When It Was Hip To Be Square
A look back at the early days of Overton Square, when the city's pulse beat at Madison and Cooper
Their breath fogging the glass, the young men and women pressed their faces against the windows of Bombay Bicycle Club. Somebody outside was checking a thermometer, counting down the numbers as the temperature dropped: 30, then 29, then 28. "What's taking them so long?" a man demanded. Inside the crowded club, a woman finally shouted, "Here it comes!" and everyone glimpsed the first snowflakes — first a few, but within minutes, a veritable blizzard. People dashed outside, catching the flakes in their hands, laughing and cheering, and even throwing snowballs. Soon a white blanket covered the streets and sidewalks of Overton Square.
But what a strange snowstorm. Anyone who glanced up could see a bright blue sky overhead, and — even more remarkable — just two blocks away in either direction, Madison Avenue had no snow at all.
It didn't require a weatherman to explain the snow storm that fell on Overton Square that December afternoon in 1976. The blizzard was fake — snow blown by powerful machines mounted on the roofs of buildings. It was a highlight of the Charles Dickens Christmas that year, just one of many unique events that helped make Overton Square the city's premier entertainment district. That was more than 30 years ago, and the intersection of Madison and Cooper has seen many changes since then, some good, some bad. Here's a look back at the early days, when it was hip to be Square.
"Man, It Was Wild."
A Commercial Appeal photo of James D. Robinson Jr. shows a handsome fellow, with neatly trimmed hair and horn-rim eyeglasses. The reporter described "Jimmy" as "youthful, brash, articulate, iconoclastic. Somewhere out there between The Graduate and Easy Rider."
The son of a wealthy family that owned a nationwide cleaning-products business, Robinson liked to hang around with what the newspaper called "long-haired members of the counter-culture." That was the late 1960s, and the reporter was talking about hippies. Using his own money, Robinson bought a former insurance building at 2115 Madison and converted it into a coffeehouse/hangout for his pals called Perception.
But he had much grander ideas after visiting a jam-packed bar and restaurant in New York City called T.G.I. Friday's (the initials standing for "Thank Goodness It's"). So he gathered together a group of what the CA called "well-heeled young businessmen" and they began to ponder a similar venture in Memphis, after working out what was vaguely described as a "management arrangement with the New York people."
That group, all in their mid-twenties, included Benjamin Woodson, a property manager for the Galbreath Company; Frank Doggrell III, a stockbroker; and Charles Hull, who had a lucrative business producing radio program guides. They were soon joined by Charles Saig, a real estate broker who was considered the "old man" since he was 30 at the time. The young men convinced "two little old lady school teachers" to lease them additional property along Madison, and it wasn't long before they owned the entire block between Cooper and Florence.
Just one obstacle stood in their way. Hard as it is to believe, in the 1960s Memphians could not dine in a restaurant and have an alcoholic drink with their meal.
"You could not buy a drink," remembers Saig. "You could bring your own bottle of wine or liquor in — what we called 'brown-bagging.' If you were a regular patron of places like Pete and Sam's, you might have a locker where you could keep your liquor."
But on November 25, 1969, the issue of "liquor by the drink" came to vote in a special referendum, and the measure passed.
The very next day, the young men — now formed into a corporation called Overton Square, Inc. — announced they would open the first Friday's outside New York City, in the space occupied by Robinson's Perception club.
"Everyone in our age group wanted liquor by the drink," recalls realtor Jeanne Arthur, who handled public relations for Overton Square in the 1970s. "So we got on the phone and called just about the whole phone book to get them to vote. When that passed, it opened the gates for the development."
Friday's opened on May 21, 1970, and to describe it as successful doesn't do justice to the word "success." Although almost 200 other restaurants in town soon gained licenses that allowed them to serve liquor by the drink, this "English pub"-themed bar/restaurant — described by the CA as "a place with so much atmosphere you have to push it aside to get in" — was irresistible.
"Friday's was the centerpoint of what we wanted to do," says Saig. "When we first built it, it only held about 100 people — 25 tables and the bar. I knew what it would take to make it go, and I told the others if we can make $800 a day, we can break even. The first day we opened, it did $4,800, and it did $4,800 every day until we expanded it, when it started doing $7,000. It was just throwing out so much cash it was unbelievable."
