Dirty Dancing

Dear Vance: What can you tell me about the old Whirlaway Club? I remember my dad saying it was a pretty wild place. — D.N., Germantown.

Dear D.N.: I suppose that depends on what you mean by "wild." In my own experience, there was no wilder place in Memphis than the annual Lauderdale Memorial Day parties, where we — oh, the doctors have told me to stop dredging up those awful memories. And so have the lawyers. Just read chapters 41 through 67 in my book, Bound for Glory: The Story of the Lauderdales in America.

The Whirlaway Club was extremely popular, that's for sure. An ex-serviceman named John Ogden opened it on Lamar just north of Prescott in 1947. He and his wife, Jean, basically converted a rather ramshackle building (since demolished) into a pretty decent nightclub, not unlike so many others around town, with bands and halfway decent food. I have no idea how they came up with the memorable name; at the time, the most famous "Whirlaway" was a Kentucky Derby-winning racehorse.

At any rate, from the beginning the owners found themselves in court quite a few times. Faded newspaper clippings archived in the University of Memphis Special Collections Department report numerous instances of the club losing its liquor license for selling beer to minors. One policeman described the place as "deplorable — whiskey and beer all over the place," and the chairman of the beer licensing board said, "I passed there last week. It looks as if they get to rocking and rolling inside. They just might roll it over."

Ogden grudgingly admitted that his club "could be more substantial" and tried to argue that accounts of underage drinking were "only hearsay," but he paid fines and lost his license anyway — quite a few times, in fact.

But it was in the 1960s that the Whirlaway really made headlines here. First of all, around 1963 the Ogdens moved across the street to a larger and considerably swankier building. Then, along with so many other clubs in town, they brought in a new form of entertainment — exotic creatures known as go-go dancers. Usually clad in miniskirts and knee-high boots, young women danced to the hit songs of the day. Apparently, however, the Whirlaway girls went a bit farther than most, and in 1967, front-page Press-Scimitar headlines shocked Memphians with the "indecent" performances taking place night after night at the Whirlaway.

Two dancers in particular — Betty Vansickle (who danced under the name "Betty Vee") and Sue Sennett — along with the club owners and even the master of ceremonies — were arrested and charged with "committing or aiding and abetting obscene acts."

Just how obscene? Judge for yourself. An undercover police officer testified, "Mrs. Sennett came out wearing a lavender, bikini-type costume. The top part covered only about half of her bosom." Oh my. Sennett strutted out on the club's tiny stage, and then, according to the officer, "At one point, she bent completely back so her hands touched the floor and bumped her hips up and down while the music kept time to the rhythm."

Goodness, my hands are trembling while I'm typing this!

And it only got worse. "Betty Vee" then took the stage in a gold costume that was "only about one-half-inch wide on the side of the hips." They didn't specify — or perhaps the newspaper didn't dare print — the dimensions of her costume on other parts of her body. Vansickle specialized in a dance she called the "Gravy Train" that was similar to Sennett's, except "it was a little rougher and her motions were a little more obscene." (That's Vansickle, by the way, in the photo at far left wearing the one-piece costume with the white glove stretching down her torso. Sennett is the other dancer pictured here.)

The police officer testified that each girl went up to customers and "made obscene gestures at least 100 times." Asked to describe these gestures, the cop said, "I'd call them bumps and grinds."

Newspapers of the day pounced on the story, and sent teams of reporters and photographers scurrying to other clubs around the city. A tough job, you bet! One reporter said of a club dancer, "Her body bounces like she's playing basketball with a beehive in a phone booth." Another pondered, "How far is too far for a go-go girl to go?" Still another, describing the so-called "nightclub dilemma in Memphis," observed that it really wasn't the costume that was a problem, "it was what she was doing in the clothes, the dance herself."

Meanwhile, as you might imagine, all the dancers and club owners got a bit huffy about the whole mess. "I'm not ashamed, and I don't do a dirty dance," said one go-go girl. "When I go to church, I hold my head up a little higher than everyone else."

More to the point, Whirlaway owner John Ogden asked reporters, "Is Memphis that out of step with the world? Are we so slow here we've got to wait ten years to catch up with the entertainment of other cities?"

The answer, apparently, was: Yes. Ogden and his dancers paid small fines — I don't know the exact amount — and the controversy quickly faded away. After all, one of the dancers argued that their costumes "were just like what you'd see at the beach." National TV shows like Shindig and Hullabaloo caught on with teenagers, and go-go dancers became the main attraction of Memphis' own Talent Party, not exactly the wildest thing on the air, with their clean-cut ways and off-the-rack Sears outfits.

Years later, trying to defend their reputation, the Ogdens bragged in a 1974 newspaper article that their clientele included "some of the better-known leaders of this community." That same story noted that the Whirlaway was adding a full-scale restaurant and "had been at the forefront of all the innovative changes in the entertainment business. They were among the first to have go-go girls and later topless dancers, black lighting for the dance floor, strobe lighting for the dancing acts, and a full-blown floor show."

Yep, it was quite a place, but all things come to an end, and the Whirlaway just faded away, closing sometime in the mid-1980s, I believe. The old one-story brick building is still standing on Lamar, these days home to a restaurant called El Gallo Giro. Whatever happened to Betty Vee and the other dancers, I wonder?


Dear Vance: When I was a student at Southwestern (now Rhodes College, of course, but it will always be Southwestern to me), I remember going to church services at Evergreen Presbyterian Church, which was located near the college — but not where it is now. The current building opened in 1950. So where was Evergreen Presbyterian before that?

— A.B., Memphis.

Dear A.B.: According to the authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide, Evergreen Presbyterian Church opened at the corner of University and Tutwiler in 1951 (shown in the smaller photo, above). Noting that it was "another example of the Colonial Revival that swept Memphis in the post-war years," they observed, "This handsome church with white columns and tall steeple sits far enough back from the street so that it can be seen the way it ought to be." If it bears a striking resemblance to the Church of the Holy Communion on Walnut Grove, that's because the same architects — Walk C. Jones Sr. and Walk C. Jones Jr. — designed both.

Before 1950, however, A.B. and her fellow students would have attended baccalaureate and other religious services at the "old" Evergreen church (top), a handsome stone building located at the southeast corner of Autumn and Dickinson. It's still in use today, as The Church at Memphis and Evangelical Christian Center.

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