Oct 29 2012

Elmwood Cemetery’s caretaker cottage endures as treasure-trove of history

Hidden Memphis feature for The Commercial Appeal

Oct. 29, 2012

The black-and-white images decorating the interior of Phillips Cottage in Elmwood Cemetery have many stories to tell, but the plaster walls of the cottage have even more — stories of grieving loved ones remembering their dead, of a fever that spread and threatened to eradicate the population of Memphis, of generals, mayors and the men and women whose final journey, whether on horse-drawn carriage or by automobile, passed by its front door.

Phillips Cottage was built in 1866, 14 years after the founding of the cemetery, as a one-room structure for Samuel Phillips to conduct the business of overseeing funeral arrangements and tending to the grounds. Despite its utilitarian use, the cottage was designed in the ornate Victorian Gothic Carpenter style, popular at the time with its gingerbread trim and churchlike windows. A steeple-shaped finial decorates the northern peak of the roof.

Kimberly McCollum, executive director of Elmwood Cemetery, and Michael Davis, superintendent of Elmwood, stand outside of Phillips Cottage, which was built at Elmwood in 1866 to be used as an office at the cemetery.

Phillips Cottage has been used consistently since its construction, but is much more than office space today. It is a living, working museum with records and artifacts dating back to the 19th century.

The small staff welcomes the public to peruse and take a trip back to that Victorian era when the cemetery was outside the city limits and only the first of its 75,000 bodies were interred … (read more)

Sep 10 2012

City with burgeoning movie industry has history of censorship in the past

“Hidden Memphis” feature for The Commercial Appeal

Sept. 9, 2012

“Brazen.” “Rowdy … unlawful … raw.” “Salacious and risqué.”

All adjectives that might be used to sell a movie to today’s viewing audiences. You can just imagine such adjectives in big, bold letters plastered beneath the title or across the screen of a coming attraction. From 1928 until 1956, however, these were scathing words used by Lloyd Tilgham Binford as he edited films or banned them outright from being shown in Memphis.

Recently retired from the company he founded, Columbian Mutual Life Insurance Co., Binford wasn’t looking for work in 1928 when he was appointed chairman of the Memphis Board of Censors. He awoke one morning to learn from the newspaper that he’d received the appointment from newly elected Mayor Watkins Overton. Binford accepted the position on a temporary basis for only 90 days “as a favor to the mayor,” his obituary reads.

It was a title he would hold for 28 years, retiring at age 88 in 1956.

Born in Duck Hill, Miss., where he would eventually have a high school named after him, Binford had a simple, religious upbringing that would one day help to inform his decisions when it came to film censorship. He

quit school at 16 and went to work as a railway mail clerk for the Illinois Central Railroad. As a clerk, his train was once held up by the famous train bandit Rube Burrow; as a film censor, he would outlaw films depicting train robberies and the like, including “The Outlaw,” the serial “Jesse James Rides Again” and “Destry Rides Again.” Though opposed to violence of any sort in films, he did allow that “if we stopped every movie with a murder in it, there wouldn’t be any left.”

He went to work for various insurance companies, eventually starting his own in 1917. That company was moved over the course of a weekend from Atlanta to Memphis, where Binford would build a new headquarters, an iconic monument on the Downtown skyline, the Columbian Mutual Tower on the northern edge of Court Square. It was one of the first skyscrapers in Memphis; Binford ran his insurance and censorship empires from a top-floor office. The building would be sold years later and renamed the Lincoln American Tower, but the visages of Binford’s children can still be found carved into the building’s facade.

A millionaire when he retired from insurance, he accepted the chairman position for $200 a month. As a civil servant, he upheld the standards of the state, the city and the Hays Code, a set of guidelines used to govern studio film releases from 1930 to 1968, and named for Will Hays, a Presbyterian elder enlisted by Hollywood to improve the image of its studios. The Hays Code, also known as the Motion Picture Production Code, was used until 1968 when the Motion Picture Association of America adopted the rating code in use today.

As chairman of the Memphis Censor Board, Binford enjoyed free rein to edit films — known as having been “Binfordized” by Hollywood — or ban them outright. A moral gyroscope in the Crump political machine, he passed judgment on pictures that were “immoral or inimical to public safety, health, morals or welfare.” … (read more)

Learn more on Binford and my story here.

May 13 2012

Magnificent movie houses of 1920s remembered during Memphis Heritage program

Hidden Memphis feature for The Commercial Appeal

May 13, 2012

Between the years 1905 and 1925, Memphis city directories listed 30 storefront theaters. All had disappeared by 1929. These were nickelodeons — Idle Hour at 269 N. Main and Amuse U at 253 N. Main, among others, little more than storefront venues for showing silent films.

The palaces — The Warner and the Loew’s theaters — would be built specifically for stage and film. They would be lavish houses created for live entertainment and the grandest entertainment Hollywood had to offer.

