UA-53645469-1 Memphis Type History: The Podcast

WDIA: USA’s First Black Radio Station

February 19, 2018
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In this episode of Memphis Type History: The Podcast, Caitlin talks about WDIA, the first all-Black radio station in the U.S.A. We learn about how the transformation of this station into all-black programming and on-air talent exposed some of the best local talent to become major music icons we recognize today.

 

On June 7, 1947, WDIA transmitted onto the radio waves for the first time from its 2074 Union Avenue studio... one of just six Memphis radio stations at that time! Owned by John Pepper and Bert Ferguson, two white guys, the station played pop and country western music… and it headed towards bankruptcy very quickly. However, in October of 1948, they hired high school teacher and columnist Nat D. Williams, who started the first radio show for black listeners in the country on WDIA and saved the station.

Williams' show, Tan Town Jubilee, catapulted WDIA to 2nd most popular radio station in Memphis. The station then became the TOP station in Memphis after switching to all-black programming and all-black on-air talent. In 1954, the station increased to 50,000 watts, which meant it reached into the MS Delta, a bit of Missouri, and down to the Gulf Coast… which reached the ears of 10% of the black population in the US at that time. The station would go on to be known as the Starmaker Station because of the amount of exposure it provided local talent.

One thing that was really instrumental in the station’s success was that Williams was friends with Rufus Thomas, and got him onto the station… Thomas actually kept up his show until his death in 2001. Their ties to Beale Street got BB King’s career off to a start on the station as well as many other musicians. After Beale began declining, WDIA was really a big source of musical influence (even inspiring good ol’ Elvis Presley).

Another famous show on the station was called Goodwill. It covered civic news, missing children announcements, and raised money for community projects like scholarships, a bus for disabled kids, little league teams, and an orphanage, to name a few. The show turned into big fundraisers hosted by the WDIA DJ’s called the Goodwill Revue and the Starlight Revue. Big time local and national musicians like BB King, Rufus Thomas, Bobby “Blue” Bland, the Spirit of Memphis, Elvis, Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, and Ray Charles performed for free. The local black community received about $100,000 a year from all of the Goodwill efforts.

Even though black talent and programming made WDIA so popular, and the staff was integrated in 1950 (rare for the South), it wasn’t until 1972 that Chuck Scruggs became the first black general manager and vice president. Under his 12-year service, the station helped raise money to preserve the Lorraine Motel and create the National Civil Rights Museum, and participated in the revitalization of Beale Street and the creation of the Stax Museum.

For full show notes go to memphistypehistory.com/WDIA

The Memphis Red Sox

February 11, 2018
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In this episode of Memphis Type History: The Podcast, Caitlin talks about the Memphis Red Sox and you'll get to hear our best sports announcer voices as we talk about the prominence of the team in the city and it's eventual decline.

 

The Negro League Comes to Memphis

The negro leagues had been around for a long time before a team ever started playing in Memphis. Oftentimes, those teams became some of the strongest black owned businesses in the communities in which they operated. This business began to end when Jackie Robinson began playing in the white major leagues in 1945. 

For more details about the league generally, look for some more details in the links section at the bottom. 

There was a black team as early as the early 1900's. Lewis park was built, where the Red Sox played, in the 1920's. It was the first black ball park in America. The owner also owned R.S. Lewis & Sons funeral home with a long tradition of caring for well-known members of the black community at their passing, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after he was assassinated. Four brothers bought the stadium and the Red Sox. They were all successful business owners. The team was particularly profitable and well run... listen to the full podcast to find out how the Memphis ownership group was able to do so much better than many other teams.  

The Memphis Red Sox

The team played in various leagues throughout the time it existed. They were only considered a "major league" team for just one of those years. In 1938 was the team's most successful season. They played for the championship but while being 2 up in the series, it was canceled because of business conflicts with the other team, the Atlanta Black Crackers. The Red Sox never played for the title again. 

One of the brothers in the ownership group was run out of town for speaking up against Boss Crump and ended up going to Chicago where he owned another negro league team before eventually becoming the head of the negro league itself. 

The End of the Negro Leagues

The Negro leagues created spaces for the black community to use for many other gatherings, a social connection point, and they were often some of the most successful businesses in their communities and the country. However, that success began to falter after integration. With many of the best players going to "the majors" tickets began to slide and eventually, the negro leagues would come to an end. 

