Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.
Dear Vance: In your December issue, a woman wrote that her husband claimed a restaurant called Pappy's never existed. Well, he is mistaken, because I ate there many times. It stood at the corner of Poplar and Hollywood. — f.t., memphis.
Dear F.T.: Well . . . yes and no. It's true that Pappy and Jimmy's Restaurant stood on that corner, identified by one of the greatest neon signs in Memphis history — a surreal creation that depicted a pair of giant lobsters with the human heads of Pappy and Jimmy. The flickering neon caused the lobster claws to click open and shut, an awful sight that gave me nightmares for years.
But that wasn't the establishment my reader was questioning. Her husband had, for reasons only he can explain, doubted the existence of one of our city's most famous eateries, a landmark that stood on Madison for almost half a century. Anyone who lived in Memphis from the 1940s through the 1980s surely remembers Pappy's Lobster Shack at 2100 Madison, a ramshackle establishment created by a man who became known as "The Lobster King," "The Mayor of Overton Square," and — considering he was still working at age 100 — "The Oldest Active Chef in America."
His name was Lehman C. Sammons, but everybody knew him as Pappy.
This remarkable gentleman was born in 1879 in Dancyville, Tennessee, and was sent to Memphis at the age of 10 because, as he later told a reporter, "My family couldn't afford to feed me." Perhaps those hunger pangs inspired him to spend the next 90 years of his life working around food. He promptly got a job as a dishwasher with the old John Gaston Restaurant, which stood at Court Square, and over the years worked at many other eateries around town. He once told an interviewer that in his entire life he probably spent only 30 days in school, but it didn't really matter, because Sammons — oh, let's just call him Pappy here — seemed to have plenty of brains, and a real knack for being involved with successful restaurants.
He opened a hamburger stand at Calhoun and Front in 1910 and later moved to a better location across the street from the old Union Station. There he met quite a few show business people, and his little restaurant became extraordinarily popular with entertainers passing through town. "You know how show business folks and baseball players will travel with food news?" he asked a reporter. "They are just like buzzards. They know where a dead mule is all the time." I'm sure he meant that in the best possible way.
In fact, it was the famed singer Sophie Tucker, a lady who called herself "the last of the red-hot mamas," who first told him about a delicacy being served at restaurants in New England — lobster. Pappy imported some to Memphis, and though it took a few years for people here to realize that such an ugly creature actually tasted pretty good, it soon became the most popular item on his menu.
Pappy retired from the food business in the 1940s, but quickly got bored and decided to team up with his pal Jimmy Mounce to open a new restaurant on Madison, much farther east than any of his previous ventures. He bought a pair of houses just west of Cooper, joined them together, and in 1947 opened Pappy and Jimmy's Lobster Shack. The "Jimmy" was Jimmy Mounce — not, as lots of folks believe, one of Pappy's kids.
By all accounts, it was an astonishing place. Everybody today talks about the amazing assortment of "stuff" at The Rendezvous, but apparently that couldn't hold a candle to Pappy's antiques, which filled every room of the cluttered restaurant: clocks, guns, musical instruments, paintings, moose antlers, antique mirrors — even a pair of aviator Amelia Earhart's flying boots (or so he claimed). Over the years, the unusual place continued to attract celebrities, and Pappy was friends with such stars as Tyrone Power, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Dizzy Dean, Yogi Berra, and countless others.
At the time, this stretch of Madison was still residential, and neighbors complained about bootlegging and the loud music pouring from the jukebox. But among Pappy's many pals was a certain fellow named E.H. Crump, who decided there was no bootlegging and the jukebox wasn't loud. In fact, Crump declared that Pappy "ran a high-class place," so Pappy's stayed open and the neighbors shut up. Pappy eventually bought two more houses and somehow linked them all together, so that he could accommodate as many as 400 diners — and most nights he did.
"Long before there was an Overton Square, Madison near Cooper was known throughout the country for Pappy's Lobster Shack," said an old Memphis Press-Scimitar article. "It was here that movie stars, celebrities, and just plain folks all dined when they were in Memphis. And regardless of who they were, Pappy Sammons greeted them individually and made them feel special."
My pal Ruth Hendrix worked at Overton Square in the early 1970s and showed me an old Pappy's menu she had saved. We don't know the date of this, but for such a small place, it served an astonishing variety of food, at equally astonishing prices: broiled Maine lobster for just $5.50, swordfish steak for $2.50, T-bone steak for $4.80, along with shrimp, chicken, clams, catfish, and ham. How many places today, I wonder, serve turtle soup (a bowl was just 50 cents) or fried jumbo frog legs (rather pricey at $3.85)? And for dessert, I can't recall any restaurant that ever offered something called "Chitlins & Marshmallows — Stuffed." Yum!
Pappy and Jimmy opened a second restaurant in 1952 at Poplar and Hollywood. For some reason, they went their separate ways a few years later, and Mounce took over the Poplar location while Pappy took charge of the Lobster Shack — and took Jimmy's name off the place. As far as I know, the original Shack never had that crazy lobster-headed sign, though the image appeared on the menus.
Pappy himself suffered a setback in March 1962 when a blaze destroyed most of the Lobster Shack. Most people would have just called it quits — after all, by this time Pappy was 80 years old! But after a few months, he reopened, though he had to replace more than $100,000 in antiques alone. I've never seen a decent picture of the entire place, but after the fire the Press-Scimitar ran a photo of the westernmost portion, which would be rebuilt.
In the 1970s, the entertainment district called Overton Square began to develop around the old Lobster Shack. Pappy enjoyed his status as the "mayor" of the area, and on April 25, 1979, a parade was held in honor of his 100th birthday. There were all sorts of activities, and the president of the Memphis Restaurant Association presented him with a plaque officially declaring him "the oldest active chef in the world."
I'm sorry to tell you that Pappy would not enjoy the honor long. He died one month to the day after his 100th birthday. His daughter, Mrs. William Huntzicker, ran the restaurant for a few more years, but eventually it became too much work for her. "When Daddy and I shared the responsibility, it was different," she told the Press-Scimitar, "but it is too confining now." One of her father's greatest concerns, she said, was that Pappy's beloved Shack would close after his death, but what could she do? She closed the doors in late 1980. The building was eventually razed, and is now a parking lot next to Paulette's. I imagine bits and pieces of it — and all the amazing things displayed inside — wound up in homes across the city.
The other Pappy and Jimmy's, the one on Poplar, is also gone. Under new ownership, it moved into a new building on Summer, just past I-240, taking the magnificent lobster sign along. But it just wasn't the same, and that restaurant closed in the mid-1990s. The sign, by now missing most of its flashing neon, remained standing for years afterwards, but it got blown down in the great windstorm of 2003.
The former Pappy and Jimmy's site at the corner of Hollywood is now a Sonic drive-in. It has its own distinctive architecture, that's for sure, but nothing can ever hold a candle to that lobster-headed sign with the clicking claws. I still have nightmares about that from time to time. Of course, those could be the result of eating too many chitlins and marshmallows before bedtime.
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