Dick Broyles was a waiter at Friday's in the early days. "There was constantly a line at lunch to get in, and at night that line would stretch down the street," he says. "It would be so crowded, the waiters had to fight to get through the customers. People would stand three and four deep at the bar, and I know somebody even had sex at the bar one night. No one noticed because it was so crowded. Man, it was wild."
Besides drinks and food, Friday's featured entertainment on a stage at the rear of the club. "Two guys named Howie and Gabe put on a rock-and-roll show on Monday nights," says Broyles. "They played it great. One time, they had the police bring them in on stretchers, and they jumped out from under the sheets and started singing how rock-and-roll would never die."
In those early days, all the waiters were men, because Robinson said he wanted Friday's to attract women, and "we felt a woman would rather be waited on by a man." Most of the waiters and bartenders had nicknames: Gringo, Harpo, The General, Shakey, Chick, Pace, and Rufus usually come to mind when talking with former Friday's patrons.
Ruth Hendrix, who sold flowers from the brightly painted cart parked outside Friday's entrance, knows why the nicknames were important. "Back then, there was a whole set of groupies who would come in and pant over the bartenders and waiters," she says. "They had to use aliases so the girls couldn't bother them and call them at home."
Broyles doesn't dispute that story. Besides the enormous tips, Friday's employees enjoyed other perks. "At the end of the night, the bartenders had their pick of the women hanging out there," he says. "We would be in the back, counting our money, and we'd send word to the doorman, telling him which girls you wanted to take home for the night. It was a whole different time, you understand. And nobody practiced safe sex," he laughs. "We just practiced sex."
"A Complete Micro-Community"
But it takes more than one restaurant to form an entertainment district, and within a few months, Overton Square began to expand. A business summary from the corporation explained their proposed concept: "A complete micro-community where people can work, live, shop, and play — all in an environment that provides unique and superior aesthetics in an exceptionally desirable location." Further-more, unlike other shopping centers, Overton Square endeavored to "keep the flavor and spirit of the past era in the restoration of the original buildings on the site."
First to come was a collection of retailers, moving into storefronts along Madison that just a year before had housed a bicycle shop, insurance agencies, a drug store, and other ma-and-pa businesses. The first — and most memorable — shops in Overton Square were operated by John Simmons, a talented young man with a keen eye for what was new and avant-garde. "He was kind of 'in' with what was happening all over the city," says Saig.
"I had shops in Laurelwood and on Union Avenue," says Simmons, "and Ben Woodson called me and asked if I would move my Union Avenue shop to Overton Square. I said no, but if you will give me five leases on my terms, I will open five shops, and that's what I did."
Simmons brought to the Square such places as Sycamore (antiques and fine gifts), Forty Carrots (kitchen gadgets and a cooking school run by Frances Averitt), The Potting Shed (hand-crafted pottery), Little John's (cards and candles and "trendy things"), and Swings (contemporary furnishings, described by a reporter as a place "where you can outmod Joe Namath").
Other merchants jumped aboard. "Right after it came out in the paper that we had signed five leases," says Simmons, "every other space was leased." Eventually, almost 40 different businesses would cram into Overton Square.
"John Simmons was one of the first people in town to have art shows," says Arthur. "He was the first to have shows for Mary Sims and Sophie Coors. And everybody would go crazy going to those, because back then young people had never really thought about buying art."
Meanwhile, across the street, a former Kroger store that had been converted into a restaurant called the Looking Glass was purchased by Overton Square. The new name: Bombay Bicycle Club, which Simmons says was "an absolute knockout of a restaurant — big time for Memphis." And a few doors down, a former Holiday Inns executive named George Falls opened a fine-dining establishment called Paulette's.
Separating those buildings was an Overton Square curiosity, a white clapboard house occupied by Mrs. Elisabeth Griffin. Even after her husband passed away, she steadfastly refused to sell the property to Overton Square. She remained in her little haven until her death in 1993, when Falls bought the house. Paulette's uses it now for banquets.
The gleaming new retail and dining estab-lishments joined a pair of older businesses that are still remembered fondly by Memphians today: Burkle's Bakery and Pappy's Lobster Shack.
"One of the greatest places ever in Overton Square was Burkle's Bakery," says Falls, remembering the wonderful breakfasts and plate lunches served by Herman and Ruth Burkle. "It was just a fabulous place to be. That's where I met the Mike Codys and the Glenn Hays of the world," referring to the prominent attorney and chef, respectively.
