Signs of the Times: What are the stories behind Memphis' ghost signs that advertise to another era ?
from MEMPHIS DOWNTOWNER magazine, February, 2008.
“It is our aim and desire to show in this theater to the people of this neighborhood and to all Memphians the best obtainable feature photoplay and comedy,” So said the advertisement advertising the grand opening of the Lamar Theater November 29, 1926. The movie would be accompanied by a new Wurlitzer organ and The Twilight Serenaders would be serenading at the opening. First film- “Campus Flirt”
Things changed. In 1967 the owners had a new marketing strategy- Adult Cinema. In December of that year the film was “Love and Money” the ad promised it was “in throbbing color.” If there was an updated version of “Campus Flirt” it probably would have made it to the screen.
The old theater makes it into at least two films. “Mystery Train” filmed in Summer, 1988, shows a neglected and abandoned building. 2005’s documentary “Inside Deep Throat” tells an intriguing story.
According to the film, the theater was running “Deep Throat.” Some men came to the box office saying they were the movies distributors and wanted their take of the day’s receipts. The theater refused and then the men went on their way. That night a huge fire damaged the theater.
Asking at the Memphis Fire Museum, veteran fire fighter Bill Adelman does not remember any major fires there and the Memphis Arson Squad investigators said they would need a date to cross reference any arson reports. Joe Lowry, a former dispatcher in the alarm office who also researches local history, has no memories of it. What is clear is the advertisements stopped April 18, 1977 but the papers revealed no article about a theater fire at that time.
Across the street from the COMMERCIAL APPEAL, a giant bottle on a sign shows the location of Bellanti’s Liquor’s. That bottle has been dry for about ten years now.
Owners Albert and his brother, Edilo opened across the street in 1946 about where the parking lot for the newspaper is currently located. They lost their lease in 1961 and opened here early the next year. A MEMPHIS PRESS-SCIMITAR photo of a nearby fire from the July 19, 1977 shows the current sign located in the parking lot.
“My mother helped the father with the books,” says Albert’s son, Gary. “In the summer I’d go down there. There used to be a restaurant by Sun Studios called Taylor’s and we would walk down there and eat,” he remembers.
The family sold the store after Albert died in 1966, but the new owners kept the name into the late 1980’s. Edilo died in 1978. The last listing was in 1998 for Henry’s Liquor Store.
56 South Main
The dark red sign looks good for its age.
In 1933 Lawrence Furniture opened here next door to the Warner Theater. The place was a regular advertiser in the paper, not big ads, but they were frequent.
April, 18. 1973 Lawrence advertised a 3-day-sale. Not a going out of business sale, just a sale. That was the last advertisement. No ads show up in later papers and that is the year it stops showing up in city directories, which seems to have been a strange time to close because the SunTrust skyscraper had its grand opening that same month.
Last November, developers announced the building will become the General Washburn apartments. This is one ghost sign which may soon be going to the the next world.
405 North Main
Look closely at the pealing paint and you can make out two advertisements.
The first is C. W. Miller. Christian Will (“Charlie”) Miller moved to Memphis around 1910 and before that was a railroad engineer and a member of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders according to his 1955 obituary. City directories show he had his garage here from 1919 to 1928. Seems he kept busy. He served as Commissioner of Fire and Police, Commissioner of Streets, Bridges and Sewers, acting mayor, county coroner and owner of Giant Truck Agency. Service Blowpipe moved in by the 1929 city directory.
Bellow Mr. Miller’s name is “Gooch’s Best Pasta.” Today Martha Gooch’s Pasta is still in business. It’s website shows the company starting in 1917.
These are the eye’s glancing to the right as you drive west on Sam Cooper. “Here it is. Pauper’s Bazaar” the sign beckons. Pauper’s Bazaar is listed as opening in 1992 the city directory.
Larry Patton, the current owner, remembers the thrift store as being owned by a woman named Barbara who closed the store before moving to Florida. Patton purchased the building in late 1996, which is also the last year the city directories show the store listed.
Currently he is trying to sell the spot. It had been Wilson’s restaurant for several years before Pauper’s and he expects another restaurant there. “The neighborhood has picked up a bit. It’s just a matter of time before it is sold,” he says.
Amongst the bars and restaurants of Cooper/Young a hardware store would be just as out of place as the name “East End.”
It was different in 1925, when this was East and the laptop-toting, MP3 listening Cooper/ Young hipsters where about three generations from being born. This store opened first across the street then two years later to where the sign can still be seen today. East End was replaced by the Alvin Ham Variety Store in 1934.
56-60 South Front
56 South Front is maroon. The kind of maroon a Texas A & M Aggie fan would wear going to the season’s first home game. 60 S. Front is pink - the kind of pink that glows from the “Barbie” aisle at Wal-Mart. After more than a decade the colors of Prince Mongo’s Planet still shine.
Prince Mongo aka Robert Hodges first started annoying his neighbors at his home on Eastmorland in 1975, filling his yard with his art - aka junk. He began a tense relationship with neighbors and the city that included digging a grave for himself in the front yard, and trying to fly a balloon to his native planet of Zambodia (it made it about two miles to Rhodes College).
He also ran for County Mayor in 1978 – and several elections since wearing his wig, bones around his neck and loin cloth. With all that publicity he opened here September 29, 1984 - Zam Nu- the Zambodian New Year. He sold “Spiritual Pizzas and Spiritual Subs” But that’s not all that happened here.
