Memphis Movie Palaces

Click here to read this story by Beverly Cruthirds.

This week’s feature is a story by Beverly Cruthirds about Memphis movie houses in the 1950s and 1960s. It was immediately evocative of three things in particular when I read it: riding the bus; the dark, ornate, labyrinthine interiors of those oft-visited movie theaters; and Mr. Peanut. The tap-tap-tapping on glass by that over-sized mechanical peanut, outfitted in top hat and monocle behind a shop window on Main Street near the Lowe’s State, quickly came to mind. The roasted aroma that enveloped the sidewalk outside the tiny shop is probably why the memory lingers so strongly and connects so readily to thoughts of nights and days out at a movie downtown.

Beverly’s clear and honest descriptions are rich for another reasons as well. A glimpse of the personal experience of another, especially a long-time friend, through his or her own eyes, stirs one’s own memories of doing similar things, adding layers and colors – textures, sounds, and smells – to the storytelling. It magnifies the individual experience knowing that others were thinking and doing the same things at the same time with the same sense of intrigue and relish.

Taking a ride on a city bus would not seem a very exciting venture to a young person today. But for an early teen around the 1960s, it was not only stimulating, it was loaded with import. A bus ticket was no less than inexpensive access to a vast urban environment full of interests and new experiences – a passage to freedom.

There is something deeply satisfying about immersing oneself again and again in the Memphis of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s – especially if one was young, healthy, white, and near middle class in that place and time. In the 1960s, when I was ten to twenty years old, Memphis was essentially beginning its leaderless period – in other words, a young person, particularly a white male, was fairly free to fly if he kept his activities within, or under the radar of, the law. Well into the 1970s, I recall thinking Memphis was the perfect size in terms of territory and population and level of adult supervision. It had the intimacy and connectiveness of a town, but with some of the amenities and anonymity of a city. Memphis of that day was mostly comfortable and relatively safe. Kids spent a lot of time out of doors and ventured far afield from home on their own and with buddies.

Beyond history or nostalgia, what I feel and most like about Beverly’s story is this clear composite of the living Memphis of my youth. The story captures a sense of liberation. For the most part, it was not a time of smash hits and fireworks – of great things in the general scheme of mankind. In reality, for most of us, Elvis and other local notables were just other Memphians availing themselves of the easy pickings like everyone else. It was a time of average activities and arrangements that might have been sustainable, were it not for the rush of developments, the righting of unseen wrongs that let us wildly imagine that we could continue in such a way despite hidden realities. As I said, leaders were virtually invisible in Memphis: leading families abandoned the field of practical urbanism. Good families were utterly disinclined and unable to heal the great city in time. Nevertheless, Memphis was once a paradise of sorts in which to come of age.

Click here to read this story by Beverly Cruthirds.

Fathers and Guns

Patricia Waters launched a blog this summer called Green Roots TN. It was originally aimed at a particular environmental concern: fracking on property managed by the University of Tennessee. Very soon she branched out to address a multitude of her interests in the full panoply of her persuasive powers. At the end of her first month as a blogger, she posted a copy of a letter she sent to her local newspaper editor regarding a Tea Party member’s “full editorial page rant against” a friend’s letter to the editor about gun violence. Her letter is well worth the read. Here is a link to her letter. Below the link, I have posted a response to her essay.

Continuity and conservation versus “hell no” and gunpowder – only one side seems interested in asking fundamental questions. Patricia’s letter on guns in our culture is a terrific read. The passions rooted in Tennessee, American history and popular culture, and ancient antecedents drive home the insidiousness and pathetic pettiness of Tea Party misdirection and flippancy.

But Patricia, in her erudite, lucid, principled, and personal argument, does not tell the full story as it relates to true conservatism – what relates to our heritage, our fathers, and our real lives. I know that her story has a deep connection to her father and his love of Western fiction – and his intense patriotism as a World War II B-29 flight engineer (20th Air Force, 313 Bomb Wing, 505 Bomb Group) who served in the Pacific Theater (North Field, Tinian, in the Northern Mariana Islands). Though he had two hunting rifles and a shotgun, he did not possess a functioning handgun until late in life when he was living on his own after his wife passed away.

