Happy Days

Ask Vance

Dear Vance: When I was much younger, my parents often took me to a Memphis toy store called Happy Hal's. One year, the place burned down. Whatever happened to Happy Hal and his store? — K.D., Memphis.

Dear K.D.: Oh, the pain and suffering your question has caused me — long-repressed memories brought to the surface again.

You see, many years ago, when the Lauderdales were one of the richest families in the land, our Christmases were more elaborate than anything held by those upstart Vanderbilts or Rockefellers. But as the family fortunes declined, so did our celebrations, until they came to an abrupt end.

I can remember the year it happened, too: 1976. One day, several weeks before that final Christmas, Papa bundled me into the Daimler-Benz and said we were driving to the finest toy store in Memphis — Happy Hal's Toys and Gifts — so I could pick out wonderful presents and tell Santa precisely what I wanted. But as we pulled up to the darkened hulk of a building on Beale Street, Papa said, "Uh oh, Vance. The toy store has burned down! No Christmas for you, kiddo."

I stared at the charred ruins and blubbered, "But can't I just tell Santa what I want anyway?"

But Papa replied, "Nope. That's not how it works. Santa's a busy man and needs to know the exact model number and price. Gee, that's a tough break." So we just drove back home, my heart aching.

I clambered onto my little cot in the basement and cried myself to sleep that night, and for many nights afterwards. On Christmas morning, there was not a single present under the scraggly tree for me, and the Lauderdales never celebrated Christmas again.

Sweet frosted cupcakes! You can just imagine how it scarred a sensitive lad like myself. After all, I was barely 27 years old!

I'll answer your question, though it pains me to do so. Born in 1923, Hal Miller was a remarkable gentleman. A graduate of Central High School, he studied at the New York Theater School of Dramatic Arts and earned a degree in drama from Northwestern, and when he returned to Memphis appeared in just about every play in town. Besides acting and singing, he was also — like myself — an award-winning tap dancer.

But his big break came in 1955, when WHBQ-TV made him the host of a children's show called Snicker Flickers. Over the years, that program evolved into The Happy Hal Show, featuring Miller and a curious puppet he called Lil' Bow, which a reporter once described as "an indistinguishable blue critter." He later told the Press-Scimitar that when he first asked the producer what the show would be, he was told "it's not going to be about anything. It's going to be whatever you want it." Audiences liked what Miller offered, for he stayed on the air for the next 17 years, hosting old movies, doing his puppet acts, and showing off the newest toys.

A toy store seemed like a natural step, and in the late 1950s Miller opened his first business at the corner of Bellevue and Lamar. He always claimed he was the first person to bring the Hula-Hoop to the Mid-South, and who's to argue? He moved Happy Hal's Toy Town to various locations in the next few years, eventually settling on a retail store at 1640 Union (where the Art Center is today) and a large wholesale operation at 269 Monroe (shown left, being demolished in the 1970s).

He opened Happy Hal's Toys and Gifts at 666 Beale in 1975, and it was this place that caught fire on the night of September 18, 1976. I couldn't find a photo of that building, but it's just as well, for I learned later that firemen quenched the blaze before too many toys were destroyed, and Miller reopened in time for Christmas. So the place never completely burned down, K.D. — something Papa never told me.

Miller closed his toy operations in 1986 but never really retired. He studied painting at Memphis College of Art and became president of the Memphis-Germantown Art League, which he once said "was one of the highest honors ever bestowed upon me." He passed away in 1997, but anybody who lived here in the 1950s and beyond will always remember the name of Happy Hal.

Mary's Home

Dear Vance: My aunt used to live in the Mary Galloway Home for Women, and I'm curious: Who was Mary Galloway, anyway? — P.T., Memphis.

Dear P.T.: In 1898, a group called the Willing Hands Circle of King's Daughters held what old newspapers called "an entertainment" to raise funds to build a home for "mothers, sisters, and wives who have outlived their loved ones." Colonel Robert Galloway, head of the Memphis Park Commission and a mover-and-shaker in so many other ways in our city, also made a sizeable donation. Two years later, a brand-new retirement home, built in the Spanish Revival style (below), opened at the southwest corner of Monroe and Manassas, named after Galloway's wife, Mary.

The Mary Galloway Home for Aged Women was a wonderful haven for 22 women, but it quickly became overcrowded. An addition increased capacity to 30 in 1934, but with more than three dozen people on the waiting list, none of them getting any younger, the home's owners began to look for more space. That search took quite some time. In 1946, newspaper clippings revealed that a new Mary Galloway Home would be built on Poplar, just west of Perkins. That plan fell through. In 1955, newspapers reported the home would move to a site on North Graham. Nope, that didn't happen either. Finally, in 1957, administrators bought land at 5389 Poplar, east of Estate, and more than 30 residents moved into their new home in June 1961.

The Mary Galloway Home, still going strong after more than a century, has since moved again, this time to Appling Care Lane in Cordova. The Poplar location is now an automobile dealership. And the original site across from Forrest Park is today a vacant lot.

Parking Place

Dear Vance: What happened to the National Garage, as shown on this old matchbook cover? It's a grand-looking building, but I've never heard of it. — G.H., Germantown

Dear G.H.: Since the Lauderdales rarely left our estate without the protection of our chauffeur-driven limousines, I paid scant attention to public parking garages used by the common folk. But judging from the artwork on the matchbook cover, this was indeed quite a fine building. And as you might expect, it's gone now.

The National Garage, the very name telling you that it was part of a national chain, opened in 1927 at the northeast corner of Front and Court, replacing a row of older and smaller buildings that housed various cotton firms and Koehler Brothers Construction Company. It was eight stories tall, steam-heated according to the matchbook, and for several years even included a Gulf station that provided "complete service for your car."

In 1962, or thereabouts, the building became All-Right Parking, one of many such places around our city. It remained in business until the early 1980s, when it was demolished to make way for the Morgan-Keegan Tower. At one time, if I remember correctly, there were plans to build two matching towers. As a result, the site of the former garage remained vacant for years, but it is now occupied by a parking lot. How appropriate.

Got a question for Vance? Send it to "Ask Vance" at Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103 or email him at askvance@memphismagazine.com 

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