In The Beginning

Thirty-five years can seem an eternity in the life of a city— and a city magazine. In both cases, we have made such huge advances that we might not even recognize the way we worked, lived, and played back in 1976.

The magazine, on the surface, looks much the same. But we sometimes have to remind our younger colleagues that back in“the good old days” we didn’t scratch out stories on clay tablets. Even so, the technology back then must seem as antiquated as Gutenberg’s press.

Working out of a printing company on Brooks Road, writers banged out manuscripts on typewriters — sheet after sheet of 20-pound white bond paper. Freelance submissions all too often arrived scribbled on legal pads, and we patiently typed them up.

Editors marked up the pages with cryptic symbols, and back they went to the writer. Changes were made using a “cut-and-paste” system that sounds familiar, but we meant it literally; we took scissors and X-acto knives and snipped out the bad paragraphs, and pasted (or taped) new copy into place.

That was just the first step in the assembly line. The complete manuscript was then handed to two staffers who sat all day at balky Compugraphic typesetting machines — pretty much the only “computers” in the building — which translated the stories into text that scrolled out on long (and expensive) strips of photographic film. Art directors pasted these down on cardboard layouts with hot wax (it’s true!) and then handed them to an employee whose actual job title was “stripper.”

Using a camera as big as a doghouse and a process too complicated to go into here, the stripper transformed the laid-out pages into negatives, which were carefully collated and turned into printing plates — one for each page of the magazine. The magazines were printed in the building in those days, and we knew our work was almost complete when we felt the mighty rumble of the presses starting up late at night.

We had no Google, no Internet, no spell-checkers. Our “bibles” were battered dictionaries, various stylebooks, and whatever reference tomes were piled in cubicles. Correcting even simple mistakes, as you might expect, was diffi cult — sometimes impossible. But somehow we got it done, day after day, month after month. 

Just as with Memphis the magazine, Memphis the city has seen rather dramatic changes since 1976, and the past 35 years have arguably been the most dynamic in our city’s long history. Just consider:

In 1976, the main attraction here was the zoo, but it bore little resemblance to the zoo of today. There was no Cat Country or Primate Canyon or Teton Trek. The only country the poor lions and tigers ever saw was the bare concrete walls and steel bars of their cramped cages, and most of the other creatures fared little better.

Elvis fans were drawn to Graceland, then as now, but all they could do was drive past the big house and wonder if he was home. That would change dramatically the following year, as Jackson Baker recounts on page 82, but even so, the mansion would remain closed to the public
for another five years.

Downtown, good luck finding a decent hotel room. The Sheraton Peabody (as it was then known) was closed, and the old Chisca, Tennessee, and Claridge Hotels were barely hanging on. A few pioneering citizens actually lived here and there downtown in 1976, but you really had to search for them. There was no Downtown Neighborhood Association because there was, quite simply, no neighborhood.

Sears Crosstown was the city’s beehive of retail activity, with hundreds of employees processing some 40,000 catalog orders a day. Shoppers
thronged to Laurelwood shopping center, Goldsmith’s, Lowenstein’s and J.B. Hunter. Southland Mall had opened, along with Raleigh Springs Mall, but the Mall of Memphis was still five years away, and Wolfchase Galleria — well, who could imagine anyone shopping so far out in the country?

Without videocassette recorders in every home, movies were a good way to spend the evening, but the downtown theaters were struggling. The projectors still flickered at the Malco, drawing several dozen patrons on good nights, but Loew’s Palace had been reduced to Bruce Lee movies, and Loew’s State had closed.

For concerts, you had two choices: Big names like Three Dog Night played at the Mid-South Coliseum, where you paid $4, $5, and $6 for tickets. Smaller acts like the J. Geils Band played at Ellis Auditorium, and up-and-comers like Billy Joel or Phoebe Snow packed Lafayette’s Music Hall in Overton Square, which was pretty much the place to be in the early 1970s.

Pappy was still working the kitchen at the Lobster Shack, Big John Grisanti was holding court on Airways, and Justine was still queen of our city’s top-rated restaurant.

A new bicentennial theme park had just opened at the Mid-South Fairgrounds, Lakeland was booming, and swimmers and sunbathers were drawn to the white sand beaches of Maywood. But Mud Island was just a scruffy sandbar in the river with a one-strip airport, Cooper-
Young was little more than a midtown intersection, and Germantown Road was a two-lane highway to nowhere.

Obviously we — the city and the magazine — have both come a long way. It hasn’t always been a smooth ride, but we’ve certainly enjoyed the journey. We hope you have too.

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