My father-in-law was a bomber pilot in the Pacific in World War II and had a full rack of rifles and shotguns for his entire adult life. He was a Ross Perot Republican, yet he did not possess a handgun after the war. He would have been appalled at the liberality of gun laws in Tennessee and across the country today. He thought movies were a complete waste of time. For him a real man read and worked to support his family and settled his differences with his arms and hands (not a gun) only if all reasonable alternatives had failed.

My father was a hunter in his youth and a Tennessee lawmaker who thought government very useful in building highways and schools. He never renounced guns, but they were never a visible or important part of family life. He instilled in me a love of the old movies that we shared together and the values they imparted. He modeled respect for learning and guided my initiation into retail politics and civil activism.

The ways of the Tea Party are not just an affront to our fathers and their legacy, they are an affront to conservatism. They reject the civil behavior represented by our fathers and for which they honorably struggled. Tea Party ways are intended to be a rejection of our primary legacy in a cynical ploy to gain political power for a wealthy few.

Tea Party intransigence, though considered a convenient tactic by its exponents and controllers, is not merely ignorant and clownish: it is profoundly immoral. Calculated immorality at an empowered level is intended to shatter reason and order so as to subject others – not to law but to the will of the powerful. Certainly there are large numbers of Tea Party followers who are genuine – and genuinely manipulated by bankrollers who care not a fig for their general welfare. (These same bankrollers are sponsoring advertisements urging young people not to buy health insurance.) Some undoubtedly think they are being funny, just getting a rising out of mainstream people (and many in mainstream too quickly take the bait, pursuing gab instead of effective concerted action). At worst they are the most pernicious kind of evil: the evil that seems normal but perpetrates the kind of scorched-earth policies that Patricia cited as evident in latter-day classic movies. This is perhaps an evil with global dimensions and permanent consequences for life on earth.

There is much tongue-wagging and screaming about the threat of our national government. But like Oliver Goldsmith, if there will be tyrants, I prefer my tyrants to be far away, not in my local and state government. National government has to accommodate a multitude of powers and interests under great scrutiny with significant checks and balances. Local governments are not so naturally constrained.

Do-nothings or evildoers in politics get away with it because liberals and centrists and real conservatives can’t be bothered with stopping nonsense at the polls, at the courthouse, at the legislature, at the TV set, at the checkout counter. Our elusive hope is that some hero will step forward and fix it for us, like in the Westerns, or that in time the jokers will overplay their hands and bring on their own demise. So, it’s high noon and the town’s folk have scattered for cover. But the Gary Cooper and John Wayne types are no where in sight, except for Patricia, who is packing two holsters chock full of legacy and literacy and the skill and guts to use them against lunacy masquerading as law in the clear light of day.

Two Degrees to Hound Dog

My Memphis/Elvis Story
from Harold Day

The time frame for my Elvis story was 1957-1958. I was in grade school – 3rd to 5th grade or so.

The Pack of boys in our neighborhood were out in the street (Fillmore Avenue) playing kick ball.

A motorcycle stopped at the stop sign at Fillmore and Labelle. We scattered as it gently accelerated in the direction of our game. As is passed through us at a reasonable pace, we could not help but notice it was Elvis on a white Harley-Davidson. We all looked at each other and began babbling/comparing observations. Yes, indeed it was Elvis.

One of the older girls who happened to be in the area took her handkerchief and wiped it all the way across the road to ensure she had covered the area where Elvis’s motorcycle had tread.

We boys returned to the kick ball game, our attention span and celebrity acknowledgement having rapidly reached their limits.