Memphian Vincent Astor’s interest in these movie houses came from a visit to The Malco theater (now the Orpheum) to see the original “True Grit” in 1969. The gilded decor and opulent surroundings struck a chord with him, and a lifelong interest was born. Over the years, he worked for Malco in maintenance and played the organ “anytime someone would come in that needed to be impressed with the building.” He continued with the Orpheum throughout the 1983 renovation.

“I watched that building change from a semi-dark, unappreciated old movie theater … to introducing myself to Leontyne Price, who was going to try out the acoustics in 1984,” Astor said. “So I actually watched a dream come true.”

May is National Preservation Month, and to celebrate, Memphis Heritage wants to take you to the movies. Two lectures and an exhibit at Memphis Heritage’s home at Howard Hall will focus on movie houses of the past. The first lecture, “Before the Palaces,” focusing on pre-1920 theaters, is set for Thursday; the second, “The Gilded Halls (1920-1929),” is on May 24 … (read more)

Mar 26 2012

A chronicle of Memphis’ past, Don Newman photo collection now available online

“Hidden Memphis” feature for The Commercial Appeal

March 25, 2012

Memphis has a soul, and if you can hear it in the music and taste it in the food, then you can certainly see it in the photography of Don Newman.

Images that date back to the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s give us a glimpse of the city in her heyday, when Downtown was the focal point of shopping, commerce and entertainment.

Pick a street scene — Main Street, Madison Avenue, Union Avenue — and witness the men and women bustling from here to there. Stare into one, and you can almost hear their footsteps and feel the breeze as they walk past on their way to Goldsmith’s Department Store, Britling’s Cafeteria or the Warner Theater.

Though the sites themselves may be gone, their images live on and online at memphisheritage.org, where since January, the public can click on the Newman Collection portfolio and choose a print to view or purchase.

Newman, who passed away in 1994, was born in Memphis in 1919, and his interest in photography was fostered at an early age by an uncle in Meridian, Miss., who owned Hammond Photography Studio. After attending Tech High School, Newman was offered a job with George Haley, a well-known commercial photographer at the time.

His work with Haley began a career that would last a lifetime. “He thought maybe he would go on to college, but he took this job because he was interested in it and he never left; he stayed in photography because he loved it,” said Newman’s widow, Bertha Newman … (read more)

Oct 9 2011

Park place: Establishing recreation system was linchpin of improving Memphis

Hidden Memphis feature story for The Commercial Appeal

Oct. 9, 2011

The founders had a plan, and it began with the parks.

When Memphis was established in 1819, parks and open spaces were as much a part of the vision as the Mississippi River, commerce and cotton. With a total of 36 acres decreed by the founders (the earliest being Court Square, Market Square, Exchange Square, Auction Square and the promenade along the bluff), Memphis established itself as a city on the cutting edge of culture, recreation and meeting the needs of the community.

Today, with activists and leaders suddenly intent on expanding and utilizing existing green space as an amenity to attract a creative class of people and industry, it’s a resource the city has actually been cultivating and sitting upon since its earliest days.

As early as 1889, Judge L.B. McFarland began looking into the creation of a park system for the city. Nine years later, John C. Olmsted, son of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., the designer of New York’s Central Park, visited Memphis to investigate the possibility of such a system.

The mood of the nation following the Civil War, Reconstruction and the yellow fever epidemics led to an avid progressive movement of city beautification … (read more)

Aug 14 2011

Main Street beckoned as stylish destination for shopping, key market for designers

Hidden Memphis feature for The Commercial Appeal

Aug. 14, 2011

In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, if a Mid-Southerner wanted to see a movie, dine out or shop, she would visit Downtown Memphis. There, she would have her choice of the Warner Theatre, Loews Palace Theater or Majestic; lunch at Anderton’s or Britling Cafeteria. And she would want to look her best — Downtown was as much an ideal of sophistication as a destination — and for that, she would shop at Goldsmith’s, Levy’s, Lowenstein’s, Gerber’s, Bry’s or Julius Lewis.

Babbie Lovett was typical of the era, a small-town girl from Arkansas whose father had business to be taken care of in Memphis. The trip to the city — three hours to travel 60 miles — was like journeying a world away.

“When Daddy would bring us to town to sell cotton, he would say to Mother, ‘Do you want to get out on big heaven or little heaven?’ Big heaven was Goldsmith’s, and little heaven was Levy’s,” Lovett explained.

As a young woman, Lovett came back to Memphis for college. Main Street, the main artery for fashion and shopping, never lost its luster. The evolution and cycles of couture became a focal point of her life and career, beginning with modeling for Goldsmith’s.

“I came to Southwestern to go to school, and when we would go Downtown, we’d put on high heels and wear gloves, but that was a different era, and I’ve seen it (fashion cycles) happen about every 10 or 20 years: Lifestyle dictates fashion,” Lovett said. “But Memphis was such a melting pot for people from Mississippi, Missouri, Arkansas and Middle Tennessee, which was totally different from Memphis.” … (read more)

May 9 2011

Depression-era program built state-of-the-art hospital for public health

Hidden Memphis feature story for The Commercial Appeal

May 8, 2011

In 1935, America was still in the grip of the Great Depression. Thousands of men were out of work, and families shifted, hungry and anxious, looking for employment and a helping hand of any sort. Out of this panic, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was created, a series of economic programs meant to provide relief, recovery and reform to our country.

