Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why and why not.
Dear Vance: Regarding your December column that included questions you could not answer, the theme music to Fantastic Features was "Music of the Spheres," composed by Leith Stevens. It is from the 1950s science-fiction movie Destination Moon. -- J. and R.C., Germantown.
Dear J. and R.C.: As Sivad, the spooky host of Fantastic Features would say, "Goooooooood!" Since December, I have had several readers, including my pal and fellow history buff John King, tell me about this eerie theme music, which -- for reasons that are hard to explain -- has intrigued more than half a dozen of my readers in recent months. Sorry for the pun, but something about it apparently struck a chord with them, so they would write to me, and pester me like all get-out. I couldn't help them, and it just broke my heart. I would go to my lonely bed in the evening and actually cry myself to sleep. Of course, I do that most nights anyway, so I really can't blame Sivad.
Most people reading this column surely remember Fantastic Features, the creepy show that aired Friday evenings on WHBQ-TV Channel 13, showcasing the best (and sometimes hilariously worst) horror and sci-fi movies of the day. I can remember watching The Blob, Dracula vs. Frankenstein, Caltiki: The Immortal Monster, and dozens of others that may seem funny now, but were pretty scary at the time. In fact, WHBQ even changed the show's airtime from 6 p.m. to 10:20 p.m. after parents complained their kids were getting nightmares.
What made the show so memorable though, was its spooky "Monster of Ceremonies," a funereal figure called Sivad (in real life, a rather normal-looking WHBQ promotions guy named Watson Davis -- "Sivad" is "Davis" spelled backwards, you see). Everyone, it seems, remembers the opening scenes of Sivad, clad in a black cape and top hat, driving an ancient hearse through a misty forest (actually Overton Park).
For such a weird show, you'd think the music would be weird too, and I suppose it was, but it was written by an award-winning composer named Leith Stevens (1909-1970), who worked on more than a hundred Hollywood films and TV episodes. Quite a few of them have become classics, such as Lost in Space, Twilight Zone, and Gunsmoke. Others, such as Night of the Ghouls and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, were more forgettable. But even Destination Earth, for which he composed "Music of the Spheres," was considered a pretty good movie in its day, and received an Academy Award for "Best Special Effects" and a Golden Globe for "Best Motion Picture Score," among other honors. According to the Internet Movie Database, the plot involved "a private businessman who arranges for an expedition to the moon before the Russians get there first." I never saw this movie, but I'm already confused. If they were trying to get to the moon, then why is the movie called Destination Earth?
Okay, now here's a real treat. If you'd like to hear the actual Fantastic Features theme song for yourself, a Sivad fan named Mathew Smith has set up a website, and you can click on a link and hear (and even watch) the show's intro (www.mlcsmith.com/people/sivad/index.html.) Gosh-a-mighty, where would we be without the Internet?
I think Sivad (or Watson Davis) would surely be pleased -- if not downright astonished -- by the continuing interest in the character he created almost on a whim. After the show went off the air in 1969, he retired to Clarendon, Arkansas. Many people tried to get him to dress up as Sivad just one more time, but he always said, "No. I buried him a long time ago." Davis died in 2005, but his memory lives on. In fact, I'd go so far as to say, if you haven't heard of Sivad, then you can't really call yourself a real Memphian.
Where Was Woolworth's?
Dear Vance: I seem to remember two Woolworth's in downtown Memphis in the 1960s. I know there was one on North Main, between Jefferson and Court. But I am more sketchy about the one on South Main. Where was that one? -- R.G., Memphis.
Dear R.G.: No great mystery here. According to the 1960s city directories, Memphis indeed had two Woolworth's on the same street. One was located, as you said, at 59 North Main, and the other was located at 107 South Main. I remember them well, because that is where Mother would purchase my lederhosen that made me the envy of my classmates. They would even hurl pebbles at me, as just one way of showing their envy.
Begun in 1879, Woolworth's was one of the country's oldest and largest department store chains. I'm not exactly sure when the two stores here opened on Main Street, but it wasn't until 1949 that Memphis got a third Woolworth's, this one on Cleveland near the Sears Crosstown building. In the 1960s, the company branched out with a "budget" version, called Woolco, which was hugely successful for a while, anchoring the new Eastgate Shopping Center. But one after another, they all closed. The South Main store shut its doors in the late 1960s, I believe, and the North Main location managed to survive until the 1990s. In 2001, every Woolworth's in North America closed, and the company changed its name to --this may surprise you -- Foot Locker.
So Long, Siesta
Dear Vance: I found an old 1960s postcard for the Green Acres Motel, and have never heard of it. Have you? -- J.C., Memphis.
Dear J.C.: When Father was drinking, it was usually a good idea, I discovered, to spend the night away from the mansion, because he tended to annoy me by asking all sorts of personal things, like when was I going to get a job, or go on a first date, or move out of the house. Goodness, I was only 35 -- give the kid a break, I would say.
So, to escape from this constant harassment, I became pretty familiar with all the cheap hotels and motels in the area, and -- like you, J.C. -- had never encountered any place calling itself Green Acres. But the back of the card proclaimed that it was on Highway 70 (Summer Avenue) "5 Miles East of City Limits" so I hopped in the Daimler-Benz one day, set the odometer, and drove precisely five miles beyond White Station Road, which would have been close to the city limits back then. Nothing. So I drove for six miles. Then seven. Just as I was about to give up, I came across the very buildings shown on the card, but sadly rundown, and now called the Siesta Motel.
If you squint carefully at the postcard, you can make out "Air Conditioned Café" on the building at the left, and those words are still dimly visible beneath the last coat of white paint. Don't plan on dining there, though, because the place has been closed for years and "For Sale" signs are posted all over it. In its day, the Green Acres supposedly earned a 99 rating from some group the postcard only identifies as "NAA." Nowadays, I don't think it would come close to that. In fact, I think we'll be bidding an "Adios" to the old Siesta Motel pretty soon.