Mention Rainbow Lake to longtime Memphians and they may recall the huge swimming pool and the massive roller-skating rink that was part of the complex at 2879 Lamar. But another memorable feature was Rainbow's popular Terrace Room, a restaurant that was billed as "The South's Finest."
Of course, just about every diner, drive-in, and eatery has somehow managed to proclaim itself as the "South's Finest" — or even "World-Famous" — so I can't vouch for the quality of the Terrace Room's food or service. But, as you can see from this photo taken shortly after it opened, it was certainly a swanky, modern-looking establishment — even if those big windows did give diners a panoramic view of ... Lamar.
The Rainbow Lake complex opened in 1936, when that stretch of Lamar was on the outskirts of the city. Owned by the Pieraccini family, who also operated Clearpool, it was mainly a place to swim; the big roller rink wasn't added until 1942.
The Rainbow Terrace was designed to attract a more adult crowd, but sometimes that meant trouble. In 1947, more than two dozen sailors from Millington got into a bottle-throwing, drunk-punching free-for-all that made all the papers. It finally took a Naval Court of Inquiry to sort out all the mess and clear most of the charges.
In 1957, a rock-and-roll dance party held in the Terrace Room — and hosted by two of the most famous disk jockeys in Memphis history, Wink Martindale and Dewey Phillips — got out of hand when many of the kids (some of them barely 15) got rip-roaring drunk. Rainbow lost its beer license for a while after that.
Then there were fires, robberies, and even an accidental drowning in the big pool. Rainbow Lake could never seem to get good press.
In 1958, the owners announced they were converting the 14-acre complex into a private resort, to be called the Rainbow Lake Country Club. They planned to build a 40-unit luxury hotel, and even add a 500,000-gallon indoor swimming pool. None of that ever happened.
In the 1960s, the Memphis AFL-CIO Building Association purchased most of the buildings for $700,000. They turned the Terrace Room into meeting space, and converted the skating rink into offices. The swimming pool filled up with trash and rainwater.
More bad press. A 1975 fire did more than $300,000 damage, and a few years later the building association went bankrupt. In 1981, Pancho's bought the site for its headquarters and food-processing facility. They stayed there for years, but eventually moved out, and the decaying buildings — all painted a depressing shade of tan — were pulled down.
But new life has recently come to the area, in the form of an apartment complex and an Aldi grocery store. Not quite the same amount of entertainment once offered by Rainbow Lake, but at least it's not the scruffy vacant lot that for so many years marked the end of the Rainbow.
PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES