Memories of Marjorie



Dear Vance: I was born in 1950 and lived most of my life in the Cooper-Young area. At the age of 2, I was sent to the Marjorie Duckett Dancing School. My vague memory is that it was on Union, but I can't remember where. Can you help? -- L.H.., Memphis.

Dear L.H.: Oh, what memories your letter brings back, for I too was a pupil of the Marjorie Duckett School of Dance. In fact, it's safe to say that I was her most outstanding student. She never told me that in so many words, being a quiet, studious woman, but I remember one day when Mother and Father came to pick me up after my lessons, she pulled them aside and whispered that "she absolutely couldn't teach me anything" and "when I danced, it just gave her the shivers -- she had never seen anything quite like it." Tears rolled down her cheeks as she spoke those words -- tears of joy, I know. Oh, my little heart swelled with pride.

And when I came home and slipped into my lederhosen and saddle oxfords, well, let's just say I made a sensation doing the foxtrot and the cha-cha in the Lauderdale ballroom. I remember the other dancers stopping and staring whenever I took the floor, obviously dazzled by my performance. Yes, good times!

So I know quite a few things about Marjorie Duckett. She was born in Memphis in 1918. She began to teach dancing with her mother, Doris, as early as the 1930s, initially working out of their home on South Bellevue. In the mid-1940s, she and her mother opened the Marjorie Duckett School of Dance at 1648 Union, and a few years later moved her school down the street to 1562 Union. The building was a rambling old house. The dancing school was on the ground floor, and Marjorie lived with her parents upstairs.

For a while, anyway. Sometime in the early 1950s, Marjorie married Arthur Binford, a successful dentist, and moved with him to a fine home at 1385 Goodbar in Central Gardens. Even so, she continued to operate her school on Union until 1969, when she retired.

Back in those days, dancing was more popular than it is now, I think, or at least the dances were so complicated that they required lessons, for there were quite a few dancing schools in town. Some of Marjorie's competitors included Eugenia Weakley, Marylee Edwards, and Sue Flack, and I'm sure there were others. I just thought I'd give them a mention too.

Even after she closed her school, Marjorie remained active in the world of dance, serving for more than 60 years as president of the Southern Association of Dance Masters, an organization that she founded. But the music finally came to an end in 1999, when Marjorie passed away at the age of 81. She is buried with her husband in Memorial Park.

And her school? After it closed, the old house was torn down and replaced with a Bonanza Sirloin Pit. That was in 1970, I believe. I don't even remember such a restaurant on Union, but the telephone directories don't lie. The site is today occupied by the West Clinic.

Searching for Chicago

Dear Vance: I lived in Memphis when I was a kid and during the 1970s I was bused to a school called Chicago Park. However, searching online I discovered the school was inactive. Do you know what happened to it? -- D.R.., St. Louis.

Dear D.R.: It's safe to say that few schools in our city have had such a short and troubled history. And Chicago Park opened with such promise -- a modern facility that was designed to revitalize a decaying old neighborhood in North Memphis.

In 1960, the Memphis Board of Education purchased several acres a few blocks east of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company plant, and hired the local architectural firm of Wiseman & Bland to design a sprawling, two-story complex with gymnasium and playground. The big playground ran alongside Cypress Creek and that, as it turned out later, was trouble.

You see, in the early 1960s, Cypress Creek had apparently been a dumping ground for pollutants discharged by nearby industries. Chicago Park schoolchildren began to develop rashes and unexplained sores. Neighborhood activists, led by a fellow named N.T. "Brother" Greene, demanded the playground be closed. Others doubted there was a problem; a member of the New Chicago Civic Club tried to calm residents, saying, "It makes no sense to get alarmed."

It was a very confusing situation. Shelby County Health Department officials insisted there was nothing wrong with the property. However, samples taken by the EPA showed higher-than-normal levels of dangerous chemicals in the soil, including a carcinogen called endrin.

In 1981, the playground was closed and surrounded by a chainlink fence. But that still didn't ease the concerns of parents, so in January 1982, Willie Herenton, who was then superintendent of city schools, announced that the Chicago Park School at 1415 Breedlove would be closed. Herenton insisted it was mainly a cost-savings measure, since the big school only housed about 300 students. "The experts differ," he told reporters, "as to whether there are enough chemicals to be dangerous to the children."

That wasn't good enough for one school board member, who noted, "When scientists disagree, it means there's a problem that no one wants to take full blame for explaining."

If Chicago Park School was supposed to bring new life to the neighborhood, it gets an F. The school buildings were boarded up, and in 1982 Firestone, one of our city's largest employers, closed.

Alley Answer

Dear Vance: I have a 1926 Shelby County death certificate that lists the residence of the deceased as 124 Beans Alley. Does this street still exist? Also, the undertaker was Barnwell and Spencer. What can you tell me about them? --M.M., Silver Spring, MD.

Dear M.M.: The actual name was Bean Alley, and it was a stubby little street that stretched for a few blocks east and west of Florida Street, about one block south of present-day Crump Boulevard. The alley, once lined with little houses, shows up on maps and is listed in telephone directories (above) as late as the 1960s. But so many factories moved into that area that no trace survives of Bean Alley today.

The firm of Spencer and Barnwell was one of our city's most successful black-owned undertakers and funeral directors, with offices located at 898 Florida from 1908 through 1969. An old advertisement bragged about their "prompt service day or night" and also urged potential customers to "call us anytime for an ambulance." Sorry, but if I'm in need of an ambulance, I want it to come from a hospital -- not a funeral home. That just doesn't send the right message, if you ask me. M

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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