There is a footnote to Harold’s Elvis journal: “We visited Edison’s House/Museum a few weeks back while staying in Sanibel. We took a guided tour. Near the end, the docent said an average of x number of folks visited this residence every year, did anyone know what was the most visited residence in the nation?” “Graceland?” “Very good,” said the docent. Harold privately reflected, “30 years ago that the most visited residence in America was one that once belonged to a pop singer/entertainer would have bothered me. Now? Phssst, just as soon Elvis get the attention.”

* * *

What Is This?
A Note from Me (Jerry)

In early August, I sent some variation of the following as an email to family and friends closely associated with the Memphis that I knew:

I am collecting stories about personal connections, contacts, and near misses with Elvis. I ran into a colleague at a party Saturday night who lived in Whitehaven in the late ’50s and early ’60s. She had a load of vivid stories related to Elvis before he became over-sized. She graciously and enthusiastically typed those up for me. (She’s a bit of show-biz herself.)

I have no idea where this is going. Elvis is definitely a tie that binds old Memphians – musically and socially, comically and tragically. If you were around then, you have a unique insight into an insular, if not innocent, world on the brink of getting fat and crazy. Release your pink-Cadillac anecdotes upon a needy world — if you dare.

* * *

A number of citizens and former residents of Memphis retain lively memories of Elvis. Some were but a few degrees separated from him at one point in their lives. Somehow I might add to this story over time if I collect more of these anecdotes. For now, I want to share some of these personal remembrances in the pure voice of each contributor. I most enjoy, and I am sure that readers will too, listening to unfiltered storytelling.

* * *

Near Elvis
from Jamie Pope Petty

Elvis. Don’t need any other words for people all over the world to know of whom we speak. Most Tennesseans likely have some connection or story related to Elvis and I’m no exception. I was born in Memphis in 1957 at the time he was just coming on the music scene.

My parents both attended Whitehaven High School in Memphis and were just a year or two younger than Elvis. Although he didn’t go to the same high school, teenagers in Memphis were quite familiar with this rising singer and attended early performances. At the time they actually used the word “greaser” (probably because of his slicked back hair) and weren’t overly enthralled (of course, he wasn’t “famous” then). My mom tells of him briefly dating a friend of hers (?Vivian) and that he brought Vivian home to my grandparents’ home in Whitehaven (on Brownlee) and kissed her on their front porch (apparently Vivian’s parents opposed her dating Elvis, thus she spent the night at my mother’s – but knowing my grandparents, I imagine they wouldn’t have been thrilled either).

My dad’s father, Fred Pope, worked at a machine shop with Vernon Presley and told stories of Elvis working there at one time. My grandfather joked that he once gave Elvis a quarter and told him to go get a haircut. He said Elvis didn’t work there for long.

The next Elvis connection was when my family moved in across the street from Graceland into Oak Acres apartments (which are no longer there). My mom talked about Elvis riding his motorcycle over to the apartments with Natalie Wood on the back. I have pictures of me as a little girl in front of the gates at Graceland.

I attended a kindergarten in Memphis called Joyland that had an Elvis connection of some sort. He came to visit the kindergarten one day, but didn’t sing for us. Mrs. Thompson (hard to believe I remember her name!) just introduced him.

We moved away from Memphis when I was 7, although we frequently returned to visit family – and to drive by Graceland (although I don’t recall that was a definite agenda item). When I was 16, I started dating a boy named David Hill and we dated for two years. His father is Ed Hill, who was a gospel singer with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet. While I dated David, the Stamps sang back-up for Elvis. Mr. Hill would tell us stories of life on the road and times with Elvis. I remember one story about Elvis watching the Stamps on television when they were doing some sort of fund raiser and that Elvis called in and said he would make a sizable donation if all the Stamps would jump in the pool. It must have been filmed near a pool, memory makes me want to say in Hawaii. And all the Stamps jumped in the pool. He would also tell us about how much Elvis loved to eat – big breakfasts, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and cheeseburgers on French bread at Rotiers Restaurant when he was in Nashville.

