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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Fairgrounds Casino: The Showplace of the South

Posted By on Wed, Mar 31, 2010 at 3:24 PM

The Fairgrounds Casino in 1933
  • The Fairgrounds Casino in 1933
Years ago, Memphians didn't have to drive all the way to Tunica to enjoy a grand casino. And when they paid their 40 cents admission to the sprawling wooden building on East Parkway, they were dazzled by the lights flashing from — no, not slot machines — a glittering crystal ball suspended over the largest dance floor in the city.

The Fairgrounds Casino was built by a fellow named Lynn Welcher in 1930 for $100,000 — an enormous sum in those days. The high cost came from innovative features like a teak and rosewood floor mounted on felt, which gave it the perfect "bounce" for dancing, and a remote-controlled $15,000 lighting system that flashed as many as 96 colored spotlights off the spinning ball. The lights were operated by a keyboard from the elevated orchestra stand.

Louis Armstrong, Kay Starr, the Alabama Crimsons, Ted Weems, and other big names performed here, which hosted public dances every Friday and Saturday night. The Casino thrived for two decades. In the 1950s, when big bands were losing their audiences, it was handed over to the Memphis Park Commission for just $12,000. The new manager, Dick Morton, began a new policy — no alcohol. "We believe there are lots of people of all ages," he told the Memphis Press-Scimitar, "who don't drink but do dance, and would love to have a place where they won't be bumped around by a bunch of drunks."

Although he didn't mention the Lauderdales by name, we knew he was talking about our family.

People gradually lost interest in the old Casino; I don't really know why. The music stopped, and the park commission turned the place into a public basketball arena. Finally, the fire marshall decided the ramshackle structure was a fire hazard. The Showplace of the South, as it was called, was torn down in the summer of 1963.

These vintage postcards (click on each image to enlarge it) show how the place looked in 1933, according to a date scribbled on the back of one of the cards. The hand-coloring on these things is rarely accurate, but gosh-a-mighty just look at that wonderful interior. Whoever called the Fairgrounds Casino "The South's Most Beautiful Ballroom" may have been right.

And I wonder what happened to that giant crystal ball?


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