisa too, it happened. You'll just have to believe me, and and the few hundred other people lucky enough to be there.
And that's really all I have to say about that. Goodnight, sweet Prince. Rest in Purple. And if you think about it, say hey to Rufus.
"Now looka-here, here's what you got to do. Do me this personal little favor. Stop by Frank's cut-rate liquor store, and get you a fifth of Old Crow, and go right next door to The Green Beetle, sit down and relax yourself, take plenty of time, and drink that fifth of Old Crow."
These vintage radio spots from the days before liquor-by-the-drink was legal in Memphis, aren't newly discovered. But they're new to me so I thought I'd share.
Both encourage folks to visit a jumping little joint called the Green Beetle, which is still going strong on South Main.
To play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin.
While visiting Memphis in the 1970's musician and record collector Walter Salwitz found an acetate recording labeled, "The Old Crow Boogie" in a thrift store. It only cost a dime so he bought it and took it home but didn't listen to it for years. When he finally gave the disc a spin he was inspired and both recordings are included on Shake That Mess, a 1999 CD released by Salwitz's band the Dynatones.
The radio spot embedded above appeared at the end of "Memphis Women & Fried Chicken."
A second spot, "Green Beetle Lounge," got its own track. And for good reasons too. Apparently the Beetle jumped so hard it could ruin your career as a preacher!
I suppose the Flyer's other Chrises — film editor McCoy and music editor Shaw — will be writing about this in the days and weeks to come. But since FOTW works the local wrestling beat, it seemed appropriate to break the news here. The creative team behindMemphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin'is celebrating the documentary's 5-year anniversary with a March 24th screening at MALCO's Cinema Paradiso that doubles as an official release party for the film's previously unavailable soundtrack. Serious vinyl nerds will want to know that the handsome blood red platter was the first disc cut on Phillips Recording's newly refurbished record lathe. But that's just trivia. The Doug Easley-produced tracks — often introduced with sound bytes from the movie — are all pretty fantastic too.
The record opens with a clip of Superstar Bill Dundee explaining the meaning of heat: "Heat is when they don't like ya." The Superstar's definition transitions perfectly into "Black Knight," a full throttle scorcher by River City Tanlines. It's an excellent start to a disc as offbeat and entertaining as the film that inspired it.
"Black Knight," is also the only track on the entire record that wasn't created expressly for Memphis Heat. What follows is a series of punchy instrumentals that will do the same thing for your ass they do for the film: Make it move.
This is probably my favorite (mostly) original Memphis movie soundtrack since Impala scored Mike McCarthy's Teenage Tupelo. The tracks, recorded by a clutch of Memphis' finest players, have a vintage feel and walk such a fine line between joyous and sleazy they may remind some listeners of the Las Vegas Grind series.
"David Bowie probably could be a talented musician," Dove wrote in a merciless review of the concert. "But his show is not selling music. He has substituted noise for music, freaky stage gimmicks for talent, and covers it all up with volume." The writer had been led to believe The Spiders were, "a ballad group," and was surprised to discover an artist capable of "out-freaking Alice Cooper on stage." His harshest lines, however, were reserved for an opening act identified as Whole Oats:
At the least, Bowie's show can objectively be called better than that of his warm-up group, "Whole Oats", a country rock quartet.
Playing all of their eight numbers in a simple four-four time, the group could not even keep the attention of the crowd which spent much time milling up and down the aisles and tossing several plastic Frisbees.
One of "Whole Oats" final numbers was titled "I'm sorry." It should have been dedicated to the audience.
So, whatever happened to this forgettable straight time-obsessed country rock quartet slammed by critics and ignored by frisbee crazed Memphians? Nothing happened to them. Because the quartet never existed. The detestable act was, in fact, Daryl Hall & John Oates who went on to become the most successful pop duo in history.
"Whole Oats" isn't a typo. Dove didn't get available facts wrong, exactly. Daryl & John were new on the scene and preparing to release their first Atlantic Records LP.
"We'd like to dedicate this song to the audience," said Daryl Hall never.
Before the duo signed with Atlantic they'd also named their partnership "Whole Oats." So, when the label released a promotional single for the forthcoming album,"Whole Oats" is the name the company went with. The group was identified as Daryl Hall & John Oates when their debut album Whole Oatswas released in November, 1972, only two months after the Bowie concert. For the period between the promotional release and the official release, "Whole Oats" it was.
Ladies and gentlemen, Whole Oats!
Memphis was apparently one of H&O's first stops on the way up. Nobody noticed. Even Ron Hall's fantastic concert history Memphis Rocks doesn't clarify the listing, identifying Bowie's opening act only as Whole Oats.