For full show notes visit memphistypehistory.com/sox

Robert Church: The South’s First Black Millionaire

February 5, 2018
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This week, Caitlin and Rebecca start a new series for Black History Month. In this episode of Memphis Type History: The Podcast, Rebecca talks about a particular man who invested so much in Memphis, not only did he become recognized as the south's first African-American millionaire, but Memphis certainly wouldn't be the city it is today without him.

Robert Reed Church was born in Holly Springs Mississippi in 1939. His father, Charles B. Church, was a white steamboat owner-captain and his mother was one of his father's slaves. She died when Robert was only 12 years old.

Robert's father didn't treat him and his mother like slaves, yet he still didn't educate his son or ever formally recognize the relationship. His father did however train him in the steamboat business. Robert worked as a dishwasher, a cook, and a steward, which was the highest position for a black person.

In 1855, one of their luxury steamers caught fire and sank, though Robert and his father managed to survive. Then eventually, at age 23 while working as a steward on a boat, Robert gets dropped off in Memphis because the boat was captured by the Union Army.

Robert Church established himself as a successful Memphis businessman, owning a saloon, hotel, bank, restaurant and others that get discussed.

What we gather is, Church was invested in Memphis. And getting shot by a white mob and later on by a sheriff was not enough to make him leave the city.. nor was the Yellow Fever. In fact, he found that time as an opportunity to buy up real-estate when the property values were low. And when the time came that Memphis was reduced to a Taxing District, Church was the first citizen to buy a bond for $1,000, to restore the City Charter.

Rebecca then talks to Caitlin about some of her favorite Robert Church landmarks. The first is a hotel he owned in downtown Memphis on the southwest corner of South Second and Gayoso Streets. It was furnished with the best equipment of its day and advertised as the only first-class colored hotel in the city.

Another is the home he built for him and his family in the 1800s pictured above. It had 14 rooms, including a double drawing room (something that Caitlin and Rebecca try to guess is). The home was one of the first of the Queen Anne style built in Memphis. Unfortunately it does not still exist today.

Robert Church also founded the Solvent Savings Bank and Trust Company, the first black owned and operated bank in Memphis. 

Rebecca's personal favorite establishment of his is the Church Park and Auditorium that also does not exist today other than the landmark that is pictured above. In 1899, Memphis lacked public parks for black citizens so Church bought a tract of land on Beale St., and built an auditorium which seated 2 thousand people. It was a cultural, recreational, and civic center for African-Americans and the only of its kind in the U.S. owned and operated by a person of color for members of his race.

Fun fact: W.C. Handy was employed as the orchestra leader for the park and auditorium.

For full show notes, visit memphistypehistory.com/millionaire

Ghost Signs with Devin Greaney

January 29, 2018
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In this episode of Memphis Type History: The Podcast, Caitlin chats wtih Devin Greaney, Memphis’ very own ghost sign hunter. Sit back and relax because after this episode you’ll want to look up a bit more when you’re out and about! A ghost sign is a sign or ad created many years ago that no longer serves a purpose. Sometimes they peek out from renovated buildings, or can be found on the peeling paint of an exterior wall. In Memphis, we pass by many of these… and these are their stories.

Devin introduces himself as a freelance writer and photographer. He likes writing about a variety of topics including old Memphis in particular. And then jumps into exactly what is a ghost sign because really.. why is it called a ghost sign?

Whether a sign that was covered by a newer building or one that is faded, these ghost signs are signs or ads that were created many years ago and don’t serve a purpose other than peek the interests of a passerby. In Memphis, we pass by many of these. For Devin, he likes to dig into the history of these signs for local history and the story behind them. In particular, he recalls an old Dr. Pepper sign that was uncovered when a building was knocked down in ’86 on Evergreen and Poplar. 

What would making a sign from that time look like? In the past, there weren’t as many sign ordinances as there are now so there was less restriction on size and colors. What wasn’t uncommon was finding a few trends through the decades on these signs based on the types of fonts used and colors. However, the best way to date these signs is to look into the history of the building they belonged to and the businesses it housed.

Devin has researched many ghost sign such as Hotel Pontotoc, the Lamar Theater (hear a bit of a rumor on this landmark in this episode), and a sign for a beauty school downtown which also has a rumor that Devin talks about.

Caitlin asks which are the favorites uncovered and Devin says one in particular is Goodman and Son Jewelers which closed in 1989. Located between BB. King and Second Street it had opened in 1862. He also talks about several others, including a Bassoon shop (how often do you come across a bassoon shop?), a Firestone smokestack which Devin compares to what FedEx is to us now.

