Monday, October 4, 2010

The "Hollywood" Showboat - 1933

Posted By on Mon, Oct 4, 2010 at 4:06 PM

HollywoodShowboatAd-1933.jpg
Back in the early 1930s, Memphians could go downtown to the various theaters, which were gradually being converted from vaudeville and stage shows into "moving picture" theaters, but we also had another entertainment option that's no longer available: showboats.

Poring over a November 1933 issue of The Commercial Appeal, I noticed this ad for a production of "St. Elmo" aboard the Hollywood showboat.

Reserved seats were 40 cents, which seems a bit steep for the time, but maybe this was a classy boat, and a good production that was well worth the price of admission.

What's interesting is where the boat was docked — near "Second Street and the Wolf River Bridge." I would have thought they would have just tied up at the cobblestones, about where the Memphis Queen Line is located today. But back in the 1930s, the riverfront was considerably busier than it is now, so maybe this was the only place the boat could stay for extended periods of time. I really don't know. Do you?

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Another View of the Japanese Gardens - 1920

Posted By on Wed, Sep 29, 2010 at 9:42 PM

Postcard view of Japanese Garden
  • Postcard view of Japanese Garden
Okay, it took a while, but I finally turned up an old postcard showing the Japanese Gardens in Overton Park. The card is postmarked 1920 or maybe 1928 (the date is hard to read).

Compare it with group of Robert Ferguson photos that I've already posted. (I re-posted one of them below so you really won't have to go to any trouble whatsoever.) You'll note that the odd white "mountain" appears to be the same in both views, as does the bridge (reflected in the water in the old photographs). And you can see a stone lantern that looks just like the ones in the photos.

But what you DON'T see are the crazy trees, the dog statue, and the weird rock-covered iron grate that the woman was sitting on (though maybe that's too small to show up in the postcard).

The Japanese Gardens were in Overton Park for some 40 years. My theory is that this place, like so many others around town, changed over the years. Certain features were added or removed.

But it's pretty definitely the same "mountain," if you ask me.

Photo taken in the 1920s
  • Photo taken in the 1920s

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Japanese Gardens in Overton Park - I Think

Posted By on Sun, Sep 26, 2010 at 9:25 PM

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My pal Robert Ferguson, a former police officer turned history buff, recently purchased a set of old black-and-white negatives at a Memphis estate sale. He went to the time and trouble (and expense) to get some of them turned into prints, and made an interesting discovery — what he thinks may be really fine old photographs of the Japanese Garden in Overton Park.

Robert Galloway, who was head of the Memphis Park Commission, was fond of all things Oriental, and in the early 1900s he had city crews scoop out a nice pond and build an island in the middle with a "snow-covered" Mt. Fujiyama. They installed a graceful arched wooden bridge, and added Japanese lanterns and other ornaments. It was a wonderful addition to the park — until December 7, 1941, when anti-Japanese sentiment boiled over and the entire thing was demolished. The Memphis College of Art stands on the site today.

I think Robert (Ferguson) is right. Some of the pictures show Japanese lanterns and other ornaments, and the photo of the man in the hat, who seems to be sitting on an invisible chair, shows the fake "mountain" in the background. But I don't know what to make of the woman sitting on the ground, since she seems to be perched on rocks piled on an old iron gate.

Robert wrote me: "I'm guessing the photos are from the Japanese Gardens that were destroyed in Overton Park. I'm 90% sure these are Memphis locations, because the old Midtown home where I bought them also shows up in some of the negatives [not shown here]."

Judging from the clothes, these were taken in the late 1920s or early 1930s, and one photo [not shown here; just take my word for it] shows an automobile with a 1935 license plate.

I think these do indeed show the long-gone Japanese Gardens, though I don't know what to make of the weird bare trees that seem to have wires dangling from the sawed-off branches. And does anybody recognize the family?

Other pictures are on the next page. Thanks, Robert, for sharing them.

Continue reading »

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The "Ask Vance" 2011 Calendar — Almost Ready!

