Dear Vance: While I was looking through the old Memphis Press-Scimitar files at the University of Memphis library, I came across references to a restaurant on Poplar that was topped with a giant statue of the owner. What do you know of this curious establishment? — B.K., Germantown
Dear B.K.: Let me just tell my half-dozen readers that I recognize the initials B.K. as belonging to my pal, Bonnie Kourvelas, the talented host of the WKNO-TV series Southern Routes and producer of several of WKNO's Memphis Memoirs segments. Bonnie is an accomplished historian in her own right, so I knew that if she tossed something my way, it would be especially intriguing.
So I did what I always do when faced with such a challenge. I read her letter, thought to myself, "Oh, this can't possibly be true," and resumed my daily 19-hour naps in my special "Vance Lauderdale" limited-edition La-Z-Boy.
After a few weeks of dawdling in this fashion, I grudgingly pulled myself out of my comfy chair and headed over to the U of M library, to see what the heck Bonnie was talking about. And that's when I found the picture of The Giant Head. As you can see, she wasn't making this up.
Bonnie tells me that she was actually researching the local Greek Orthodox community and the Greek Food Festival held every May at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on Highland. And yet tucked into the old Press-Scimitar files were several photos and news clippings about a rather enterprising fellow named John George Morris (above). Despite his somewhat British-sounding name, I assume Morris was Greek, and that explains why he and his Giant Head ended up in the Greek Orthodox files.
Here's what I found out. Morris, a former attorney, was the co-owner of a fairly successful restaurant at 1380 Jackson Avenue called the Riviera Grill. In 1949, he purchased Friedel's, a restaurant that had opened some 10 years earlier at 3135 Poplar, right across from East High School.
Now here's where things began to get just a little strange. For reasons that were never explained, Morris and his co-owner, James Bryonis, decided to name their new establishment "The Old Master Says." Who is the "Old Master" and what, exactly, does he say? I have no idea. But Morris told reporters that he planned to spend $75,000 — a large sum in those days — to jazz up the place. Among other things, he added booths everywhere ("having found that people like to eat in semi-privacy"), bought one of the city's first Seeburg 100-selection jukeboxes, painted the walls peach and cherry, and — this always signifies a classy establishment — put up mirrored columns.
What's more, he announced that the popular hostess at the Riviera Grill, Verna DeShazo ("who was chosen Miss Restaurant of 1948") would come to The Old Master Says, and according to Morris, "the other waitresses will be almost as pretty." My, I bet that made those women feel special. Almost as pretty.
But then came the most astonishing feature of all. Morris first commissioned noted Memphis artist Burton Callicott to sculpt a life-size bust of himself, dressed in a suit and tie. Then, using a mathematical process that the newspapers called "miraculous," the proportions of this bust were increased so that designer Mike Abt could construct a 14-foot version, built of "gypsum composition on metal lathe," which would somehow be placed on the roof of the new restaurant. Abt, who has been mentioned in this column many times, was the Tech High School art teacher who designed most of the elaborate Cotton Carnival floats year after year, so this was right up his alley.
"It's the biggest bust that's ever hit this part of the country," Abt told the Press-Scimitar. "I don't know of any as big on the face of the earth — unless it's the head of the Statue of Liberty."
Morris admitted he had been pondering various ways to promote his new restaurant's trademarked motto, "Good Food at Popular Prices," when he thought, "Just put me up there." He told reporters, "It will be unique — maybe even grotesque." Well, he was right about that. The big head, which would be "criss-crossed by flashing floodlights at night," would certainly have been one of the strangest buildings in Memphis — especially since, if you ask me, the head looked more like Chairman Mao than Morris.
Now here's the real mystery. I found old photographs of the restaurant just when it opened (opposite page), and pictures of the bust when it was still under construction (below). But I have never found anybody who remembers if The Giant Head was ever placed atop the restaurant. It pains me to say it, but I suspect the restaurant was — get ready for it — a bust.
And another element of this mystery is: What happened to Morris? The Old Master Says restaurant opened in March 1949. It was no longer listed in the city directories in 1951, which means it stayed open for only one year, maybe less. And Morris himself was no longer in the telephone books in 1951, which suggests he either passed away or moved elsewhere. That same year, his Riviera Grill also passed into new ownership, taken over by a trio of Greeks: Nicholas Koleas, Pete Futris, and Steve Ritsos. That building, much altered, today houses the offices of Memphis City Councilman Joe Brown.
Dobbs House took over the establishment on Poplar and operated it as Dobbs House #4 for several years before transforming it into one of our city's first theme restaurants — the much-loved Luau. And it too had a giant head, not on top of the building, but out front by the entrance. That one was modeled after the stone heads found in Polynesia, instead of the ambitous John George Morris.
Today the building is a paint store — an appropriate use, I guess, for a place with such a colorful history.
Dear Vance: My family says that one of the "hot spots" of downtown Memphis was the Catholic Club, where they held dances and all sorts of fun activities. Where was this place, and what happened to it? — M.G., Memphis
Dear M.G.: I'm not sure "hot spot" would be the best way to describe what was essentially an athletic club operated by the Catholic Church, but the building certainly offered plenty of entertainment options for its members.
I managed to find an old magazine advertisement for the club, which was constructed in 1923 at a cost of $600,000. Located at the southeast corner of Third and Adams, the handsome six-story building was described as "one of the best-equipped club buildings in the South and includes every modern convenience." Inside, you could find a complete gymnasium, bowling alleys, billiard room, swimming pool, dance rooms, an "excellent café," and even a rooftop garden. The top floors contained 74 spacious apartments that could be rented by members. The Press-Scimitar proclaimed it "the hub of Catholic activity in Memphis."
But it didn't stay that way for very long. A later newspaper article noted "a long history of financial troubles," and in 1939 the building was auctioned off for precisely $39,056. I remember tales of that fateful day when the Lauderdales went to that auction and bid $39,000. We thought we had won the property, and then we got outbid at the last minute by just $56. It annoyed Papa for years, and was just one of the reasons he left the church, I believe. Well, that and the drinking.
According to old newspaper articles, there was talk about converting the empty building into Juvenile Court offices, or even using the site for a new Federal Reserve Bank. None of that came to pass, and the structure stood empty for years. Meanwhile, former club members bought property on Helene Road in East Memphis, and built a more modern — though much smaller — club, which is still in use today.
The downtown Catholic Club building fell to the wrecking crews in the early 1980s. A plaza for the One Memphis Place office building, described by the authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide as "a glassy black box," occupies the site today. M
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