Though Elvis doesn’t make an appearance on this episode, we learn about how Memphis didn’t become the tourist destination that we know of it today until 1982 when Graceland opened for tours. Devin also gives us an insight into how the Heartbreak Hotel came to life in March of 83′ and how it was originally called the King’s Heartbreak Hotel and replaced a different old motel. The old painted, faded sign can still be found on the building.

One sign that was able to surprise Devin was the Hickman building on 248 Madison, across the street from the YMCA. It closed in 1971 was almost lost in in 1993 fire, and in 2017 began remodeling. It’s fascinating to think about the chapters of a buildings life and how far they survive. Devin also points out one of the unique characteristics of Memphis is that this city still holds a lot of natives that can remember significant events that occurred throughout the city, whereas in other big cities where many occupants are transplants, people can’t relate to things that have happened in years past.

If there’s anything you should gather from this episode, it’s that we shouldn’t keep things from the past just for the sake that they’re old. If they don’t serve a purpose, or are an eye sore, what is the point? Some things are better left re-purposed, like Beale Street when it revamped in 1983. People made comments about how it wasn’t the same Beale Street from the 30s but it really can’t survive to live like the 30s. At some point, we need to think practically about what parts of historic properties remain. Crosstown Concourse is a good example of this.

What other types of stories does Devin have to share about the uniqueness of this city? There’s a spot on the floor that is damaged and the Broom Closet, located in South Main. Story goes, in 1918, officer, Edward Broadfoot goes in to investigate something and was shot down in the store. The blood soaked the ground and that spot remains on that floor. Devin also talks about other historical markers with stories many are unaware of. It’s a good list, so make sure you take a listen. However, there is ONE historical marker that Devin does NOT approve for a reason that you probably wouldn’t guess.

Surviving the Bomb: Memphis’ Famous Fallout Shelter

January 22, 2018
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In this episode of Memphis Type History: The Podcast, we talk about something that has come up more lately than many of us would've expected: fallout shelters. Learn about Memphis' history of one particular famous safe place and how it drew criticism from the state controlled press in Russia at the time. 

It was a time of terror and wonder. No, we're not talking about a few weeks ago when that accidental message made Hawaiians think a bomb was heading for them... we are talking about the Atomic Age when the Soviet Union was talking about building a bigger and better bomb to compete with the U.S. Meanwhile, the U.S. had picked a spot in a desert not too far from Las Vegas to test our own nukes. From 1951-1992 there were a total of 928 explosions at the site. 100 above ground tests of these nuclear bombs happened between 1951 to 1962.

This was a pretty big deal for Las Vegas because of the tourist attraction it became. People could watch the mushroom clouds blossom in the distance. Casinos offered mushroom cloud souvenirs, atomic cocktails, and the Miss Atom Bomb beauty pageant. 

So what would Caitlin do if there was a real bomb threat? You'll have to listen to find out.. but Rebecca does give her a brief history on the plans Memphis had during the Atomic Age, should a bomb threat arise. 

In the 1950s, the goverment printed millions of bright yellow pamphlets called, "Be Safe from the H-Bomb." These were inserted in copies of The Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar. All it basically said was to get out of the city quickly. Even with a two-hour notice of a bomb arriving (which is about the time they were able to give) this seemed like an impractical plan to have everybody try to pack up and leave the city in that time span.

So a new plan was developed to take shelter instead of run away. Memphis set up 279 shelters with 251 of them fully stocked with food. Special sanitation kits, water, toilet paper and other necessities were provided but not beds, chairs, or cots. And the instruction was to walk to one of these shelters, not drive.

One particular shelter has a quite a story. It was a built by Hoyt B. Wooten who full-filled his boyhood dream by building one of these in his backyard. 

Hoyt B. Wooten was the owner of the radio station WREC, member of the Kiwanis Club and director of the National Association of Regional Broadcasting Stations in the U.S. In 1958 he paid $12,000 for 27 acres to build a home in Whitehaven on Highway 51. The house was built in 1962 at a cost between $150,000-$200,000. 

He then designed and engineered the equipment of a shelter that was 5,600 sq. ft., made to house 56 people for up to 31 days following a nuclear blast. The ceilings were 9.5 feet high with foot thick steel enforced concrete. Wooten believed it would take a 20-megaton bomb falling eight miles away to disturb them.