On Jan. 6, 1978 the Sex Pistols, a boy band assembled by Malcolm McLaren to perform punk rock music and look good doing it, played Memphis' Taliesyn Ballroom. It was one of only seven successful stops on the influential band's disastrous U.S. tour. The defunct venue was located at 1447 Union Ave. It has since been torn down and replaced by a Taco Bell that was subsequently torn down and replaced by a different Taco Bell.
As we do every year at this time, Fly on the Wall encourages fans to visit the concert site to enjoy a taco, or a burrito, or an enchirito, and play the following video as loudly as their mobile devices will allow.
You may also want to read Chris Shaw's interview with Peabody Hotel enthusiast, John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten).
No, it's not as exciting as a personal jetpack or as obvious as a flying car, but the astonishing automated future we were promised has to start somewhere. Why not the crapper?
Interrogative: Who needs humans when there are modern miracle robots to help you gas-up, pee, and buy a bag of chips?
Declarative: Me, apparently.
This morning I dropped by the all (sorta) new Quick Fuel station at 4589 Old Lamar Ave., which was celebrating its grand-reopening by handing out free barbecue sandwiches, brats, and dewy cans of ice cold soda pop in Quick Fuel koozies. It was a lovely affair, as gas station grand reopenings go, but to bend an old cliche toward the literal, I'm getting too old for this crap.
No card reader? Or anything else I can recognize? "Affirmative, Davis. I read you."
According to the lady handing out enormous piles of pulled shoulder with slaw and all the trimmings, the station was celebrating the arrival of a, "fancy" new sign, some "fancy" new gas pumps, and a "fancy" new, fully automated unisex bathroom that cleans itself top to bottom after every use. That seems a little excessive to me, but I'm not the one giving away barbecue sandwiches. (And it's probably welcome news throughout Memphis' OCD community). Did I mention that it's fancy? So fancy, in fact, I never would have figured out the multi-step gas pumping procedure without the aid of three humans hovering around me explaining how I didn't pay at the gas pump, but at a nearby card-reading station where one first enters the pump number, then dips a credit card. In order to get a receipt — with a 4-digit PIN required for anybody wanting to use the customers-only bathroom — one has to return to the pay station after pumping, re-enter the pump number and swipe his or her card a second time.
I haven't felt this lost since Apple stopped using Google-based maps on the iPhone.
Not your pappy's hook & eye.
The important question— and the one I'm sure you're all asking right now — is whether or not this mechanized convenience stop exists in accordance with Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics. The short answer: I'm not sure.
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
I don't really have enough information to address the question at this time, and all answers certainly hinge upon one's definition of harm. Following contemporary political rhetoric, we can forego any notions of indirect economic injury and assume that these robots are only doing the jobs Americans don't want, and don't want to hire illegal immigrants to do for them. But customers who are already dancing and pinching their parts because they need to go to the bathroom really, really badly may experience discomfort and/or embarrassment while going through all the steps required for a potty PIN. As for cars with multiple passengers who all need to use the restroom —- I don't know what to tell you other than we all have to make hard choices sometimes.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
The automated bathroom was in cleaning mode when I went to use it, but as soon as I got the go-ahead light everything responded to my push-button commands. While urinating I was momentarily overcome by fearful memories of suicide booths in the animated TV show Futurama. But I finished my business unharmed. Before leaving I commanded, "Toilet, destroy all humans!" It was a reckless move on my part, I admit. Thankfully, no humans were hurt as a result of my bathroom visit.
Quick Fuel: Pride of Memphis' robot and boxcar stacking district.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
It's difficult to tell how the robot toilet I used might defend itself from advanced physical or electronic attacks, but it's clear that the Quick Fuel automated filling (and emptying) station was at least designed to minimize opportunities for specific kinds of abuse. While waiting for the bathroom to finish cleaning itself I was approached by a middle-aged gentleman in a nice paisley shirt and wool coat. "There's not a urinal in there," he said, giving me a quick rundown of what to expect once I was inside. "We didn't install urinals because people shit in them."
Automated self-cleaning restrooms are fairly common in parts of Europe, but this robot toilet, located in the heart of Lamar Avenue's boxcar-stacking district, is allegedly the first of its kind in the U.S. Even if you're a world traveler, intuitive and tech savvy, you'll want to pay careful attention to the instructions.
To access these instructions one must first enter the restroom. (They can be found elsewhere).
