Dial 'N' Smile
Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.
Dear Vance: When I was a kid, I called a phone number called Dial 'n' Smile. The signoff was "Keep dialing and smiling. Bye-bye, now." Who was this man and how did this get started? — D.B., Memphis.
Dear D.B.: J.C. Levy was one of those unusual fellows who actually got pleasure from making other people happy. Nowadays they have medications for his condition, I believe, and while he was alive Levy would certainly not have been welcome at the Lauderdale Mansion. After all, our family crest carries a Scandinavian phrase that translates roughly into "Misery and Sorrow" and it's adorned with images of empty moneybags, dead crows, a broken sword, and a skull. Oh, such wonderful times we had at the reunions!
But Levy was a different sort of person. Born in Amory, Mississippi, in 1906, his parents made a living selling eyeglasses by horse and buggy to planters in the region. At a young age, Levy moved to Memphis, where he first started working for the Illinois Central Railroad, and then changed careers entirely — setting up a professional photography studio just off the lobby of The Peabody.
But in the 1950s, he opened a cluster of kiddie-sized rides at the Mid-South Fairgrounds — a miniature Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round with little cars and motorcycles, and a ride with boats puttering around in a circular basin. After a few years, he moved the rides to the Memphis Zoo, where they were an incredibly popular attraction for almost 40 years. I don't think I've ever met a single person in Memphis who had not ridden at least one of those things. (My personal favorite: the boats, with real steering wheels even though you just cruised in a circle.)
One day, sitting in his office on South Cox, Levy decided to leave a funny message on his answering machine while he went to lunch — a little ditty about Santa Claus since it was close to Christmas. When he got back, he discovered dozens of people had called, mainly just to hear the message, and Levy realized a new chapter in his life had opened.
So in 1971 he began Dial 'n' Smile. Any-one calling 278-2370 heard a cute poem, funny story, animal sounds — whatever struck Levy's fancy.
"Little things pop into my head," he told the Memphis Press-Scimitar back in the 1980s. "I like the odd sort of things. Some people call them poems, some call them rhymes, and some just call them terrible."
And then Levy ended the message with his customary signoff: "Keep dialing and smiling. Bye-bye now!"
Levy never made a dime off Dial 'n' Smile, and at one point estimated his phone bills were $5,000 a year. The demand was so great that he set up a bank of 25 answering machines in his own home. But that didn't bother him. He just liked to make people happy, and plenty of his callers let him know he did just that, year after year.
One time, a 10-year-old girl sent Levy a letter saying she had been calling him every day since she was 3, and said, "I think you're great. I like listening to you better than going with my boyfriend." No comment from the boyfriend.
At one point, Levy estimated he had recorded more than 2,000 different messages, many of them accompanied by roars, bellows, shrieks, and other sounds made by the animals at the zoo (such as the baby elephant). "I write a lot of my poems or verses late at night," he told the Press-Scimitar. "Often I wake up with an idea and write it down. Then I try them out on my wife at the breakfast table. If she runs for the bucket, I think maybe I have a good one."
Levy died in 1997 at the age of 91. Just before his death, he estimated he had received more than 20 million calls. "He wanted it to go on forever," said his widow, "and he wanted to go on forever." But all things come to an end, and she had the Dial 'n' Smile lines disconnected. Don't even bother calling 278-2370 today. All you get is a scratchy recording saying, "The number you have reached is not in service at this time." Not even a "Bye-bye now!"
Dear Vance: Why did they move the Japanese Garden from Overton Park to Audubon Park? — G.L., Germantown.
Dear G.L.: They — meaning the Memphis Park Commission — didn't move the park. They didn't have enough shovels and wheelbarrows to do that. Instead, they just obliterated it because of intense anti-Japanese sentiment in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
It's a shame because, as you can see from the old postcard view above, the original Japanese Garden — the one in Overton Park — was a fantastic place, complete with pagodas, lanterns, an arched bridge, and even a concrete replica of what was supposed to be Mount Fujiyama. The whole thing was a gift to the park from Col. Robert Galloway, head of the Memphis Park Commission in the early 1900s. Galloway, who had traveled the world over (much like the Lauderdales), had installed a Japanese-themed tea room in his mansion near the park, and I'm told guests admired it so much that in 1914 he decided to build a Japanese garden in the park. When you're head of the park commission, you can just go ahead and do those things, you see.
After the U.S. entered World War II, though, city officials decided the garden had to go. Various people protested that destroying the garden was "childish" and even the Memphis Press-Scimitar argued, "Why not just call it a Chinese garden and let it go?" Well, we couldn't just let it go. That's not the way we do things here. Bulldozers pulled down all the structures and filled in the lake. The Memphis College of Art stands on the site today.
In 1965, a new, less cluttery Japanese garden was added to Memphis Botanic Garden, and the beautiful arched bridge there is probably one of the most photographed sites in our city. Something tells me it's here to stay.
Dear Vance: Where on earth was this giant "Municipal Swimming Pool" ? — K.F., Memphis.
Dear K.F.: I can give you a very specific location on our planet. Namely, it was at the Mid-South Fairgrounds, just behind Fairview Junior High School. This undated postcard shows the original Fairgrounds pool, a massive complex with white sand beaches, diving towers, and a roped-off deep-water area in the center. Look carefully at the old card: In the background is a warning sign over the dressing rooms that says "All Out When Bell Rings."
This was a safety precaution: Every hour or so, the lifeguards would clang a bell, and everybody had to scamper out of the pool so they could make sure nobody was floating on the bottom. For some reason the city filled in this huge oval pool, sometime in the 1940s or 1950s — nobody ever told me why — and built a considerably smaller one, a rectangular concrete thing. The newer pool stayed busy until just a few years ago, when the city filled in that one too. The last time I checked, the entire site was just a dirt field. Not a very good way to beat the heat, if you ask me.
Got a question for Vance? Send it to "Ask Vance" at Memphis Magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org