The shelter had its own electrical supply, its own water supply (Water came from wells 93 feet below the ground. There was even a pumping system in case of flooding), its own air purification system (Wooten used this to pump Chanel No. 5 for his kids' events), a library with a collection of books, current periodicals such as LIFE and TIME Magazines, and Wooten's collection of National Geographic.

One Commercial Appeal article goes into even greater detail...

"There was a film library, a pool table, Ping Pong table and a dart board. There was a kitchen to prepare meals for all the guests and pantries to store food for the duration of the 31-day cooling off period.

The guests would be housed in dormitories with bunk beds, separate restrooms for men and women, and sliding panels in the dormitories to provide some separation for different age groups."

The heart of the shelter was a communications system including AM and FM radio receivers, a remote control TV set, a movie screen with 25 feature films, and telephones.

 

The shelter was lit by custom built fixtures with multiple switches. My personal favorite is the lighting in the kitchen window to give the ambience of daylight. If all the main lights were turned off, dim 7.5-watt bulbs automatically turned on so the rooms would never be completely dark. And then they also had candles in brackets along the walls in case of a black out.

In conclusion, this was not your average fallout shelter. In fact, it was so well publicized that it drew criticism from the state controlled press in Russia at the time. Perhaps they were upset because they want to break us. (Don't know that quote? Find it in this U.S. Cold War propaganda film from the 80's)

For full show notes go to memphistypehistory.com/fallout

 

The Memphis Mafia

January 14, 2018
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For full show notes go to memphistypehistory.com/mafia

Union & Madison with Storyboard Memphis

January 7, 2018
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In this episode of Memphis Type History: The Podcast, Caitlin chats with Mark Fleischer, the man behind Storyboard Memphis. We talk most about Union and Madison Avenues, so that makes this show another good ol' piece of Memphis street history for ya!

 

When Mark first came to Memphis, he luckily landed in Midtown, an area which sparked a deep interest in everything about Memphis history. Being relatively new to the city, he has an outsider point-of-view that helps him put a fresh eye on everything he learns about the city.

Mark pretty much immediately dives right into the longtime Memphis controversy over where the Midtown borders are... and Caitlin chose not to weigh in, not one bit. According to Mark, it comes down to iffy geographic borders and the "Midtown mindset," which he describes as activist, eclectic, and diverse... with a belief that they have a say in what happens in their neighborhood and how it develops.

Here's the really shocking thing for all you Midtowners – you weren't always in Midtown. In fact, just a few decades ago, you would've been living in East Memphis.

Elsewhere in this interview, Caitlin learned that Mark is extremely unimpressed by Union Avenue. But he still appreciates the rich history of the street anyway. Back in the 1880s/1890s, Crump held out on putting a trolley line on Union, even though they went up and down other main streets, in hopes of putting in city-owned tracks (rather than a line owned by private companies like the others were). Before this happened, the city created a new plan that called for the widening of Union so that it would be the main thoroughfare out east... and the Peabody-like feel of the street was changed.

In recent times, city planning desires are sounding like a look back to the early days of Union when it was walkable and bikeable, which it was until as recently as the '60s when it was widened again. We then discuss the aspects of Union that lack a sense of place... something that he feels got lost along the way in Union's long lifespan.

If you go down Union today, you can still find some older, 20s and 30s storefronts, but you've gotta look closely. There are few of them and they're off the road because this street was built for car traffic, which means parking areas (although, of course, these spots are not as plentiful for today's traffic). Listen in to find out which corners to go explore... both on and off of Union Ave!

Mark also talks about Madison and how it compares to Union... the former is curved to match the old street car lines that were installed there, as opposed to Union which was built for vehicle traffic. You get the same curvature in Cooper-Young too! Finally, come along with us for a meandering little trip down Madison, full of fits and starts that tell the history of Memphis and demonstrates a strong sense of place.

Last but not least is a charming story Mark uncovered about a late 1800s/early 1900s Memphis character, Christopher Hottum. Hottum owned a saloon at 119 Madison and was a major daredevil. He once jumped off a bridge because everyone said he'd die if he did it. He promoted the last legal bareknuckle fight in Mississippi, too. Why did Mark find out about him? His tax man asked for a history of his home, and lo' and behold, this guy built it! Hottum is just one example of what Mark calls the "mythic quality" of Memphis.

We end with a few fun rapid-fire questions that Mark handled like a total pro. You'll learn which Memphis neighborhood he'd stay in for all eternity, what Memphis street name he'd make his own, and more!

