This episode is about Firsts in Memphis. It occurred to me, after several tours of our favorite place, Elmwood Cemetery, that our city has numerous things that happened for the first time, here in our city. We’re going to talk about a few of them today.
We’ll revisit this topic periodically, we’ve got a few more on the list, but if you have any suggestions, of course, please let us know!
“We are not trying to prove we can get along in a world without men. We are simply trying to prove that when a group of women make up their collective minds that they are going to do something successfully, no force on earth can keep them from it.”
-Dorothy Abbott, Assistant Manager and Program Director of WHER.
This quote was from the program director of the first all female radio station.
WHER was started in 1955 by none other than Sam Phillips, the man behind helping to make Elvis famous. Phillips used the money he received from selling Elvis’ recording contract to start the station. According to Philips, he created the station from his love of radio and his curiosity of hearing women’s voices on the air.
Women ran the entire operation – everything from being on air personalities to engineering their programs. Phillips’ wife, Becky, was one of the first djs. He drew women from all over the Memphis area, most who had no experience in radio. He employed models, actresses, telephone operators, and housewives, just to name a few.
WHER was recorded and broadcast out of the third ever Holiday Inn (another Memphis first we will discuss in a moment), in a studio named the Doll Bin. It was decorated all pink and girly. The djs delivered news and played music on the air, conducted interviews with local celebrities, created and sold commercials, produced and directed the programming and ran the control boards.
The radio station ran from 1955-1973. WHER inspired women everywhere to start similar stations.
In sticking with the radio theme, Memphis is also home to the first radio station programmed for African Americans with African American on-air personalities. WDIA was originally created in 1947 as a country, western, and light pop station, and it failed. The owners of the station, John Pepper and Bert Ferguson, both white, decided to take the station in another direction.
They hired Nat G. Williams, a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, to be the DJ of the Tan Town Jubilee, the first program to appeal to black listeners. This new show exploded and the station switched formats to an all black programming station. It became the number one station in Memphis.
WDIA was known as the “Starmaking Station”. Many musical legends, such as BB King and Rufus Thomas, got their start at WDIA. King started out hosting a 15min show and then moved on to hosting a full afternoon program. It was during his show that the station got their first major advertiser. BB King credits the station for helping to launch his career. By 1954, WDIA increased its power to 50,000 watts making it possible to be heard from the Missouri bootheel to the Gulf Coast.
Also, in 1954, the station created the Goodwill Fund. Originally it was designed to transport disabled African American children to school and then later it grew to be an organization that offered college scholarships, established boys clubs, provided little league teams, and helped provide low cost supplemental housing.
Until 1972, the station management had been an integrated one, which was pretty uncommon for the time, but that year, Chuck Scruggs was promoted to general manager. He became the first black general manager at the station. Mr. Scruggs did more than just run a number one radio station, he helped preserve one of Memphis’s historic sites, the Lorraine Motel. When it was in danger of being torn down, he donated the money to save it and helped create the Civil Right Museum.
WDIA, the heart and soul of Memphis, is still running today, providing the world with classic R&B music.
We talked earlier about WHER being recorded in the third-ever Holiday Inn in Memphis. That’s because Holiday Inn is a Memphis hometown business.
The name started as a joke, in reference to an old Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire movie, Holiday Inn, but in 1952 that joke-named hotel concept, came to fruition.
The hotel idea was the brainchild of Memphian, Kemmons Wilson. Wilson and his family were taking a trip to DC when he realized there were not enough hotels/motels in general, and in the ones that existed, the rooms were small and uncomfortable, and extra money was required for children.
The idea for Holiday Inn was born out of frustration. Wilson believed there should be comfortable and reasonably priced accommodations for traveling families. He had the dream of creating 400 hotels across the country that met a standardized criteria that was efficient and comfortable.
In just one year, Wilson had opened 3 hotels in Memphis, but quickly ran out of money. He ended up partnering with Wallace Johnson, who owned a construction company, and he was able to make a franchise possible.
Just two years later, in 1954, Wilson and Johnson built the first Holiday Inn outside of Memphis, in Clarksdale,MS.
By 1962, there was a Holiday Inn opening every two weeks. In 1964, Wilson had exceeded his goal and opened his 500th hotel. Four years after that, the first Holiday Inn opened in Europe.
In less than 12 years, Wilson’s dream of offering families a better travel experience had come true.
And last but not least, if you’ve ever been to the Pink Palace, your favorite part was probably the mock grocery store.
The grocery store in the Pink Palace is based on the original Piggly Wiggly founded in Memphis in 1916.
Prior to Clarence Saunders’s great idea for a self service grocery store, a store’s clerks would gather your goods for you. It was not a quick trip to the store like it is now. Customers would have to wait in long lines because it took so much time to help one customer.
The cost of employing clerks was passed on to the customer and sometimes clerks charged customers more than necessary due to unclear product pricing.This led to inconsistent pricing and more expensive shopping.
Saunders knew he could cut costs and speed up the process. By allowing the customer, armed with a shopping basket to pick out their own groceries with clearly marked prices, he could employ fewer clerks that would be there to stock shelves and ring up customers. This would reduce the end cost for the customer.
It also allowed stores to start carrying more than one brand of product. Now, customers could choose the product they enjoyed instead of having to settle for only one option.
How Saunders come up with the name, Piggly Wiggly, is still a mystery. He claimed he named it this so that people would ask him why he named it that.
Piggly Wiggly grew and spread quickly. In their first year, there were nine Piggly Wigglys in Memphis and by 1932, there were 1,200 across America. This store paved the way for modern supermarkets and is the reason we grocery shop the way we do today.