The horror first took control of Memphis television sets at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 29, 1962. It began with a grainy clip of black-and-white film showing an ornate horse-drawn hearse moving silently through a misty stretch of Overton Park. Weird music screeched and swelled, helping to set the scene. A fanged man in a top hat and cape dismounted. His skin was creased, corpse-like. He looked over his shoulder once, then dragged a crude, wooden coffin from the back of the hearse. His white-gloved hand opened the lid, releasing a plume of thick fog and revealing the bloody logo of Fantastic Features.
"Ah. Goooood eeeevening. I am Sivad, your monster of ceremonies," the caped figure drawled, in an accent that existed nowhere else on planet Earth. Think: redneck Romanian.
"Please try and pay attention," he continued, "as we present for your enjoyment and edification, a lively one from our monumental morgue of monstrous motion pictures."
In that moment, a Mid-South television legend was born. For the next decade, Sivad, the ghoulish character created by Watson Davis, made bad puns, told painfully bad jokes, and introduced Memphians to films like Gorgo...
The Brain That Wouldn't Die...
and Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent.
Watson Davis' wisecracking monster wasn't unique. He was one of many comically inclined horror hosts who became popular regional TV personalities from the '50s through the '70s. According to John Hudgens, who directed American Scary, a documentary about the horror-host phenomenon, it all began with "Vampira," a pale-skinned gorgon immortalized by Ed Wood in his infamously incompetent film Plan 9 From Outer Space.
Although a Chicago-area host calling himself "The Swami" may have been the first costumed character regularly introducing scary movies on television, the big bang of horror hosting happened in 1954, when the wasp-wasted actress Maila Nurmi introduced her campy, Morticia Adams-inspired character on The Vampira Show, which aired in Los Angeles.
In 1957, Screen Gems released a package of 52 classic horror films from Universal studios. The "Shock Theater" package, as it was called, created an opportunity for every market to have its own horror host. "Part of that package encouraged stations to use some kind of ghoulish host," Hudgens explains. "Local television was pretty much live or had some kind of host on everything back then."
Overnight, horror hosts such as New York's "Zacherly" and Cleveland's "Ghoulardi" developed huge cult followings. "TV was different in those days," Hudgens says. "There weren't a lot of channels to choose from, and the hosts could reach a lot more people quickly. Ghoulardi was so popular that the Cleveland police actually maintained that the crime rate went down when his show was on the air, and they asked him to do more shows."
Tennessee's first horror host was "Dr. Lucifer," a dapper, eyepatch-wearing man of mystery who hit the Nashville airwaves in 1957. Since Fantastic Features didn't air until the fall of 1962, Sivad was something of a latecomer to the creep-show party. But unlike most other horror hosts, Davis didn't have a background in broadcasting. He'd been a movie promoter, working for Memphis-based Malco theaters. His Sivad character existed before he appeared on television. At live events, he combined elements of the classic spook show with an over-the-top style of event-oriented marketing called ballyhoo. So Davis' vampire, while still nameless, was already well known to local audiences before Fantastic Features premiered.
"You've got to understand, things were very different back then," Elton Holland told the Memphis Flyer in a 2010 interview. "Downtown Memphis was a hub for shopping, and going out to the movies was an event. And back then, Malco was in competition with the other downtown theaters, so when you came to see a movie, we made it special.”
To make things special Holland, Davis, and Malco vice president Dick Lightman became masters of promotion and special events. Davis and Holland were neighbors who lived in Arkansas and car-pooled into Memphis every day. During those drives, Davis would float ideas for how to promote the films coming to town.
The studios only provided movie theaters with limited marketing materials. Theater businesses had in-house art departments that created everything else. What the art department couldn't make, Davis built himself in the theater's basement. When 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea came to town, he built a giant squid so large it had to be cut in half to get it up the stairs. He constructed a huge King Kong puppet that towered over the lower seats. For the filmDinosaurus, he built a Tyrannosaurus rex that was 20 feet tall and 45 feet long. It sat in the lobby, roaring and moving its tail.
"All movies were sold through exploitation," Holland explained. "And horror movies were the best ones to exploit. ... I remember when Watson first told me he wanted to be a monster. He was thinking vaudeville. He wanted to put on a show."
Davis' plan to create a scary show wasn't original. The "spook show" was a sideshow con dating back to when 19th-century snake-oil vendors traveled the country hawking their wares. Slick-talking performers would hop from town to town promising entertainment-deprived audiences the chance to see a giant, man-eating monster, so terrible it had to be experienced to be believed. Once the tickets were sold, it was loudly announced that the monster had broken free and was on a bloody rampage. The idea was to cause panic and create a confusing cover for the performers to make off with the loot.
