Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.
Dear Vance: What's the story of the big miniature golf complex that opened on South Perkins in the 1950s? I think it was demolished when they built the Mall of Memphis.
— D.N., Memphis
Dear D.N.: Anyone who attended athletic events in Memphis surely recalls the Lauderdale family's dominance in these endeavors. We were routinely hailed as champions at bowling, croquet, badminton, ping-pong, and tiddly-winks. At one point even the mayor honored Father for his remarkable accomplishments — in hop-scotch, I believe.
One sport we truly enjoyed was golf, and not a weekend passed that a Lauderdale was not found on the links of Memphis, working on our driving and putting and hooking and slicing. So you can imagine our dismay when, in the late 1950s, we heard the sad news that the Cherokee Driving Range on Lamar, the only golf range in town, was being closed to make way for the new expressway.
But we never suspected that an energetic and enthusiastic out-of-towner named Al Fister would come to our rescue.
Al was born in Illinois, and earned a master's degree in Health, P.E., and Recreation from Indiana University. There he met a lovely woman named Susie, who was working on her MBA. They got married, and after graduation Al took a job coaching high-school basketball and football up in Three Oaks, Michigan.
But Al wanted to try his hand at something new, so in the late 1950s, he wrote to the chambers of commerce in about 20 cities across the South, trying to see if anybody was interested in having him come down and open a golf driving range.
Memphis certainly was, so Al and Susie moved here in 1960. They drove around looking at land all over the county, and then spotted a big cotton field on South Perkins Road, just outside the city limits. Al bought the property, and within just a few months opened Al's Golfdom, the only driving range in the city.
It was slow-going at first. Susie once told me, "We weren't just operating on a shoestring. More like half a shoestring." But not for long. Within just a few months, it was a huge success, and Al and Susie greatly expanded the place, adding not just one but two 18-hole miniature golf courses, a snack bar offering ice cream cones and hamburgers and hot dogs and pizza, a go-kart track that tested the skills of even the Lauderdale chauffeur, baseball batting cages, picnic tables — oh, it was an entertainment complex that the whole family could enjoy.
That was, in fact, the key to the success of Al's Golfdom — it was a clean place, owned and operated by a decent family, who knew how to keep their customers happy. I turned up an employee manual for Al's, which specified such quaint policies as "Always address customers as 'Ma'am' or Sir'" and "Remember — everyone appreciates a smile."
Al was a shrewd businessman. He knew that constant promotions were the key to his success. Hundreds of ads in the local newspapers and magazines offered coupons for go-kart rides or baskets of golf balls or games of miniature golf. They offered two-for-one admission on certain hours of certain days. And they bragged about the prizes given out every night during the ever-popular City Driving Contest. Modesty prevents me from listing all the trophies I brought home from that.
Al's was, quite simply, the place to be. In the 1960s and '70s, anyone searching for pals from high school checked out Shoney's or the Tropical Freeze, and then drove out Perkins to see if they were hanging out at Al's, because everybody was. Celebrities such as Lee Trevino and even Bob Hope showed up at Al's whenever they were in town.
In 1965, Al expanded his operation, buying up 20 acres of farmland on Raines Road out in Whitehaven, and opening Al's Golfhaven. It had pretty much the same attractions as you could find at the original Golfdom, and everything was fancy and state-of-the-art. Other miniature-golf places around town weren't that elaborate, but Al brought in — and sometimes made his own — concrete and plaster creatures and critters to decorate the course. In rainy weather, the driving range offered covered tees and, in the winter, even heated ones.
He bought a tractor and converted it into a machine that automatically swept up the golf balls, and everyone remembers how fun it was to try to bang a golf ball off the wire cage that protected that poor tractor driver. Golf was fun, all right, but adding a moving target gave it just a bit more thrill. I speak from experience.
Why, Al — ever the stickler for cleanliness — even purchased a machine that automatically scrubbed the golf balls. It sure beat washing them by hand. After all, when the Golfdom and Golfhaven were at their peak, Al once estimated that golfers drove over 15,000 balls a year at his two ranges.
The places were so successful that they stayed open 24 hours a day, to accommodate all the late-night workers who wanted to have some fun when they got off work. With its bright colors and lights and music playing from speakers, Al's was truly a sight to behold. After Interstate 240 cut just north of Al's — bringing them even more business, I might add — Susie told me how exciting it was to come over that expressway bridge at night and see Al's Golfdom, brilliantly illuminated. "It was like a dream come true," she said.
Now you'd think a place like Al's wouldn't be so popular when the weather turned cold, but you'd be wrong. Al's devoted following kept the place hopping year-round, and in the winter Al added a sideline operation — he sold Christmas trees from his parking lots. He called it "Al's Christmas Forest."
But all good things seem to come to an end, and Al's was no exception. Al's Golfdom closed in 1973. The land was sold to developers who put American Way through there, and the driving range eventually became the site of the Mall of Memphis. And we all know how that turned out. Last time I looked, it was a sad-looking field.
Al's Golfhaven lasted for more than 30 years. It finally closed in 1995, and A. Maceo Walker Middle School now stands on the site, right by I-55.
Both the Golfdom and Golfhaven were remarkable places — built, owned, and operated by the same family for their entire existence. How many companies can say that? They created a lot of fond memories for many Memphians of all ages. And for all those good times, we owe a debt of thanks to Al and Susie Fister, who began searching for a new life 60 years ago, and found it in Memphis. M
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Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103