Posted By on Tue, Sep 21, 2010 at 11:59 AM

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Has it really been a whole year since I produced the last "Ask Vance" Calendar, which now adorns the walls of homes, tents, trailers, and jail cells throughout our great land?

Well, the new one is almost ready — it's at the printer as we speak. So get ready for it — more than 100 eye-popping, never-seen-before images of Memphis people and places.

The 2011 version is packed with old photographs, postcards, booklets, programs, advertisements, and other images: the Wonder City Restaurant, Ollie's Trolley, Jockey Club Face Powder, roller-skating bears (yes, BEARS), the Ditty-Wah-Ditty Tourist Court, Maywood Beach, Sacred Heart High School, Helen of Memphis, and lots more.

Plus, two whole pages of photos devoted to Clarence Saunders' Keedoozle stores and Fred Smith's Toddle House restaurants.

Look in the October issue of Memphis magazine for the order form to order a copy for yourself or your friends (and get a subscription to the magazine when you do so.) You'll be able to order them online too; be patient.

But quantities are limited, so don't wait until the last minute.

This lovely fire-twirling lady (above) is just one of the images on the cover. You'll have to buy the calendar to find out who she is.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The 1910 National Aero Meet in Memphis

Posted By on Thu, Sep 16, 2010 at 12:27 PM

Glenn and Lena Curtiss
  • Glenn and Lena Curtiss
A huge flock of "Bird Men" swooped into our city in 1910, when Memphis — yes, Memphis — hosted one of the first aviation meets in America. Wilbur and Orville Wright had made their famous flight at Kitty Hawk just seven years before, so this four-day event was many Memphians' first look at those newfangled "aero-planes," which one reporter described as "a weirdly shaped automobile on three wheels."

He might have mentioned the wings, too.

Held at the Tri-State Fairgrounds April 7-10, 1910, the National Aero Meet featured noted flyer Glenn Curtiss ("the champion of the world"), Charles Hamilton ("the dare-devil of the air"), and a number of more modest aviators from around the country.

The photo here shows Curtiss with his wife, Lena, in the cockpit of their plane, Miss Memphis.

The Commercial Appeal bragged that "all eyes are on Memphis," and workers transformed Main Street into "a glare of patriotic colors in honor of the thousands of visitors." Local businesses jumped on the bandwagon with bizarre enticements. A newspaper ad for Lowenstein's department store bragged, "Our rest rooms, a revelation of artistic beauty and luxurious comfort, are one of the interesting features of Memphis."

Continue reading »

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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Vance Lauderdale - Young Scholar

Posted By on Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 3:15 PM

Vance Lauderdale, B.A., M.A.
  • Vance Lauderdale, B.A., M.A.
It seems I can't even walk down the candy aisle at Schnuck's these days without someone stopping me and saying, "Vance, how is it that you know so much about so many weird things in Memphis?"

If the person is a subscriber to Memphis magazine, I will usually take the time to reply, the best I can. If they are not a subscriber, then I knock them aside with my cane and storm out of the store. It's bad enough that you are reading this highly entertaining blog for FREE; must you pick my brain like a pickpocket, too?

But the general answer is that I was considered a boy genius, knowledgeable in any and all fields, collecting diplomas from schools around the globe. In later life I just decided to focus on the more arcane subjects of the city that I have decided to call home (after being exiled from so many others by the police, Boy Scouts, and 4-H clubs).

In fact, here's a charming photo of me at the tender age of 6, just after I had earned my degree in geography (with a minor in cartography) from Case Western Reserve University — a school that I chose merely because I found the name amusing. I still have the old globe, a graduation gift from President Grover Cleveland.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Charles Lindbergh's Visit to Memphis in 1927

Posted By on Fri, Sep 3, 2010 at 3:22 PM

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If you were reading this thrilling, heart-warming blog waaaaay back in 2009 (and I certainly hope you were), then you might recall that I told about the day in 1927 when Charles Lindbergh visited Memphis. It was only a few months after his world-famous transatlantic flight, and the "Lone Eagle" had embarked on a cross-country tour in The Spirit of St. Louis to talk to various civic leaders about the advantages of air travel.

