April Fools

A look at memorable foibles, follies, and fiascos in our city's history.



Don't laugh, but Memphians like to think we are a pretty clever bunch. For proof, we always point to Elvis Presley, FedEx founder Fred Smith, grocery guru Clarence Saunders, and other visionaries who made their dreams come true, thanks to a combination of talent, brains, and — sometimes — luck.

But let's face it. Our city is also populated with people like Jessica Booth, a Raleigh teenager who needed money for modeling school. She decided to rob four men of a huge block of pure cocaine she had noticed in their apartment. Unfortunately, the fellow she enlisted for help turned out to be a police informant. The pistol she got from him didn't even have a firing pin.

Oh, and it wasn't cocaine Booth had spotted. It was a great big hunk of cheese.

But let's not pick on one person. Some of our city's movers-and-shakers — we won't mention names — are now mixed up in the nefarious schemes of the Stanford Financial Group. Years ago, the Lauderdales lost their shirts — and our other belongings — when we invested in foolish ventures like dirigibles and linotype machines, so we certainly sympathize with everyone involved with Stanford. Sympathize, yes. Pity, no.

So this being the month for April Fools, we wanted to look back at just a few of the most noteworthy bloopers and blunders in our city's past. As you'll see, sometimes even big shots like Clarence Saunders can make some bone-headed decisions that cause us to grind our teeth decades later, and ask, "What were they thinking?" >>>

Sticking It to Us

We hate to speak ill of the dead, but gosh what are we to say about developer and super-promoter Sidney Shlenker? The former owner of the Denver Nuggets swept into town in the mid-1980s, charmed anybody and everybody with his gap-toothed smile and bear-paw handshake, and somehow managed to get even the most skeptical Memphians to believe that what this city needed more than anything else on earth was a pyramid.

And not just any pyramid-shaped building, either. No, what Sidney had in mind would be called The Great American Pyramid, and it would serve as a national symbol for Memphis, much like the Arch in St. Louis or the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Sure, it would be expensive, but it would be worth it, he said. And we believed him. After all, the Pyramid would not only host concerts and sporting events and Wonders exhibits, but futuristic "inclinators" riding in slots on two corners of the structure would whisk visitors to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the very peak of the building. Or maybe it was the Grammy Hall of Fame. We were never really sure, and it didn't matter, because ole Sid promised it would happen. And we followed him like sheep because the guy was just so darned likeable. In 1989 the readers of this magazine even voted Shlenker "Memphian of the Year." It's true.

And he was just getting started with his bold schemes. Sidney unveiled plans for a truly unique entertainment complex that he dubbed Rakapolis (pronounced "rock"), that would combine Memphis' Egyptian heritage (huh?) with our musical roots. Visitors would board Egyptian-style reed boats — modeled like those used on the Nile — on Mud Island, somehow travel underground through a magical process that was never fully explained, and find themselves in a museum tracing the history of American music. Still in those weird boats, they would enter the mouth of a giant trumpet and float past dioramas depicting famous musicians and key events in musical history. At one point, it seems, they would stop in front of "the world's largest jukebox," and press a button and hear the top songs from years past.

Okay, this was just too much. City and county commissioners began to wonder just where, exactly, the money would come from to pay for all this, and quite a few people began to wonder if any of it really made sense. To carry a million visitors a year (just one number bandied about) to the museum at the top of the Pyramid would require those inclinators to race up and down the sides of the structure at 60 mph, fully loaded, 24 hours a day. The whole concept of Rakapolis just seemed, well, bizarre. While Sidney promised that the Pyramid would make Memphis famous, a survey of magazine editors we conducted just before the building opened in 1991 revealed that most journalists across the country had never heard of it, and the few who had thought it was surely a joke. An Egyptian pyramid? On the Mississippi River?

Sidney's house of cards eventually came tumbling down. Funding fell through, he had to revamp his plans, and he finally left Memphis — and left us holding the bag for the construction costs of a building that no longer carried the name "Great" or even "American." It was now just "The Pyramid." Concertgoers immediately realized that the sloping steel sides created horrible acoustics, and sports fans figured out that the shape prevented any expansion of the building on the off chance that we landed an NBA team.

Shlenker died of injuries from a car crash in 2003. The building on Front Street now stands empty. Just two years after naming him "Memphian of the Year," Memphis magazine put Shlenker on the cover — this time as Humpty-Dumpty tumbling off the top of the building he created, with the title "Pyramid Follies and Other Civic Silliness." As we put it, "Sidney Shlenker had a great fall . . ."

Dropping the Ball

As our "City Journal" columnist Tom Jones said in our March issue, "We chased NFL teams until it was said we had the highest threshold for civic embarrassment in the U.S."

Few cities in America have pursued the National Football League so long, so tenaciously — and at times, so pathetically — as Memphis. We came up with silly team names ("Hound Dogs" was a favorite, for a while), and even offered our own uniform designs (including a memorable pink number by local ad executive Anderson Humphreys). But to no avail. The NFL, it seems, doled out teams to every major city in the South except ours — St. Louis, New Orleans, Atlanta, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Miami, and Nashville. We have a bad feeling that Little Rock will get a pro team before Memphis does. Heck, for that matter, Rossville.