This concludes our first Firsts in Memphis episode. Our city has paved the way for many everyday things we don’t even think about or take for granted. Just imagine how things would be if any of these things hadn’t happened?
Since we have a bit of time left, we thought we’d share an awesome email we got from a listener named Charlie Lambert. He worked at the Zoo as a child and was kind enough to share his experience from that time.
Here’s what Charlie had to say:
“I went to work at the Memphis Zoo in 1953, shortly before my 10th birthday, renting baby strollers at the front gate, assisted by my 7-year-old brother. Our duties were to keep the strollers clean, have the customer sign a logbook and pay us 50 cents. Our next-door neighbor, Charlie Bell, owned the stroller and photo concessions at the zoo, and he convinced our parents he would watch after us. We only worked on Sundays. At that time, the Memphis Zoological Gardens was the largest free zoo in the country. It was subsidized by Abe Plough (CEO of Plough, Inc.) to keep it free and to keep it beautiful. I have heard he gave the zoo a million dollars a year for that purpose.
I vividly recall the free circus at 2:30 every afternoon. The ringmaster was Tommy O’Brien, and he had a history with the Cole Brothers Circus. His wife, Marguerite, performed on the trapeze along with other things in the show. The circus had camels, elephants, horses, ponies, dogs, human performers, and clowns all packed in the forty-five-minute performance. It was riveting and all free. Tommy was garbed in a silk shirt, a billed cap, and carried a masterful whip to act as master of the ring. The director of the zoo, Nick Melroy brought the circus to the zoo in the 1940’s. He had been a lion tamer at Cole’s in his earlier career. Word has it that Melroy was also a tattoo artist who practiced that art in the house provided for him in the zoo grounds.
When he was not performing, O’Brien oversaw the pony track, providing rides for kids at 10 cents apiece. He was also one of the managers of the staff of the zoo. He took a baby gorilla home with him for several weeks to be sure it received proper feeding during the night.
By the time I was nine, I was promoted to assistant photographer at the picture booth next to the stroller rental stand. I was working on weekends and every day during the summer for Mr. Bell.
I was trained by another teen, Donne Walden, who had worked at the zoo for Bell since 1950. He was 8 years my senior. The camera we used, a direct-positive model, reversed images so we had to have the background to the pictures reversed. It originally was just rocks and water but, later, depicted the front gates of the zoo and, eventually, we added the date on the background so people could trace the vintage of the pictures.
Bell was known as a concessionaire. He owned a second picture booth in another part of the zoo, one at the Fairgrounds Amusement Park, and a collection of carnival games and rides in Riverside Park. He was a true carney. He could turn one twenty-five cent sale into several dollars on sheer salesmanship skill. In those days farm families came in droves to the zoo from all over the mid-south. They had saved up for the visit all year and a few dollars for pictures meant little to them. Our take on a good day was over one-hundred dollars, a veritable fortune in those days. I received five dollars for my 8-hour shift.
One day a jaguar named “Mary” escaped from its cage and perched itself on top of the cat house (Carnivora Building built in 1909. Still there but is now a restaurant). The keeper considered “Mary” a pet. He climbed up and sat on the roof alongside Mary until she tired of the adventure and meekly returned to her cage. Another time a Black Panther got out and roamed the zoo shortly before opening time. A bunch of us zoo employees scrambled when we saw it heading our way. Cokes and peanuts went-a-flying as it brushed past us and into the main restaurant where it was confined in a storage room. No harm was done.
The zoo sold an elephant to a Hollywood Studio to appear in a film. (We mentioned this elephant, Modoc, in the Memphis Zoo episode.)Modoc lived in a confined area separated by a moat. Getting it across the moat on a wooden ramp was no easy task. No one could lure the pachyderm to venture the journey until its trainer, Red Parkey, walked across the ramp and told “Modoch” to follow him which she did, instantly.
The pony track ponies escaped and ran amok as did the monkeys on “monkey mound”. The cleaner left his boat in the moat surrounding the mound and the simians hitched a ride to shore and led the keepers in quite a chase. All just part of the experience of working in a zoo.
The main downside to being a part of that world in the 1950’s was the treatment of the black guests. The zoo was closed to blacks except on Thursdays. A sign was rolled to the front gate on Thursday morning that read, “Colored Only”. In addition to that, most of the food stands, and other amenities closed on Thursdays. The main restaurant would serve at the counter but the chairs and tables that usually filled the large veranda were stacked up on Wednesday afternoons to keep the Thursday patrons off them. Even the restrooms were limited on that day. As for the picture booth, we made a killing on Thursdays. We had record numbers of patrons.
I would not take anything for my experiences working at that young age, learning how to manage money, encountering all variety of human beings from Abe Plough and Bill Loeb who liked having pictures made, to the Bearden family. Willie is a local legend and I have somewhere in my reams of photos a picture of him, his parents, and siblings that I took in the 1950’s. The poor, the rich, the down-and-out, rural, city bred, young and old, black and white. They all came to the zoo. I tried to be nice to everyone. The great people who worked at the zoo became, in many cases, lifelong friends. Donne Walden died last year in his 80’s. I had breakfast with him every Friday till the day he couldn’t be there.
I may not be the only living person who dates to 1953 at the zoo but I am one of the few. Anyone else who wants to beat my record, I hope to hear from you.
Thanks so much to Charlie Lambert for his amazing account of his time and experiences at the zoo. Charlie seems like a very nice gentleman, and we really appreciate him reaching out.
We hope you’ve enjoyed listening to the stories we unearthed!
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