For full show notes, go to memphistypehistory.com/union

 

Bonus Episode: Droppin’ On New Year’s Eve

January 1, 2018
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This bonus episode provides you with the history behind the New Years Day Gibson guitar drop on Beale Street in Memphis, TN... and a listing of a few other drops in the USA.

For other bonus episodes, visit memphistypehistory.com/bonus

Bonus Episode: Ice Skating at the Mall

December 25, 2017
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This bonus episode features a listener who called and left a voicemail at Speakpipe about her time as a figure skater at the Mall of Memphis.

For full show notes and to listen to other bonus episodes, visit memphistypehistory.com/bonus

Christmas in Memphis

December 17, 2017
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In this episode of Memphis Type History: The Podcast, we're talking all things Christmas in Memphis and sharing YOUR memories of this magical holiday. Hang your tinsel, grab your hot chocolate, and settle in for a jolly good time on this week's show!

 

The Enchanted Forest at Goldsmiths

Ask a longtime Memphian about Christmas and you’re sure to hear about the Enchanted Forest at Goldsmiths department store.

Goldsmiths was started in 1870 as a dry goods store on Beale Street by two German immigrant brothers, Jacob and Isaac, and their savings of $500. In 1895, it moved to Main Street. The store expanded into the Gayoso in 1952. The downtown store closed in 1993 and inside nowadays you will find the Center for Southern Folklore. Goldsmiths was very fancy for its time with its escalators, air conditioning, and merchandise arranged by departments. They even had a Christmas parade ten years before Macy’s did it.

The Enchanted Forest was inspired by the Disney "Small World" ride. It first opened in the bargain basement in 1960. Apparently there was a long tunnel from the parking garage to the store that had many strange and wonderful wares along the walls. At the end of the tunnel, one could find a bakery with seasonal gingerbread men. Busloads of children would arrive, giddy to be on a field trip and at the prospect of spotting Santa with his live reindeer. An electric train (or perhaps several) ran throughout the Enchanted Forest.

Memphis Santas

We hear several charming Santa memories on this episode and it was so fun to hear how everyone was sure that THEIR Santa was real!

For many years, Court Square was decorated as the North Pole and featured Santa's home. This magical Santa had a super secret way to discover the names, information, and what sort of gifts he could promise the children will receive that year. No matter what each child wished for, they all left with a tiny Coke bottle keychain!

Another Memphis Santa of note was Robert J. Morton, whose wife dared him to dress up as Santa and wave to passersby in 1968. It took off and so he became known for delighting children at his fully decked out home for two weeks during the Christmas season. His house on Parnassas was strung with hundreds of lights and Jingle Bells was playing. In his second year as Santa, about 300 children came by to visit Morton.

Overton Square

Christmas at Overton Square was a sight to behold. In 1976 those wild dudes who created the Square decided there should be snow. So they orchestrated a “Charles Dickens” Christmas – with blue skies and a blizzard that began as soon as the temperature hit 28 degrees. The snow came out of a snow-making machines connected to fire hydrants.

Carolers dressed like they were from the 1800s sang beneath lampposts wrapped in garland and tied with ribbons. The official city tree was located on in front of T.G.I. Fridays, of course. The big parade went right down Madison. Ice skaters crammed onto the rink that took over the entire street between Florence and Cooper.

Lots of Overton Square memories on this episode!

Mr. Bingle

Mr. Bingle was a well-loved Memphis snowman who worked as Santa’s assistant during Christmas with his charming ice cream cone hat, candy cane, and red ribbon complete with bells and holly. Mr. Bingle was imagined by Emile Alline in 1947 down in New Orleans. Having the initials M.B., which was shorthand for the Maison Blanche department store, he became their mascot.

He then gained larger fame when Mercantile Stores and Dillard's picked up the character. His most famous form in New Orleans was the 15-minute puppet show on Canal Street, where he also appeared in giant papier-maché form, voiced and puppeteered by Edwin "Oscar" Isentrout. This show, his TV and radio appearances, and charity events continued until Isentrout’s death in 1985. In Memphis, the Mr. Bingle shows were co-hosed by Miss Holly, played by Memphis advertising executive Joan White.

A 2004 there was a novel called Saving Mr. Bingle sold in Nola and Memphis, with proceeds going towards a gravestone for Isentrout's previously unmarked grave at Hebrew Rest No. 3 Cemetery in New Orleans. The stores also marketed the character by selling Mr. Bingle merch.

For full show notes, visit memphistypehistory.com/christmas.