Hendrix remembers, "I was having breakfast one morning and Dixie Carter was in there. She was just a little hippie chick back then, and had come to Memphis to perform for Front Street Theatre or some college production."
Falls, and many other people, remember July 6, 1976 — the day Burkle's closed: "It was a real sad day for us. Sam the Sham was a friend of Herman's, and he came in and sang on their last day." More than a thousand customers dropped by for one last visit.
Then there was Pappy's, since 1947 owned and operated by Lehman C. Sammons, a colorful character who was supposedly the oldest chef in America. When he turned 100 in 1979, merchants threw him a block-long birthday party and proclaimed him the "Mayor of Overton Square." He died a few months later. Although his daughter said she intended to keep the rambling Lobster Shack open, it soon became too much work for her. Pappy's closed in 1980.
Neither place survived the rapid develop-ment that was taking place around them. A little café called Fabian's took over the Burkle's space for a while, and Pappy's collection of buildings was razed to make way for a parking lot.
"No Other Place Like It"
Shortly after Overton Square opened, three of the original investors — though still maintaining some ownership in the operation — left the day-to-day operations to Woodson and Saig. Hull and Doggrell became interested in other ventures, and Robinson left town because he got involved in — well, let's just call them pharmaceuticals that couldn't be found at Walgreens.
Woodson, a handsome fellow with a penchant for bow ties, became the face of Overton Square. And in 1972, he unveiled a bold new venture that would occupy two vacant storefronts just east of Friday's.
Named after Lafayette Draper, the longtime (and much-beloved) bartender at the Memphis Country Club, Lafayette's Music Room would put Overton Square — and Memphis — on the national map.
Huey's owner Thomas Boggs was the first manager of Lafayette's. "It was definitely the music center of Memphis," he says. "It was the first big-time music venue here, and it was so popular we didn't really have to advertise. Everything was just word of mouth. And we were paying some of these acts $2,000 a week, which was enormous back then. There was no other place like it."
Customers jammed Lafayette's to see up-and-coming acts like Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, Phoebe Snow, Pure Prairie League, and many others.
"Friday's shared a kitchen with Lafayette's, and I had a manager's key, so I snuck in there lots of times," remembers Broyles. "Linda Ronstadt was an absolute bitch. She walked off the stage because she said it was too cold. But Billy Joel loved Lafayette's. He came there about six times."
Hendrix, who later managed the clothing shop Chelsea Ltd., remembers "the rock writers convention of 1973, when Big Star played at Lafayette's and just blew everybody away." She also recalls the night drummer Buddy Rich played at Lafayette's. "His daughter came into the store to buy a bunch of clothes, and Rich's credit card wouldn't go through, so we had to go down to Lafayette's and get cash from him."
Everybody, it seems, has a Lafayette's story. George Saig remembers when Billy Joel stayed at his home before a gig there. "He came about 11 that morning and brought about 15 people. Bombay sent a cook out, and we charcoaled steaks and they just lazed around and watched TV."
That evening, Joel put on a free show at Lafayette's. "At 3 o'clock in the morning, the fire department finally came and shut it down," says Saig. "There were just so many people trying to get in."
"A Hodgepodge of Crazy Places"
By the mid-1970s Overton Square was booming. A Memphis Press-Scimitar article observed, "The good times are rolling at Memphis' version of Greenwich Village, Bourbon Street, and Gatlinburg all rolled into one." More shops opened, bringing the total now to almost 30, with every retail space occupied. At the northeast corner of Madison and Cooper, a former gas station was converted into Godfathers, a Chicago gangster-themed eatery complete with bullet-riddled limousine in the dining room (purchased from the movie of the same name) and miniskirted waitresses in striped jackets and fedoras.
"It was so alive," says Boggs. "It was just such a hodgepodge of crazy places."
But Woodson was really just getting started. In 1976, Overton Square held its first Charles Dickens Christmas. Lampposts and trees were decorated with ribbons and garland, and carolers dressed in nineteenth-century costumes strolled the streets. "It took a lot of people to make that work," says Arthur. "Jackie Nichols from Playhouse on the Square helped with the costumes, and Cookie Ewing with the theatre department at Southwestern [now Rhodes College] found the carolers." The entire street between Cooper and Florence was closed off to make room for an outdoor ice skating rink, which was jammed with skaters all day and into the evening.