Lindbergh landed here at Armstrong Field on an October afternoon, and was driven to Overton Park, where he was greeted by some 100,000 fans. He gave free rides to a few VIPs (including the Lauderdales, I'm almost positive), then took off the next morning. All accounts of his visit mention the newsreel cameramen and newspaper photographs who captured his every move, and back in 2009 I wondered: Where are those photographs?

Well, one of them has finally turned up, as you can see here.

James Webster, now living in Galena, Illinois, wrote me a few weeks ago and told me this:

"I have an 8x10-inch glossy photo of Lindbergh taken on that visit. He is behind the wheel of a convertible, seated next to an unknown gentleman. My great uncle, William Lake Hayes (7/12/1891-9/13/1973), who was a Memphis city attorney, is in the rear, seated next to another unknown gentleman.

"As a child in the 1950s and early 1960s, I spent many summer days in Memphis visiting my grandparents, who lived on Oakview Street, near Lamar Ave. I would walk over to Uncle Lake and Aunt Margaret's house (at the southwest corner of Kendale Ave. & Burris St.) on the other side of the Southern RR tracks, to be regaled by his stories of the Boss Crump days in Memphis (while turning the freezer crank for my aunt's homemade ice cream).

"Other than my memories, I've been able to find very little about my uncle or his career in Memphis city government. As an amateur archaeologist, I'd certainly welcome more information."

Continue reading »

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Memories of "Monkey Mountain"

Posted By on Mon, Aug 30, 2010 at 2:30 PM

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In the July issue of Memphis magazine, I wrote about the "neighborhood of the future" that was to be constructed in the area of East Memphis bounded by Park, White Station, Estate, and Quince. Perhaps "Country Club Estates" was ahead of its time, but such a concept never left the drawing board. Developers eventually constructed Sea Isle School and lots of nice homes instead, but one large area in particular — several acres just to the northeast of the school property — was left wild and undeveloped for years.

Everyone called it "Monkey Mountain."

Today, it's a nicely manicured park with soccer fields and a walking path. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this area was a vast wasteland, rutted with deep ravines and vine-covered trees. Naturally, it was a magnet for any child living in the neighborhood, who could play "army" or Tarzan or anything they wanted in this jungle. Not too long ago, I made a rare public appearance before the Sea Isle Park Neighborhood Association, and my visit prompted long-ago memories of just what, exactly, Monkey Mountain actually was.

Danny Milam, whose family lived in the area in the 1950s and '60s, remembers it this way:
"I read with interest your article in the July edition, "Estate Planning." I lived in that area when I was young (on White Station Road, just north of Sea Isle Road) and never knew about the grand plans for the area. Pity it never came to fruition. It would have been cool.

"But then again, if it had, my family probably couldn't have afforded to live there.

"The undeveloped area around Sea Isle School was enormous. Even with the development of a park with a lighted baseball field, there was still a hefty tract of unimproved acreage that just sat there for years. In the area slightly northeast of where a lake was proposed was an odd land formation featuring many deep rills and ditches that couldn't be explained. If it had been on a steep hill, one could understand all the rills and crevasses, but it was flat. (This is Memphis, after all.) Now that I've read your article, I wonder if perhaps some preliminary earthwork was done and then abandoned when the grandiose plans for Country Club Estates fell through.

[It IS possible, I suppose, that this "land formation" was leftover fill from the developers scooping out the lake proposed for the area. — Vance]

"It looked like an area used for WWI-era trench warfare. In fact, that's how we used it, employing dirt clods instead of rifles to fend off the enemy combatants. Yes, the ditches were deep enough to crouch in and seek cover from an assault.

"Everyone in the neighborhood called this tract of odd topography "Monkey Mountains." No one knew how it got that name, or why, because there was certainly nothing there that brought up images of mountains. A better name would have been "Monkey Canyon." 