So it may come as a shock to learn that one time the situation was reversed. The NFL actually courted Memphis — practically begging the city to join the new league.

And we turned them down.

It was all because of one man, really. Clarence Saunders, whose name gets brought up in these pages from time to time, had made a fortune by inventing Piggly Wiggly, the world's first self-service grocery store. Back in the 1920s and '30s, private citizens often fielded their own football teams, and a sports promoter named Early Maxwell assembled a pretty good squad here. Saunders — a fellow with a keen eye for publicity — purchased the team in 1927 and, in his typically modest fashion, named them the Clarence Saunders Tigers. They toured the country, putting on exhibition games, and very quickly a remark-able thing happened. They began to win those games, and win them convincingly. And when they began to play "real" NFL teams and beat them, the NFL coaches and players took notice.

Perhaps one of the greatest days in Memphis sports history took place on December 15, 1929, at Hodges Field in Midtown, when the Tigers overpowered an outfit known, then as now, as the Green Bay Packers. Yes, those Green Bay Packers. In a variation of "if you can't beat them, join them," the NFL came calling, pleading with Saunders to join the league.

But he had other plans. His football team (and he was the sole owner) was just a lark; his real interest was in his grocery store chains. After all, that's where the money was — or so he thought. He didn't want to tour, just didn't want to fool with it, really. We really can't say how the rest of Memphis felt about it, but they didn't get a vote. In 1930, Saunders rejected the NFL's offers, and a few years later disbanded his tough Tigers.

And Memphis has been chasing that dream ever since.

Quaking with Fear

Even the best seismologists will admit that predicting earthquakes is not an exact science. In fact, last year Gary Patterson, a geologist with Memphis' Center for Earthquake Research and Information, told the Memphis Flyer, "There is a 7 to 10 percent chance we will have a major earthquake [here] in a 50-year time window." But that was about as specific as he would get.

So it caused consternation, at the very least, when Texas scientist Iben Browning said with absolute certainty that the area around the New Madrid Fault would experience a major earthquake on December 3, 1990. Since that area included Memphis, we were more than a bit concerned. Panicky, in fact, might be one way to describe it, as Memphians prepared, the best ways they knew how, for the impending disaster.

It didn't matter that Dr. Browning was actually an expert on climate, not earthquakes, or that real seismologists ridiculed his prediction. The only thing that finally calmed everyone's taut nerves was when December 3rd came and went — without an earthquake, not even a tremble.

Browning died just seven months later, but his prediction lives on, and year after year, it seems, Memphians still wait for the "Big One."

Trigger Happy

It was a lightning-fast robbery, carried out by thieves who had planned things well. And then it turned into one of the worst fiascos in Memphis history.

On the morning of August 10, 1921, a dark-blue Cadillac pulled up to the curb at the old Ford Motor Company plant on Union. Brandishing pistols and shotguns, they rushed up to a car that was bringing the company payroll back from the bank that morning — a hefty sum in those days of more than $8,500. Without warning, they fired at the four men in the vehicle. Two guards were killed instantly, and a third man was seriously wounded. But the payroll clerk, carrying all the money in a satchel, managed to stumble inside the Ford building to safety.

Their plans thwarted, the robbers raced away eastward down Union, the driver pressing the Cadillac's accelerator to the floorboard. Police arrived at the chaotic scene within minutes and knew their underpowered Fords would be no match for the powerful Caddy. So they commandeered a vehicle from a private citizen, and quickly began chase.

It just so happened that the car they borrowed was a dark-blue Cadillac.

Police called ahead and alerted the neighboring communities of White Station, Germantown, and Collierville that a carful of armed bandits was heading their way. Folks in Collierville set up a roadblock across Poplar, and more than 50 private citizens — many of them farmers and storekeepers carrying rifles and shotguns — blocked the way, their fingers on the triggers.

How were they to know that somewhere along the way, the robbers had turned off Poplar and escaped into Mississippi?

So when — just as they had been told — a dark-blue Cadillac came racing towards them, the good people of Collierville opened fire, blasting the car with hundreds of bullets and shotgun pellets. But it was the wrong car. They fired on the Cadillac carrying the police officers who — so they thought — were still chasing the bandits.

Killed instantly was police officer Vincent Lucarini. Three others in the car were riddled with bullets before the vigilantes figured out their awful mistake.

The robbers were eventually captured and sent to prison, but the final score didn't reflect a victory for justice. Robbers killed or wounded: 0. Police and Ford employees killed or wounded: 8.

Flat Tires

In the early 1900s, Memphis was an industrial powerhouse, with acres of North and South Memphis just sprawling with factories cranking out automobiles, lumber, paper, machinery, chemicals, cement, paint, and food products.

And in 1936, one of the Mid-South's largest manufacturers opened here, moving into a massive factory in North Memphis vacated by a wood-products company, and greatly expanding it. Over time, Firestone Tire & Rubber Company's huge, ultramodern facility would cover almost 40 acres, and its soaring white smokestack was visible for miles.