But the real attraction was the snow. Overton Square bought in powerful Tricon snow-making machines connected to fire hydrants. They could only operate if the temperature dropped to 28 or below, but when it did, the block became a winter wonderland, with a two-inch layer of ice and snow covering everything in sight. Memphians normally flee at the first mention of snow on the weather reports, but they couldn't get enough of Overton Square's white Christmases.
In 1977, Overton Square Inc. was so successful that it announced plans for major expansions. The narrow shops along Madison would be enlarged, and a 50-foot brick clock tower would be erected in the courtyard behind them, with walkways linking the buildings. Friday's would be enlarged, the rear stage removed to make way for more diners and drinkers.
But the centerpiece of the expansion was Overton Square Gardens, a fully enclosed ice-skating rink encircled by additional shops on two levels and topped by an arched skylight. Memphians had never seen anything like it. The only drawback was its size. It was so small that skaters basically skated around in a tight circle.
Bonnie Kourvelas was one of those skaters. "It was so crowded you could barely move, and the ice quickly became grooved so when you fell, your knees took a terrible battering from those ice ridges," she says. "Mine were black and blue for a week. But it was fun, because how often did you get to ice skate in Memphis?"
"Memphis Had Been Asleep."
Overton square came into existence at exactly the right time. In 1970, downtown Memphis was essentially dead, its stores and hotels shuttered following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. just two years earlier. Beale Street was a ghost town, its once-vibrant rows of cafés and nightspots reduced to seedy pawnshops. The main shopping centers were Poplar Plaza and Laurelwood, but places like Sears and Lowenstein's were pretty dull compared to the galleries and shops of Overton Square. And except for Ellis Auditorium and, on occasion, the Overton Park Shell, Memphis had no decent venue for touring musicians.
"Memphis had been asleep," says Arthur.
"No, it had been sober!" laughs Lucy Woodson, wife of Ben Woodson and the owner of a clothing store in Overton Square called Tallulah's.
Overton Square was so popular that Memphis held its Christmas parade along Madison, and the city's official Christmas tree stood outside Friday's. One year, the parade included 12 floats and 25 marching bands, and the grand marshal was none other than Muhammad Ali.
"There was a huge sense of excitement about everything," says Arthur, "and Overton Square became the focal point for all sorts of community events. Because the skating rink floor could be covered, it served as a venue for the Maternal Welfare League, and one year we set up a tent in the parking lot and hosted the Memphis Symphony Ball."
The place was like family, she says: "All the waiters and cooks and everybody who worked there were excited about it. They loved Ben and they really cared about it."
"A Place That Was Really Nice"?
But slowly the city began to wake up. The Mall of Memphis opened, and Saig remembers, "That was our first big hit. They had that Olympic-sized rink, and nobody wanted to skate on our little rink after that."
Beale Street began to attract developers, and Memphis city government gave them tax freezes and other incentives that were never offered to the owners of Overton Square. Libertyland opened. The city began to convert Main Street into a pedestrian mall.
Overton Square, though not even ten years old, wasn't the new kid in town anymore. And some of its glitter began to fade due to a streak of unfortunate events. Major fires consumed Godfathers (which became Solomon Alfred's, later razed to build the French Quarter Inn Suites), the Public Eye barbecue restaurant on Cooper, and other places.
There were very public squabbles in the press among the various Overton Square owners, with lawsuits over their involvement in other ventures, ranging from the new restaurants opening on Mud Island to the Circle Café and East End Grill in other parts of town.
As you might expect from a place serving so many drinks, there were fights. Newspapers reported "the growing number of complaints about sailors causing trouble," and Hendrix remembers the Saturday nights when "the guys from Millington would come down and look for a fight, just to have something to do."
And Overton Square certainly attracted odd characters. One evening, a fire broke out at Silky's club. When the firemen arrived, a drunk patron blocked the engine by doing backflips in the street. When police managed to arrest him, a crowd of some 500 people started throwing bricks and bottles. Peace was finally restored, but several people were arrested, and a few hospitalized.
It didn't help that some of the celebrities drawn to the Square even caused trouble. In 1979, Pretenders lead singer Chrissie Hynde was arrested for disorderly conduct at Fridays' during one of the band's first visits here. While handcuffed in the back of a police car, Hynde managed to kick out the rear window.