Continue reading »

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Friday, August 27, 2010

When James Jones Lived at Leahy's Tourist Court

Posted By on Fri, Aug 27, 2010 at 11:02 AM

From_Here_to_Eternity.jpg
Most everybody is familiar with the best-selling novel, From Here to Eternity, which the Modern Library has ranked #62 on its list of the "100 Best Novels." Perhaps even more of you have seen the 1953 movie based on the book, which won a whopping eight Academy Awards. Even if you haven't read the book or seen the movie, I KNOW you're familiar with the famous "beach-kiss" scene featuring — oh good grief, do I have to tell you everything?

But (and this is my point) how many of you know that James Jones, the hard-drinking, tough-as-nails author of this book, along with many others, actually wrote it while he was living in Memphis — at Leahy's Tourist Court, of all places? Not many, I bet.

But it's true. In 1943, Jones had been shipped to Kennedy General (later Veterans) Hospital here to recover from injuries he received in action at Guadalcanal. He must have liked it here, because he returned with his wife, Lowney, in 1950, and settled down at Leahy's to write the greatest novel of his career.

With assistance from a former Memphian named Birch Harms (it sounds like a made-up name, doesn't it?) I tracked down an old friend of Jones, Captain Patt Meara, now retired and living in Florida, who told me the whole story, and a lot more — including all those times he and Jones went to the (in)famous Plantation Inn over in West Memphis to enjoy a band with an up-and-coming young singer by the name of ... Isaac Hayes.

I tell the whole dramatic story in the September issue of Memphis magazine. So turn your computer off right now — do it! — and go pick up a copy if (for shame!!) you don't already subscribe.

In the meantime, here's an old postcard of Leahy's when it had seen better days. The old house was torn down a few months ago.

BOOKJACKET IMAGE COURTESY OF PATT MEARA — Look carefully at the credit line and you'll see that Meara took the photo that ran on the dustjacket of the first edition.

LeahysTouristCourtPC.jpg

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Shelby County Courthouse Statues

Posted By on Tue, Aug 24, 2010 at 2:34 PM

Vance Lauderdale as Authority
  • Vance Lauderdale as "Authority"
I spend a lot of time hanging around the Shelby County Courthouse, waiting for my various trials to begin, and I've noticed that people — far too many people, if you ask me — usually walk right past the magnificent statues that guard that entrances without even noticing them.

So I thought I'd change that by telling you about them, and I think you'll be impressed. After all, it's true that a Lauderdale (I needn't name names) served as the model for "Authority" (shown here).

But first, let me chat about the courthouse, which the authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide say exudes "serene classical confidence." As I do, myself! This truly magnificent building opened in 1910 to replace a jumbled collection of courtrooms that had previously been jammed into rented space at the old Overton Hotel at Main and Poplar. A plaque outside notes that this is the largest and most ornate courthouse in Tennessee, and it would be hard to argue with that. The city fathers (and mothers) wisely chose the sturdiest materials available (blue limestone from a quarry in Bedford, Indiana) and the best designers for this important civic project.

A courthouse building commission (you can't do anything in Memphis without forming a commission first, you know) selected the prestigious firm of Rogers and Hale, with offices in New York and Chicago. James Gamble Rogers was the primary architect, because (according to the official Report of the Commission published in 1910), he "was found to be specially qualified in designing buildings of a monumental character."

But about those statues ...

Continue reading »

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Owl Lunch Service and Tourist Court

Posted By on Tue, Aug 17, 2010 at 3:29 PM

A Big Boy Cone, Anyone?
  • A Big Boy Cone, Anyone?
A weary traveler driving into Memphis along Summer Avenue would find it hard to resist turning into the Owl Lunch Service and Tourist Court for a tasty meal and a good night's sleep.

First of all, it's impossible to miss the big billboard-sized sign, adorned with a giant painted owl. If that didn't get their attention, a smaller sign was placed right at the curb, facing the oncoming drivers, and telling them to STOP, EAT, and DRINK.