He received tax breaks opening here in Cotton Row which was then in need of residents and businesses. But he was hardly in keeping with the feel of the area. Loud colors, neon and a painting of the devil (sporting the name “Mayor Dick Hackett”) with his arm around a bikini- clad woman were not what preservationists wanted.
After a decade-plus of legal problems and a name change to Saint Mongo’s Atonement Center, the bar closed in November, 1995. The following June it was painted. It has not yet been sold, but lack of visibility is certainly not the reason.
A Good man worked here from 1954 to 1989. Actually several good men named Goodman along with a loyal staff of good men and women.
Joseph Goodman opened his first jewelry store in 1862, the same year Confederate and Union ironclads battled in front of Memphis. He passed the business to his son Julius, who then took his son, Joseph into the business in 1929 – Giving it the name Julius Goodman and Sons.
He moved to 113 Madison September, 20, 1954, where the sign still is visible today. Their niche was finding rare silverware patterns.
Another niche they had was keeping employees happy. A September, 2, 1989 COMMERCIAL APPEAL article said Winfred Wright had been there 58 years, Murray White had worked for 53 years and Evelyn White had 31 years of service. The article announced Joseph and his cousin Arthur would be retiring and closing up shop within the month.
Joseph died November, 1992 and Arthur May, 2002.
You see into this empty building if you are running on the treadmills at the Fogelman YMCA. Good news- a newspaper article says this attractive 1920’s building will be renovated into apartments. The bad news… That article was written in 1975.
The first building in Memphis designed for doctors opened here in 1924 and built at the cost of about one million dollars. A penthouse, three passenger elevatiors and a library made this a choice spot for a variety of offices including International Business Machines decades before IBM became a recognized brand. The building’s name was changed February, 1952 from The Medical Arts Building to The Hickman Building. Look closely on the west side of the building and you can still see evidence of the old name.
Due to financial problems tenants were told to move by April 1, 1971. Following the closing of the building it became a campground for the homeless. But there was always potential. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
Burglars took out much of its pluming and wiring in 1981. A two alarm fire early April 23, 1993 in the penthouse almost was the end of this “big empty.” An article about a massive cleanup of twenty-plus years of trash in 1995 gave a less than appealing image of this once grand building. Today the Hickman and its white marble facade still waits for redevelopment.
365 S. Main
A faded ad seems to be a memorial to a good man.
“Holiness is Beautiful” says the sign inviting visitors to join services. This was the location of the Sunshine Mission, a non-denominational Christian Church headed by part-time preacher Asa L. Stamps from 1925 to 1932 before he moved the congregation to Poplar. His 1937 obituary says he helped out at various churches and missions. He was a man who “loved every ‘down and outer’ – who gave almost every hour of his spare time for the last 15 years in helping them,” the article said.
Now the sign is old, but is it THAT old? A search through city directories shows various businesses at the spot over the last eighty years but Sunshine Mission is the only church listed. Terra cotta crosses in the façade seem to indicate this building was built for a church. If not, this article is as good as any place to remember a forgotten philanthropist. Any insight, readers?
A man in and woman in their early twenties stand out front of the Hotel Pontotoc dressed in 1937 garb in a photo in the MEMPHIS PRESS-SCIMITAR. They were dressed for the winter, but actually it was January, 1983 and the photo was of the independent film “The Old Forest” directed by University of Memphis (then Memphis State) professor Steven J Ross. The crew used the closed hotel for exterior shots of a bar called “The Cellar.” Even for South Main, this hotel is old being built sometime between 1905 and 1910. 1911-12 is when the boom really started for SoMain
The hotel was also home to a night club in the basement. The building was purchased in December, 1969 and closed shortly thereafter according to a 1982 article, also in the PRESS-SCIMITAR. The article interviewed owners Terry and Leigh Davis who purchased the building in July, 1980 and made the building into a home and recording studio. The two recounted a couple stories of earlier residents.
Artist Dionicio Rodriguez lived there in the 1930’s as he sculpted on the grottos at Memorial Park. There was also the story of a man named “Sidney” a caretaker who was burned to death in the boiler room of the hotel. A creepy tale, only it very well may be true. An April 13, 1947 death certificate mentions a man who lived at 305 S. Front, next door to Hotel Pontotoc, dying “about home” due to accident where his “clothes caught fire.” Name – yes- Sidney.
347 S. Main
The Ambassador Hotel and its 140 rooms came about the days of peak ridership at the Central and Union train stations. That was 1926. By the 1970’s it became a spot frequented by transients and the poor renting rooms at $5 a night with a private bath or $3.75 if you did not mind sharing. Charles Mathis was the owner from 1964 until it closed April 3, 1982. During that time there was a fire in 1968 and man was shot in 1979 after threatening employees and customers with a knife.
For a few months- late 1988 to early 1989- the hotel reopened but closed again. Today part of the hotel has been remodeled to apartments, but the coffee shop, lobby and yes, the signs, still remain as empty as they were a quarter century earlier.
SPECIAL THANKS TO THE MEMPHIS PUBLIC LIBRARY AND INFORMATION CENTER, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND THE ARCHIVES OF THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL AND THE MEMPHIS PRESS-SCIMITAR
Return to www.devingreaney.com