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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 16, 2009

The Warner Theater

Posted By on Mon, Mar 16, 2009 at 3:09 PM


In 1926, one of the highest-paid performers in vaudeville appeared on stage in Memphis. He certainly hadn’t made his name as a singer or dancer, and he couldn’t play a note, but it was standing-room-only when the Sultan of Swat — yes, Babe Ruth himself — stepped into the lights at the Pantages Theater downtown and chatted about his amazing career with the New York Yankees.

Built in 1921 as part of a nationwide chain, the Pantages, which stood on the east side of Main Street between Monroe and Union, was considered the grandest theater in town. A brilliantly lighted marquee stretched the full width of the gleaming white, terra-cotta facade, and every inch of the interior was covered in ornate, gilded plasterwork. When the theater first opened, it staged vaudeville acts — W.C. Fields and Buster Keaton were other stars who played there — and showed silent films. In 1930, it was sold to Warner Bros. Pictures to showcase their new “talking pictures” and the name was changed to the Warner Theater. The first “talkie” Memphians saw at the Warner was General Crack, starring John Barrymore.

The 1,900-seat theater thrived for three decades, an especially popular attraction in the summer, when families drove downtown to enjoy the newfangled invention called “air conditioning.” But the Warner — and its sister theaters downtown, including the Malco, Loew’s Palace, and Loew’s State — began to struggle in the 1960s, when smaller theaters opened in the suburbs and audiences began to stay home and watch television. In 1963, Memphis Press-Scimitar columnist Edwin Howard observed that the Warner, “one of the important links in the Pantages vaudeville chain of the 1920s, [is] still going strong as a motion-picture palace.”

Just five years later, however, officials with the National Bank of Commerce selected that block of Main Street for a 33-story office tower. On December 8, 1968, after the showing of Coogan’s Bluff, the Warner closed. The contents were auctioned off, and bulldozers brought down the old vaudeville palace a few months later. NBC’s Commerce Square stands on the site today.


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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


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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