Of the New Deal programs, the most aggressive by far was the Works Progress Administration, begun in 1935. The WPA employed millions and invested nearly $7 billion in carrying out public works projects across the land. Shelby County was a large beneficiary of the upgrades and pay with $20 million in assets by 1937 to show for the work.

The goals of the WPA in Memphis were to employ men and women and improve health, recreation and, by default, community. Projects overseen by WPA district supervisor M.E. Williams at the time included the installation of 5,500 feet of sanitary sewers and the resurfacing of alleyways. Crump Stadium was built to hold 15,000 at a cost of $161,270, Union Avenue was paved, many area public schools were painted and repaired, and a dog pound was built at Front and Auction.

In Overton Park, an open-air band stage and shell were built for $17,609, while in the nearby zoo, a monkey island was constructed at a cost of $14,573.

As to health, for a city still reeling from the effects and memories of the yellow fever epidemic, the fight against mosquitoes and malaria was paramount, and money and manpower were spent to shore up ditches, culverts and bayous around the area, and a new hospital was built … (read more)

Apr 3 2011

Hidden Memphis: On Film Row

Hidden Memphis series for The Commercial Appeal

April 3, 2011

Downtown district supplied Mid-South movie houses for decades

If you saw the 1969 version of “True Grit” in a local theater, the images on screen of a one-eyed John Wayne were produced from light streaming through film unwound from a large “platter” wheel.

That platter more than likely would have been sent to your theater from Downtown, from one of many one-story brick buildings that made up the district surrounding Vance and South Second Street, known as Film Row.

In an age when movie theaters would change their offerings several times a week, the films had to be ready to ship, and trucks would move in and out of the district at all hours of the night. For much of its tenure as a film distribution center, Memphis served the areas of Arkansas, West Tennessee, North Mississippi and the boot heel of Missouri.

The location was a natural with its centralized spot in the Mid-South, access to major roads and bridges, and the trains running through Memphis Union Station that stood only a block to the south.

Incidentally, if you saw Jeff Bridges’ performance in “True Grit” last year in a local theater, it was probably shipped from Hollywood on an encrypted hard drive and uploaded to a server for viewing … (read more)

Mar 13 2011

Hidden Memphis: Downtown watchmaking school trained hundreds for post-war careers

Hidden Memphis series for The Commercial Appeal

March 13, 2011

During the early to mid-20th century in Downtown Memphis, as people bustled along on their way to shopping at Goldsmith’s Department Store, a movie at the Majestic Theatre on Main or lunch at Anderton’s, a group of students were hunched over fragile instruments, listening intently for the delicate movements of timepieces to tell them their problems.

For a brief period of time in Memphis, time was a growing concern. From 1940 until 1953, the Southern College of Watchmaking was a place where hundreds of people came from all over to learn the intricacies of and skills it takes to build and repair watches and clocks, before flooding back into the world as ambassadors from our city and of the time itself.

The building — a three-story brick edifice — is no longer there at 83 N. Second. The corner is now a blacktop parking lot hemmed in by the law offices of Burch Porter & Johnson in the old Tennessee Club to the south and the towering 100 N. Main building to the north. But in its time, said jeweler William McGary of Paducah, Ky., a 1949 graduate, “Court Square was our campus.”

Forrest L. Osborne, a Perry, Okla., native and the son of a doctor, founded the school at 776 Poplar near Manassas as a jewelry making and watch repair educational institution. A place where “crippled and other incurably injured persons” could learn a valuable and productive skill, according to a 1943 story in The Commercial Appeal … (read more)

Mar 7 2011

Digital history: New online archive displays vast collections of library’s Memphis Room

Hidden Memphis series for The Commercial Appeal

March 3, 2011

If you are interested in a sepia-toned photo of the 1932 graduating class of Central High School or an 1836 letter from William Andusentte of New Orleans to Britton Duke of Germantown regarding cotton prices, you can put on your shoes and button up your coat before heading to the fourth floor of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library to see them.

Or, thanks to Sarah Frierson, digital projects manager for the library, you can put your feet up on your desk, give the mouse a few clicks and see them without ever changing out of your pajamas.

The Memphis & Shelby County Room, established in 1971, is currently home to 160,000 processed manuscript collections, more than 10,000 photos, tens of thousands of newspaper clippings and a special book collection of Memphis-related materials.

“The Memphis Room is one of the most extensive collections of local history material in the United States,” said Wayne Dowdy, senior manager of the history department. “There are very few public libraries that have the kind of in-depth research materials that we’ve got. It’s a great asset to the community because it tells Memphis’ story and Memphis’ whole story.” … (read more)