In the early 20th century, the spook show evolved, and traveling magicians exploited the public's growing fascination with spiritualism by conjuring ghosts and spirits. By mid-century, they developed into semi-comical "monster shows" that were almost always held in theaters. Today's "hell houses" and haunted mansions are recent permutations of the spook show.
When England's Hammer Films started producing horror movies that were, as Holland says, "a cut above," he, Davis, and Lightman took the old spook-show concept and adapted it sell movie tickets. They went to Memphis State's drama department and to the Little Theatre [now Theatre Memphis] looking for actors so they could put a monster on a flatbed truck in front of the Malco.
Davis dressed as Dracula, Holland was the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and another Malco exec played Frankenstein. The company also included a wolfman and a mad doctor.
Davis sometimes joined Lightman on inspection tours of other Malco properties. On one of those tours, the men saw an antique horse-drawn hearse for sale on the side of the road. They bought the hearse that appears in the Fantastic Features title sequence for $500. It also appeared in various monster skits and was regularly parked in front of Malco theaters to promote horror movies.
"One time we had this actor made up like a wild man," Holland said, recalling a skit that was just a little too effective. "While Watson did his spiel about the horror that was going to happen, the chained wild man broke loose and pretended like he was attacking this girl. He was going to jerk her blouse and dress off, and she had on a swimsuit underneath." One 6'-3", 300-pound, ex-military Malco employee wasn't in on the joke and thought the actor had actually gone wild. He took the chain away, wrapped it around the wild man's neck, and choked him until the two were pulled apart.
Music to Sivad to...
The proliferation of television eventually killed ballyhoo promotions and all the wild antics used to promote movies. At about that time, the studios started "going wide" with film distribution, opening the same film in many theaters at one time instead of just one theater in every region. This practice made location-specific promotions obsolete. By then, the Shock Theater package had made regional stars out of horror hosts all across the country. WHBQ approached Davis and offered him the job of "monster of ceremonies" on its Fantastic Features show. The show found an audience instantly and became so popular that a second weekly show was eventually added. Memphis viewers apparently couldn't get enough of films like Teenage Caveman...
and Mutiny in Outer Space...
Joe Bob Briggs, cable TV's schlock theater aficionado who hosted TNT's Monster Vision from 1996 to 2000, says that "corny" humor was the key to any horror host's success or failure. "Comedy and horror have only rarely been successfully mixed in film — although we have great examples like Return of the Living Dead, Briggs says. "But comedy surrounding horror on television was a winning formula from day one. In fact, it's essential. If you try to do straight hosting on horror films, the audiences will hate you."
In 1958, Dick Clark invited New York horror host Zacherly to appear on American Bandstand. "This wasn't the year for the comedians, this was the year for the spooks and the goblins and the ghosts," Clark said, introducing "Dinner With Drac," the first hit novelty song about monsters. Four years later, Bobby "Boris" Puckett took "Monster Mash" to the top of the charts. In the summer of 1963, Memphis' favorite horror host hopped on the pop-song monster bandwagon by recording the "Sivad Buries Rock and Roll/Dicky Drackeller" single.
Novelty songs such as "What Made Wyatt Earp" became a staple on Fantastic Features, and Sivad began to book shows with the King Lears, a popular Memphis garage band that influenced contemporary musicians like Greg Cartwright, who played in the Oblivians and the Compulsive Gamblers before forming the Reigning Sound. Although "Sivad Buries Rock and Roll" never charted, Goldsmith's department store hosted a promotional record-signing event, and 2,000 fans showed up to buy a copy.
In 1972, Fantastic Features was canceled. And though Davis was frequently asked to bring the character back, he never did. Horror movies were changing, becoming bloodier and more sexually explicit in a way that made them a poor fit for Sivad's family-friendly fright-fest. In 1978, Commercial Appeal reporter Joseph Shapiro unsuccessfully tried to interview Davis. He received a letter containing what he called a cryptic message: "Sivad is gone forever" is all it said.
Davis, who borrowed his name-reversing trick from Dracula, Bram Stoker's blood-sucking fiend who introduced himself as Count Alucard, died of cancer in March 2005. He was 92 years old.
* A version of this article appeared in theMemphis Flyer in 2010 —- but with out all the nifty links and embeds.
It's WMC weatherman and wrestling host Dave Brown's last day on the job. He'll be missed for many reasons. In addition to weather reporting he was a disc jockey, and hosted local TV shows like Dialing for Dollars. But this is how your Pesky Fly chooses to remember him— moderating a squabble between Jerry Lawler and Adam West.