And why not? Just look at the neat rows of white cottages, with their eye-catching red roofs and brick pillars holding up the front porches — all the comforts of home. Over to one side (at the left in the card) was some kind of octagonal (or at least hexagonal) concession stand, its arched windows decorated with yellow awnings and colorful flower boxes.

Then there's the main building, presumably housing the cozy cafe, which offered Clover Farms Ice Cream, Clover Farms Malted Milk (just 20 cents), and something called the Big Boy Cone — that was just a dime (and decades before any Shoney's Big Boy made an appearance in town). The joint also sold Clover Farms Bottled Milk Chocolate, according to the great sign.

Summer Avenue, officially designated U.S. Highway 70, was also called the Bristol Highway because it supposedly stretched all the way across the state to the city of Bristol in the northeastern corner of Tennessee. I say "supposedly" because I've never actually journeyed that far on it. But because it was such an important traffic artery for tourists and business travelers, it certainly attracted some of the most memorable "roadside" attractions in Memphis, including the Silver Horseshoe Motel, Leahy's Trailer Court, the Crescent Lake Tourist Court, and — most famous of all — the world's first Holiday Inn.

I have no idea where the Owl Lunch Service was actually located on Summer, but it's a safe bet that what's there now doesn't have half the charm of this old place.

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Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Grave of the Vienna Sausage King

Posted By on Sat, Aug 14, 2010 at 11:10 PM

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Not many people know that Archibald K. Wortham, the "inventor" of the tasty Vienna sausage, is actually buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis.

On July 19th, the anniversary of Wortham's birth, his devoted fans (mostly former Boy Scouts) leave empty cans of the delicious concoction at his gravesite.

Why he is buried here is a mystery, since he was born in Vienna, Austria (as you might expect), traveled to America in the early 1900s to work in a tin-can factory outside Baltimore, and then spent the rest of his life in Vienna, Virginia (where it is pronounced, as many do the sausage, Vi-EEN-a).

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Memphis Gas Explosion of 1921

Posted By on Thu, Aug 12, 2010 at 12:19 PM

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I've read so many books on Memphis that I thought I was familiar with most of the major disasters and crimes that have taken place here — mainly because the Lauderdale family was usually involved in them, in some way or another.

So I was more than a bit surprised when I was roaming through the Lauderdale Library the other night, seeing if I had tucked away a bottle of Kentucky Nip on one of the high shelves, when I pulled out a dusty bound volume of RAILWAY AGE magazine and began to read it.

And there, for the first time, I learned about the Memphis Gas Explosion of 1921 — a horrendous event that killed 11 people here, injured more than a dozen others, and leveled houses and business for blocks around. How is it possible that I have never heard of such a thing?

Here's what RAILWAY AGE had to say:

On January 24, 1921, vapors from a tank car of gasoline on the Union Railway spur on Front Street, Memphis, Tennessee, became ignited and resulted in a blast that killed 11 people and badly injured 19 others. Probably 40 or 50 men, women and children received slight injuries from falling debris or from burns. The explosion wrecked an oil plant, leveled a block of frame buildings, and broke window panes within a radius of five blocks, the estimated loss being $200,000.

So what caused this disaster?
"A workman at the plant opened the tank car without relieving the pressure within." According the story, the wind carried these vapors "across the street ... and the vapor became ignited by open fires in the frame buildings on that side of the street. Instantly there was a terrific explosion which demolished every house on the west half of that block, as well as destroying buildings in the blocks north and east.

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Continue reading »

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Okay, This REALLY Creeps Me Out!

Posted By on Tue, Aug 10, 2010 at 12:41 AM

Yikes! Whose baby is this?
  • Yikes! Whose baby is this?
Not too long ago, I was staggering through a local antique mall in search of vintage postcards or whatnot. I turned a corner, stepped into one of the cluttered booths, and encountered ... THIS horrible creature.