I got to go to a concert in Murfreesboro in probably 1975 to see Elvis and the Stamps perform. We had front row seats and Elvis was giving out either boas or scarves – I jumped up to have him put one around my neck (and maybe get a kiss) as I got caught up in the evening and David pulled me back down in to my seat embarrassed, so I didn’t get a boa. We thought we were too-cool for Elvis at that age and acted bored, although I remember his show was pretty lively and amazing and I secretly loved it. I remember his white jumpsuit and some of the low-light solos. We got to go back stage and Mr. Hill introduced me to Elvis and we shook hands – he had already met David.

Not two years later, I remember being in the tub (yes) and one of my roommates at the time (I was living in a duplex during college) came and told me that Elvis had died. I immediately called David (we were no longer dating at that time) and he said his dad was on his way to Memphis to be with Elvis’s family – which extended beyond his biological family to all the musicians and crew and managers that traveled and performed with him. I still recall the heavy, disbelieving feeling of his premature death and the outpouring of grief from the public. Now my 18 year old has pictures of a young Elvis in her room.

Note: Ed Hill is second from left in this photo: .

* * *

Memphis Mafia at the Movies
from David Ellis
via Harold Day

(Harold and David served Mass together a lot as altar boys at St. Johns in Memphis.)

I was about 10 years old. My mom and sister worked at the old Strand Theater on Main St. Elvis used to come in often during weekday matinees so as to avoid crowds. I had come down on a city bus after school that day and was sitting in the empty theater watching a movie starring Guy Madison about a dinosaur that had been unearthed by some construction explosions in the area. I got up to get some popcorn and saw Elvis and a couple of the Memphis Mafia coming in to see the movie. He had already been kidding around with my mom and sister for a few minutes, as I found out a little later. Anyway I went back into the movie and Elvis and the others were sitting in the center of the middle section. I was star-struck. I sat down in the aisle seat of the row just in front of him and kept looking over at him. He knew I was distracted by his presence as he and his friends talked outloud and laughed at the otherwise silly movie. I guess they soon became bored with the film and got up to leave. They headed toward the aisle on which I was sitting and as they passed behind me, Elvis patted me on the head and said, “Hi, sonny.”

Keep in mind that the theater was empty all this time. I got up and followed them out to the lobby. The outer doors of the Strand were glass from floor to ceiling and a multitude of girls and young women had gathered outside, but the management would not allow them in and had locked all the doors to protect Elvis from them. There was quite a bit of pushing and shoving and shouting so Elvis and the others then left by an emergency exit.

* * *

Bitten Blue Blue Blue
from Gail Nicholson

My friend, Jane, when we were about six, built a trampoline in her back yard with planks and an old bed spring. For a nickel, she would let me and the other kids in the neighborhood jump on it while she played a 45-rpm of “Hound Dog.”

My Mother was very big on taking the family out to look at Christmas lights every year. We would always go to Elvis’s house because it would be lit solid blue “Blue Christmas.” One year we took my friend, Linda, with us and she ventured up to the guitar gate and was promptly bitten by Elvis’s dog. She wore the teeth marks proudly for several years thereafter.

Years later while I was in college, I worked at a local department store, Parks Belk. Linda Thompson, Miss Tennessee (a prerequisite for an Elvis girl), had once worked there, too. Linda would come in wearing a full-length white fur coat and chat about her life at Graceland with Elvis. My thought was always how lonely she must be to fill her time in such a fashion. She graduated from Elvis’s girl to a star on “Hee Haw.”

* * *

Vampires and Elvis
from Jerry Murley

I don’t know if your memory is like mine or not, but mine is easily stimulated by a single word or incident, after which it takes off and gallops in unpredictable directions and goes on ruminating for days. Facts are okay, I suppose, but memories are something with greater drive and possibility. In the end, it all is about number one for us; if you haven’t realized that yet, you haven’t been to the mountaintop.