As one indication of the prominence of the new factory, the Memphis plant was run by none other than Raymond Firestone, the son of company founder Harvey Firestone. It served more than 25,000 tire dealers in a marketing region that stretched from Key West to southern Illinois. During World War II, the plant even produced rubber life rafts, gas masks, and raincoats for servicemen.

With all those cars on the roads in the years after the war, who could imagine a time when they wouldn't need tires? By the late 1960s, Firestone was rolling out more than 20,000 car and truck tires a day. On July 1, 1963, the company celebrated a remarkable milestone — the production of its 100 millionth tire in Memphis. That's right: ONE HUNDRED MILLION TIRES. Beginning with just a few hundred employees, Firestone had grown into the biggest industrial employer here, with a work force exceeding 3,000. The Memphis plant, in fact, was the largest tire manufacturer in the company's entire worldwide operation.

But then the new radial-ply tires hit the market, and everybody wanted them for their cars because they handled better, rode smoother, and lasted longer than the old style "bias-ply" tires (all this having to do with the way the layers of cords and rubber that make up a tire are arranged). Radial tires were better tires, and that's what every car owner wanted.

Well, that was a death blow to Firestone. The Memphis plant had indeed produced radial tires for a while, but the company made a strategic error by deciding to specialize in producing the bias-ply tires. Firestone saw its market dwindle and disappear. They could have retooled, or brought in new equipment, or done whatever it would take to produce the new tires, but company officials apparently decided it was a lost cause. In 1983, just one month after International Harvester shut down its huge farm equipment operation in Frayser, Firestone officials announced they were closing the Memphis factory.

For years and years, acres of empty shops and warehouses filled an entire block off North Thomas Street, that lone smokestack still standing tall over one of this city's great industrial ruins. In the mid-1990s, the vacant buildings were bulldozed, and at one point a developer announced he was going to turn the property into a golf course, of all things, preserving the company's old power plant as the clubhouse.

That never happened, and unless somebody else steps forward with plenty of imagination and lots of money, the old Firestone site will remain vacant for years to come.

Union Confusion

At one time in our city's history, Union Avenue was a two-lane road, lined with proud mansions. As Memphis grew eastward, that little road became a major thoroughfare, and in fact it's part of the state highway system, carrying Highways 70 and 79 through town.

The street was expanded to four lanes, then six. Elsewhere in town, Poplar Avenue, Lamar Avenue, Winchester Road, and other asphalt arteries handled their increased traffic in rather conventional fashion: three lanes heading in one direction, three lanes in the other direction, with maybe the occasional turn lane in the center. Memphians — not exactly known for their driving skills — somehow mastered these streets.

And then in 1968, the city planners came up with an entirely different system for Union. They would alter the traffic flow throughout the day. Rush-hour traffic in the mornings, heading towards downtown, would get four lanes, leaving two lanes for the opposing traffic. In the afternoon, that pattern would be reversed; eastbound traffic would get four lanes. And to help drivers figure out this system, engineers installed lighted panels on beams stretching high over each lane of traffic, a giant green arrow indicating "Go" and a big red "X" warning "Wrong way."

Needless to say, Memphians were befuddled by this system, which included more than 100 "lane control" signals. And it just got worse twice a day, when time came for the lanes to be switched, and drivers heading on a "green" lane suddenly found themselves in a "red" lane — about to have a head-on collision with opposing traffic.

Oh, and forget about left turns. They weren't allowed if you were in the two-lane section, and they were pretty risky at any and all times.

It took a while, but by the late 1990s, traffic engineers grudgingly admitted the system was flawed, with one official saying, "I guess those signs with the red X's just don't mean anything to some drivers, though you would think it would be obvious." Union Avenue was finally converted into a "normal" street. The good news is that the city engineers finally came to their senses before they could apply the same crazy lane-control system to — gulp — Germantown Parkway. Yep, that was the plan, believe it or not. Many lives were saved, I believe, because this plan was thwarted.

No Respect for the King

With a crime rate as bad as Memphis', we're lucky our city has spawned so many dumb crooks. But to end our April Fools list, we'll mention just one particularly bizarre crime that had everyone — even the famous victim — scratching their heads.

In 2004, a topless dancer named April Veach somehow got the idea that wrestling champion Jerry "The King" Lawler had hidden $200,000 in cash in an old jukebox in his East Memphis home. Veach persuaded three police officers — one of them the son of veteran TV newscaster Jerry Tate — to join her in a plot to steal the money. It would be an easy job, they thought, because Lawler was often out of town hosting wrestling matches, and the thieves managed to get their hands on blueprints of the house. But the plan went awry — to say the least — when another officer invited to join the caper tipped off the FBI, and the four were quickly arrested and charged with a surprising variety of crimes, including drug conspiracy. Veach was sentenced to prison for 13 months; the former officers went to jail for as long as 14 years.

All for nothing. A baffled Lawler told police he didn't keep any money in his home. Yes, he did have a jukebox loaded with CDs, "but not the kind you can take to the bank." 

 

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