Dancing Days

Ask Vance

Dear Vance: Everyone is trying to figure out ways to improve the Mid-South Fairgrounds, but so far no one has mentioned an obvious solution — a casino. Didn't the fairgrounds have a nice casino back in the 1930s? — B.C., Memphis.

Dear B.C.: The Mid-South Fairgrounds, and its predecessor, the Tri-State Fair, had marvels that drew visitors from as far away as Bald Knob, Arkansas. Not many people know this, but such popular attractions as Seattle's Space Needle, the St. Louis Arch, Rock City, and even Mammoth Cave were originally constructed at our local fairgrounds. But, then as now, we just couldn't decide what to do with them, so we sold them to other communities who made better use of them. Moving the caverns, in fact, proved such a mammoth undertaking that their original name — Sparkly Cave — was changed to Mammoth.

Wait — I'm told that some of this information may be incorrect. Darn these Internet sites, with their faulty information. Let me look into that Space Needle entry. I think the others are correct.

But we certainly did have a casino, though it wasn't the gambling kind. (Webster: "a building or room used for social amusements.") Instead, it was a huge, domed dancehall, built alongside East Parkway, which acquired the name "The Showplace of the South." The place was constructed in 1930 by a fellow named Lynn Welcher for $100,000 — an enormous sum in those days, whereas today it is little more than a day's wages for me. Some of that high cost came from a fancy teak and rosewood inlaid dance floor that was mounted on felt, which gave it a nice bounce when you did the Jersey Hop or the rhumba. Long before the days of discos, there was also a remote-controlled lighting system — operated from the orchestra stand — that flashed precisely 96 (I guess they couldn't squeeze in 100) colored lights off a spinning glass ball dangling from the ceiling.

The Fairgrounds Casino thrived for two decades, with crowds drawn by such big-name acts as Louis Armstrong and Kay Starr. In the 1950s, when the big-band era was drawing to a close, the place was turned over to a new manager named Dick Morton, who told reporters he was initiating a new policy: no drinking. He told the Memphis Press-Scimitar, "We believe there are people of all ages who don't drink but do dance, and they would love to have a place where they won't be bumped around by a bunch of drunks."

I'm afraid he was referring to the Lauderdales. The casino was one of our favorite hangouts, one of the few places our notoriously reclusive family would venture in public. But the only way you could get my eldest sister, Vancetta, on the dance floor to perform her spirited version of the cha-cha was to get her liquored up. More liquored up than usual, I mean. (She eventually disgraced the family — which took some doing, let me tell you — by running off with that bowling-ball salesman.)

You'd think a place as big and beautiful as the Casino would last forever. Why, just look at the place, inside and out, in these wonderful old postcards (left). Well, you'd be wrong. People just lost interest in dancing, and the music finally stopped. The Memphis Park Commission converted the place into a public basketball arena (no word on how those bouncy floors affected dribbling), but the fire marshal eventually considered the ramshackle place a fire hazard. Building inspectors estimated it would cost more than $50,000 to bring the Casino up to code, which really doesn't seem like a lot of money to me, and the city decided it just wasn't worth it. The "South's Most Beautiful Ballroom," as the postcards describe it, was torn down in 1963.

The T-House

Dear Vance: My family recently purchased an old home on North Evergreen that has a large wooden "T" mounted on the front gable. Do you know what the letter signifies? — J.S., Memphis.

Dear J.S.: I have some rather bad news for you. In the 1940s, the city health department affixed a giant "T" — just like this one — to homes so ravaged by termites that they were unfit for human habitation. Oh, what a shame your realtor failed to tell you this. Is it too late to get a refund?

I jest, of course. My first response, after driving to your residence and staring at the letter for several hours, is that it bears a remarkable — but not identical — resemblance to the "T" that marks the home, car, garage, boat, or child of any fan of the University of Tennessee. It's certainly not the correct color, but perhaps a later owner repainted it brown. But even the most diehard Vols fans rarely go to the trouble of attaching a "T" permanently to the outside of their homes, which seems to be the case here.

So I wondered if the letter was an initial of a previous owner? Here's what I discovered. According to old city directories, your home was constructed in 1922, and the first owner was Frank G. Woods. No "T" there. But get this: Woods was treasurer of a large woodworking firm in Memphis called Turner-Farber-Love Company. Is it possible that he was so devoted to his job that he put the company's initial on his house? After all, it was a woodworking company, and some of the trim on your house looks pretty fancy. The firm's president was Franklin Turner, who lived over on Peabody. It's even possible that Woods — bucking for a raise — put the initial of his boss on his own house, though I admit that's a stretch.

Okay, so maybe Frank Woods, who lived in your house until 1935, had nothing to do with that "T" (even though it looks original to the house). In 1951, 226 North Evergreen was purchased by a new owner, Lamar T. Morton. Maybe Lamar didn't like his first name, and went by his middle name, Thomas or Thaddeus or whatever, and he put that on his house (though most people, I confess, would put the initial of their last name on their property). And then there's the last owner, Wilford T. McCalla — yet another "T" to ponder. There's just one problem with that one. His wife occupied the property until you bought it, J.S., and I believe you told me she knew nothing about the mysterious letter.

And neither do I. Nothing that I can find about the history of your house reveals a meaning for that "T." So, until I know otherwise, let's just go with UT. Or Tulane. Or Tulsa. Or Tufts. Or Texas. Or . . . 

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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