Worst of all, crime came to Overton Square. Newspapers reported purse snatchings, thefts, and assaults. Three men and a young woman committed a series of armed robberies in the parking lots, shooting one victim in the face. One afternoon, a cook at the China Grill went berserk at lunchtime, stabbing owner Bernard Chang a dozen times with a kitchen knife. Chang died of his wounds months later. And employees of Yosemite Sam's found the night manager dead when they opened the venerable club one morning, the apparent victim of a robbery while she was closing up the night before.
Memphians began to worry that Overton Square, the area that years before co-founder James Robinson told reporters would be "a place for the general public that was really nice," wasn't so nice anymore.
"It's Just So Sad."
In the 1980s and 1990s, Overton Square still managed to survive. An exciting new addition was the Studio on the Square movie theater. But the whole area began to look a bit dowdy. Popular shops and restaurants like Gonzales and Gertrude's closed and weren't reopened. The once-majestic ice-skating rink was turned into a fine-dining establishment called Palm Court, which also closed after a few years. The Claridge apartment building at Florence and Madison, at one time filled with snazzy art galleries and funky shops, became mostly empty office space; only Maggie's Pharm continues to hold on there.
Much of the change had to do with new management. Saig finally left the company after disputes about his involvement with the Circle Café. But the biggest factor was the departure of Ben Woodson, who left Overton Square in the mid-1980s to focus on a larger venture: converting an island in the Florida keys into an incredible resort called Little Palm Island (to this day considered one of the top destinations in North America by Conde Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure). Woodson passed away in 1999.
Ownership of Overton Square became fragmented, passing through half a dozen owners before most of the property was purchased by Maruki USA, a New York conglomerate which seemed to show little interest in its Memphis holdings.
Perhaps the biggest blow to the Square was the closing of Lafayette's. It had simply outlived its purpose.
"Lafayette's was before its time," says Lucy Woodson. "It finally closed because it was too small to create the revenue it needed for the big acts." Playhouse on the Square moved into the building in 1975, but later moved around the corner to the old Memphian Theater.
And Overton Square actually fell victim to its own success. "The more we expanded, the more we got into debt," says Saig. "To draw more customers, we bought all these properties behind Friday's and tore them down for parking lots. Well, you pay taxes on that property, but it's not revenue producing. Plus, we had increasing costs from maintenance, security, and electricity."
Little by little, the city's entertainment district became dormant. And finally there came October 30, 2003, when the centerpiece of the whole district came to an end. Friday's closed, and it seemed the end of an era.
"When Friday's closed, they were still doing $2.5 million a year, and that's why we tried to buy it," says Thomas Boggs. "But they" — meaning the current ownership group in Denver — "wouldn't even talk to us, and we made a very strong offer for it." The building instead became Garcia Wells, a Tex-Mex restaurant, which closed last year.
When she sees Overton Square today, Hendrix says, "Now, it's just so sad."
"It Can Be Fun Again."
Looking back on the early days of Overton Square, John Simmons remembers, "People just loved to come there. It drew people from all over. It was unusual, it was new, and it was not like any other shopping center. It was a real happening."
Ruth Hendrix remembers the crowds. "You couldn't drive down Madison without hitting people. It was just packed. That's why the city finally put up those 20 mph signs."
Today, a stroll down Madison takes pedestrians past plenty of deserted storefronts. It looks like a vacuum has sucked all that wonderful atmosphere from the old Friday's building. Lafayette's became The Comedy Zone and then a dance club called Vortex, but the building stands abandoned today, an empty shell. It seems impossible that Billy Joel ever played there. Boscos, which occupies the old Bombay building, and Paulette's are still booming, but it's no problem crossing Madison, day or night.
Le Chardonnay and Bayou Bar and Grille recently announced plans to move across Madison to the empty Square Foods building, at one time home to Overton Square hotspots the Mississippi River Company and Wink Martindale's. Except for a pair of restaurants, a hair salon, and a bicycle shop, that will leave the south side of Madison completely empty, and the leasing company for Overton Square has described the once-stunning ice-skating arena as "functionally obsolete." This concerns people who fear the buildings will be demolished to make the property more enticing for developers.
Lucy Woodson and Jeanne Arthur, among others, hope that won't happen. "It can be fun again," insists Arthur, "and it really shouldn't be that hard. Have a few new bars open up, bring in some shopping."
"People say Overton Square can never come back," says Woodson. "And I say, why not?" M