photo courtesy Balton Sign Company
John George Morris was certainly an interesting character. A lawyer by profession, he is perhaps best remembered for his ownership of the restaurant on Poplar, across from East High School, which he named The Old Master Says. Even if Memphians can’t recall the menu of that establishment, they almost certainly remember the exterior decoration — which featured a 14-foot-tall sculpture of Morris’ head, illuminated at night by spotlights.
But before that, Morris was co-owner of another popular Memphis eatery, the Riviera Grill, located at 1380 Jackson. Everyone called it the Riviera, but look closely at this wonderful old photograph from the Balton Sign Company archives, and you’ll see that he added “The Old Master Says” in neon script to that wonderful lighted tower.
When he sold the Riviera (it was purchased by a trio of Greeks: Nicholas Koleas, Pete Futris, and Steve Ritsos who were involved in other restaurants around town), Morris bought the old Friedel’s Restaurant on Poplar and converted it into The Old Master Says. Even then, he maintained ties with his former establishment by hiring away the Riviera’s popular hostess, Verna DeShazo, who had been named “Miss Restaurant of 1948” by a local association whose name now escapes me. Announcing this news, he told reporters that the other waitresses “would be just as pretty,” which I’m sure made them feel great. Just great.
The Old Master Says on Poplar eventually acquired another head entirely — a huge Polynesian thing like you’d see on Easter Island — when it was later transformed into the Luau. That building is still standing today, much changed, and without any head at all.
The building on Jackson that housed the Riviera is still standing, too, also much changed and missing its stunning neon tower. The last time I drove by, it served as offices for Memphis City Council member Joe Brown.