It was fairly early in the morning, and my first thought was that an awful tragedy had occurred. Somebody, perhaps distracted by all the pricey knickknacks around them, had inexplicably left their baby behind, strapped into a high chair, and the poor thing had starved to death, overnight. He certainly didn't look very well off, that's for sure.

But, being the brave man that I am, I took a deep breath and took a closer look, and discovered that this was a DOLL. A very lifelike doll, I might add. Or perhaps I should say a very "deathlike" doll. And clad in a bright UT-orange jumper, which really didn't help.

I tagged this post "Mysteries" because I am truly baffled why any company would produce such a disgusting, depressing doll. And — just as disturbing — why would anyone buy it? What is it, part of the new "Dead Baby" line of children's toys? And judging from the price tag looped around his wrist, a real bargain at $195!

Here's a closer look at his face. Cute little fellow, isn't he? Don't you just want to run your hand through his thinning, grizzled hair? And I promise you, it IS a doll.

Have you seen my mommy?
  • "Have you seen my mommy?"

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Miniature Golf in Memphis — An Update

Posted By on Sat, Aug 7, 2010 at 10:41 PM

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Over the past year or so, I've posted a photo or two of miniature golf courses in Memphis, which have generated a lot of comments and discussion from readers. The Putt Putt on Perkins certainly caused some dispute, since nobody could agree, it seems, precisely where it was located.

Well, Audrey Smith, the former owner of that establishment, and — at one time or another — all the other Putt Putt golf places in town, has contacted me to set the record straight. Here's what he had to say:

"The Putt Putt was at 555 Perkins Extended and was owned by R.D. Buie of Hickory, North Carolina. [This would have been on the WEST side of Perkins, at Southern — Vance] They lost their lease in 1963 and I purchased the entire course on October 1, 1963, and ran it for one month before closing it. That winter I negotiated a lease across the street at 560 Perkins Extended where Chili's now sits. That winter and spring I moved everything including the sod (weeds) across the street and rebuilt the Putt Putt, which opened that June of 1964. It remained there for seven years. That Putt Putt sign (above) was at that Putt Putt. In 1966 I also built the Putt Putt at 5484 Summer Ave that is still there to this day in 2010, though remodeled several times."

Aubrey then sent additional information, about all the other miniature golf courses that were built in Memphis over the years. See if you remember some (or all) of these:

"My previous comment should clarify the 560 Perkins Extended and 5484 Summer Ave locations, but the Mt. Moriah location was built around 1975 and was closed in the late '90s, when I sold the property. The waterslide was at the Golf and Games location at 5484 Summer Ave in the early 1970s and was there for four years. It sat exactly where the bumper boats are now. The waterslide was owned by Dan Wilkinson, Milton Knowlton, and Richard Kramer, who leased the spot from me. I never owned the waterslide, but was only the landlord. The unfortunate accident occurred in the first year of operation during a private party for Libertyland employees. About 14 [people] fell 40 feet through girders and concrete and miraculously NO ONE DIED. There were a few broken bones and one serious injury to a young lady who was paralyzed. The next year the slide was purchased by David Martin, who ran it for three years.

"As for other miniature golf courses that I remember in Memphis in past years, in the 1950s there were at least two on Lamar: Fran-Ricks and Pla-mor. In the 1960s and 70's Cherokee Bowling Lanes had an indoor Putt Putt. Cloverleaf briefly had a miniature golf. Summer Ave. had one in the 50's, where Imperial Lanes now is. Libertyland had one. Of course both Als locations had courses. Putt-n-Stuff was at Perkins and I-240 for a few years.

"Imperial Bowling Lanes had an indoor course for awhile. More recently there were Bogey's and Celebration Station, both recently closed. The Putting Edge at Peabody Place may still be open, I'm not sure, but it would be the only miniature golf course now in Memphis besides my Golf and Games Family Park Putt Putt and Incredible Pizza. — Aubrey Smith, owner, builder and operator of Golf and Games Family Park at 5484 Summer Ave, Memphis, TN"

Thanks for the information and memories, Aubrey!

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