photographs by vance lauderdale
Dear Vance: In the November issue, you wrote about the old Summer Drive-In, so I hope you can settle an argument. Where was the Bellevue Drive-In, and what happened to it? — S.W., Memphis.
Dear S.W.: Drive-in movie theaters have always held a special fascination for me, though as a Lauderdale, I was rarely allowed to visit them. Not to avoid the commoners, as you might think, but because the sheer size of our Daimler-Benz limousine meant we had to pay double-price, and nobody who parked behind us could see the screen.
But the whole concept seems uniquely American, doesn’t it? — a perfect blend of our love affair with the automobile, our fascination with the glories of Hollywood, and the happy camaraderie of the neighborhood snackbar. And let’s not forget the gadgets, such as the pole-mounted speakers (and later, heaters).
I can’t remember who came up with this concept, but by the 1950s every major city in America had at least one drive-in, and by the 1960s, Memphis had almost a dozen of them, all over town. A movie page from a 1967 Press-Scimitar lists not only the Bellevue, but the Sky-Vue, Summer, Frayser, Lamar, Jaxon, Sixty-One, and others. Close to Millington was the Ellis, and West Memphis had the Sunset.
Let me just say that even though drive-ins developed a somewhat sordid reputation, what with all that back-seat hanky-panky, the Memphis theaters featured pretty tame fare. That same newspaper ad announced that the Sky-Vue was airing The Professionals with Burt Lancaster, the Jaxon had How To Steal a Million with Audrey Hepburn, the Lamar was showing Follow Me Boys with Fred McMurray, and … you get the picture.
Across the river was a different story. The Sunset offered patrons a double feature: Dragstrip Girl and Reform School Girl. And a few weeks later, while Memphis drive-ins were still showing Disney flicks, the Sunset promoted a “Battle of the Sexes” — a double helping of Mademoiselle Strip Tease with Brigitte Bardot (“witty, wicked, and wonderful, as only the French can dare”) and Scandal in Sorrento with Sophia Loren (“a spicy sizzler”). To entice viewers, the Sunset even listed the measurements of the two stars, and reassured patrons, “Both Features in Spoken English,” as if that mattered.
But back to the Bellevue. Sorry! This fancy drive-in opened in the early 1950s, another in a chain of theaters owned by Holiday Inns founder Kemmons Wilson. The address was 2350 South Bellevue. Typical of many drive-ins of that era, the back of the screen served as a colorfully decorated and highly visible billboard for the theatre — essentially the marquee for the establishment. The Bellevue’s sign was especially nice because that cursive script and the fancy decorations were all in neon, and the wide vertical bands are a nice touch. The rather grainy picture shown here was taken (by me) long after it had closed, but you still get a sense of how nice it once looked.
A fellow named William S. Scott served as the manager of the Bellevue, and what’s really interesting about these old drive-ins is that the manager often lived inside the screen! It’s true; often they would have a nice little apartment installed at the base of the screen, and that’s where Scott lived. It must have been a rather surreal existence. He probably had every line and every scene in every single movie memorized.
From what I’ve been told by friends who patronized this establishment, the Bellevue was also unusual because the concession stand was also located in the base of the screen, unlike other drive-ins, which combined the snack bar with the projection booth way out in the middle of the parking lot. But the Bellevue also had a little playground for the kiddies right in front of the screen, too, so this kept everybody in one place. The fine-looking Bellevue stood like this, abandoned and neglected, for years. I want to say a windstorm later blew down what was left of the screen, but I may have that confused with the Lamar Drive-In, which suffered a similar fate as this one.
New Hope Missionary Baptist Church stands on the site today, S.W., if that helps you settle your argument. Sometimes if you use Google or Bing to look at aerial views of old drive-in theater locations, you can still see traces of the fan-shaped rows where the cars parked, but not here. Whoever built the church did a nice job grading the lot. Not a trace remains of the old theater.
Leaving Their Mark
Dear Vance: I picked up this small mirror at an antique mall, and stamped on the back it says, “W.J. Cooley & Co. Marking Devices.” What kind of company was this, and how old do you think this mirror is? — J.D., Memphis.
Dear J.D.: I like the design on the back of your mirror, showing the various birthstones, though I’m dismayed that it shows the stone for August (the month of my birth, as everyone knows) as Sardonyx, which the dictionary calls “a common and inexpensive stone.” This will never do.
And just as the Cooley company is apparently confused about the proper birthstone for a Lauderdale, so too are various historians confused about the origins of this “marking company.”
Allow me to explain. I carefully perused Memphis city directories all the way back to the early 1900s, and quickly determined that W.J. Cooley was actually Willson J. Cooley. He first showed up in the phone books in 1912, with no occupation listed, residing with a fellow named Benton Cooley (identified as a “saw filer”) and two women — Miss Hazel Cooley (a teacher at Leroy Pope School) and Miss Fawn Cooley (a stenographer with the B&O Railroad). Now, based on their ages (I won’t bore you with details about how I found that) I’m going to assume that Benton was his father, and the two unmarried women were his sisters, because they all lived happily together at 655 North McDavitt Place in north Memphis.
Still with me? An older brother, Earl, was living elsewhere in town at this time, employed as a stampmaker for the Ellis Seal and Stamp Company at 80 South Front. Within two years, Willson also found employment at this firm, and he must have been a go-getter, for by 1917, he was the manager of the place.
Okay, now here we go. In 1919, the city directories first listed the company on Front Street as “W.J. Cooley, Manufacturer of Rubber Stamps, Seals, and Stencils.” So I would say the Cooley Company officially started around 1919. Wouldn’t you?
Well, then you and I might be wrong. Because I happened to turn up a 1959 Commercial Appeal article celebrating the W.J. Cooley & Company’s “100 Years of Fast Service.” Without providing any helpful details about the firm’s origins, this story suggests the firm began here in 1859! So I just don’t know what to make of it. If it was around in 1859, it wasn’t named Cooley. And were we using rubber stamps in the 1850s?
What I do know, however, is that Cooley very quickly expanded from just making rubber stamps and other “marking devices” into all sorts of things — rabies tags for pets, license plates for cars (and not just in Tennessee, but other states as well), miniature license plates for toy cars and bicycles (every kid with a bike had one of these things — remember the racks of them at the drugstores?), hotel and motel key tags, name plates for offices, and even police badges.
Sometime in the early 1920s, the firm moved to 43 Union, and by 1928 it had located to its own building at 100 Hernando. Willson Cooley died in 1940 at the young age of 45; his wife, Lena, took over the firm and it remained in business for another 30 years or so. At one point, another Wilson Cooley — perhaps a son — became president, and the company moved again, to 2976 Vantage Avenue. In the late 1970s, the W.J.
Cooley Company vanished from the phone books, though other members of the Cooley family remained in the rubber stamp business around here for years.
Regarding the date of the mirror, based on the company’s Hernando address, it could have been manufactured anytime from 1928 to the mid-1960s. I wish I could tell you more, but this query has proven quite confusing, and I certainly hope no one gets me a “common and inexpensive” Sardonyx for my birthday.
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