Being a not very experienced aging man, I depend on the remembrances of others to feed my memory and imagination. I have known older people in denial about aging who thrive to excess on the fresh energy, smooth complexion, and muscle tone of younger people. Like vampires they drain young fruit dry in ways that are not sustainable and are unhealthy for all parties. Others, like me, derive nourishment from the memory and stories of others; without them we wither in a spiral of diminishing me-ness. There is definitely a healthy balance somewhere in there, but I suspect that few of us ever attain that level of self-sufficiency and interdependence.

Here is what a dinner-party encounter with my friend Jamie stimulated in me:

Elvis was a source of pride, amusement, bewilderment, and, sometimes, slight embarrassment in my neck of the woods in Memphis. I can’t claim or deny any association with him – not even a single sighting in the wilds of Memphis. I certainly am no musicologist, so I cannot comment with any authority as to whether he was a genre blender or bridger or not. I do know that his success and model was a boon to young men in need of a niche who wanted to explore active participation in music making and the music scene. As with much of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, blues, gospel, country, and pop, a deluded neophyte could halfway convince himself that he could perform if those other people could get away with it.

I attended one live Elvis concert at the Memphis Coliseum during the last years of Elvis’s life. As Rick Dees asserted every morning on the local radio station, Elvis had by that time consumed one too many jelly donuts.

But as you might suspect, if you know him, my father met Elvis and one of Elvis’s girl friends in the 1950s or early 1960s. My father was with a small gathering of Memphis Junior Chamber of Commerce members (Jaycees) as part of the dedication of a new structure at the Memphis Fairgrounds. He crossed paths again with Elvis in 1971, again at the Memphis Fairgrounds. It was a U.S. Jaycees’ event honoring Elvis as one of the ten most outstanding young men in America. For the most part, Elvis frequented the Memphis Fairgrounds for the rides in the 1950s and 1960s — and last performed at the Coliseum in 1976.

Elvis was often pictured in the Memphis newspapers giving someone in the hospital a check or a new Cadillac. I think this practice influenced my personal armchair solution for redoing the Vietnam War circa 1970. I hypothesized that it would have been cheaper, if not more ethical and effective, if the U.S. had dropped Cadillacs on the North instead of draftees and munitions.

It is surprising how many young men in and around West and Middle Tennessee resemble Elvis: the sleepy eyes, the mischievous smile, the soft vulnerability concealing Southern cunning. There is Mississippi blood running through the veins of a lot of folks. (I swear that one of my nephews could have passed for Elvis in his early twenties.)

Since the 1970s, I have regarded Memphis as the capital of north Mississippi as much as an engaged component of Tennessee. The mental and cultural compass of Memphis points south rather than east. Tunica is more relevant than Nashville, Knoxville, or Chattanooga. That observation is surely not novel, nor is it a criticism, it is an assessment of essential character that would be very difficult to refute. For much of the rest of Tennessee, Memphis is the attractive bad boy who plays a mean guitar or wails a tortured song. Few Tennesseans, other than the most warped, see Memphis as anything less than a fun getaway – a journey into the wilderness back to the raw power of funky beat, dancing feet, racial competition, big farms, big manufacturing, and a big forbidding river.

One my college friends in the early to mid-1970s was called Elvis by another of my old friends. This was not just because his parents’ home backed up to Graceland. He sort of looked like Elvis, with his shy, winning smile, sweet disposition, sly wit, and twinkling eyes. In essence, he was more Elvis than we thought, because his unfinished life ended near to when Elvis’s did and was even sadder. Such derailings were a large part of the Memphis story around the 1970s.

I remember when Elvis died, mostly because my wife and I were hosting a young house guest from England at the time. The three of us were at a blues nightclub in Downtown Memphis at the time of the news. It was stunning. For Memphians past a certain age, it was as if time had stopped and whatever innocence remained of the past in Memphis had disappeared at the same time. It took almost ten years from King to Elvis, but the end of old Memphis was final, except for a handful of historical relics and old Memphis friends who seemed to never really change.