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.