Dear Vance: During World War II, a Memphis artist named Mayze Diamond painted a large mural on the wall of Ellis Auditorium. When the building was demolished, was there an attempt to preserve this amazing painting? If so, where is it located now?
— J.G., Memphis
Dear J.G.: Never have I worked harder to solve a mystery than this one. As soon as I received your letter, I put all my hundreds of other projects aside, leaned back in my La-Z-Boy, squinched my eyes tight, and began to ponder, peruse, contemplate, and THINK as hard as I could. The story goes that lights in the office dimmed that morning, their power consumed by the energy of my intellect, but that is probably a myth. What's true, however, is that one of my colleagues, noticing the agony I was in, grabbed me by the shoulders and begged of me, "Stop it, Vance. Don't kill yourself over this! It's not worth it." I shook her off, and she brought back a damp dishtowel to place on my forehead to cool my seething brain.
After about 15 minutes of this, I dozed off, as I usually do. When I woke up, it occurred to me to halfheartedly look over some old newspaper articles about the demolition of Ellis Auditorium, just to see if they mentioned these murals. Not a word, so for a while I didn't know what to tell you. Since they were painted directly on the plaster walls, I assumed they came down with the building. What a shame.
But your question gave me a chance to learn more about Maysie Dimond ( that's how she spelled her name), so I might as well share a bit of her story with you — what little I know about it, I mean.
Maysie was born around 1900 in Jackson, Mississippi, and came to Memphis in the 1930s when her husband, A.C., became a superintendent at the Navy Yard here. While raising two children, she began attending the Memphis Academy of Arts and trained under talented instructors such as Katherine Forest and Dorothy Sturm.
She first made the news in November 1937 when the Memphis Press-Scimitar reported that a nice painting she made of the little community of Dyess, Arkansas, would be presented to Eleanor Roosevelt. The newspaper explained that "Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt has long been interested in the Dyess Colony" because it was one of this country's first "resettlement projects," which offered free land to impoverished farmers during the Depression. That's Maysie shown here, alongside the painting given to Mrs. Roosevelt. I wonder where that is today?
In 1940, the city somehow got a grant from the federal government's Works Progress Administration to add some festive murals to Ellis Auditorium, and Maysie got the job. It was quite a project: 10 murals stretching more than 150 feet along the north hall of the old auditorium. Although the local newspapers noted that she "received no artistic training until coming to Memphis," she must have been an apt pupil, because three "models" of the first murals were sent to the American Federation of Arts. The AFA president commented, "It is an excellent piece of work and reflects great credit on Memphis."
What's especially intriguing, J.G., is that the Press-Scimitar noted that Robert McKnight, then head of the art academy, "had not yet determined whether the murals will be painted on canvas and cemented to the wall, or frescoed." If they had been painted on canvas, they might have been rescued. But according to the online Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture , Maysie applied the paint directly to the wet plaster.
The project took 18 months. The first three panels featured the Chickasaw Indians, Hernando DeSoto, and city founders John Overton, Marcus Winchester, and Andrew Jackson. The hardest part was deciding what to include next: "Her trouble, for covering the period of the last 120 years, is not in finding subjects for the remaining seven panels, but in narrowing the wide field of subjects down."
I'm assuming, of course, that at least one panel (and maybe more) was devoted to the Lauderdales.
The finished piece, blandly titled "Memphis in Murals," was unveiled during a Memphis Symphony concert on November 14, 1942. A reporter called it "four hundred years of Memphis history, written in gay colors and spirited symbols, in a great mural nine feet high and half a block long." They remained visible for about a decade. In the 1950s, during one of those ill-conceived renovations that seemed to plague Memphis, Maysie's murals were covered up by slabs of pink marble.
In 1984, the murals were uncovered when the auditorium was renovated. They had already been damaged over the years when extra doors were punched through the wall, and archeologist Guy Weaver tells me that Memphis Heritage tried to salvage them, but they were unable to remove them — or even find a new home for them if they could. By all accounts, the murals were demolished along with the rest of the auditorium to make way for the new Cannon Center.
I certainly hope Maysie got an A+ from the art academy for all her hard work.
Dear Vance: In the 1950s, my parents say they used to eat at a restaurant in South Memphis called Furlotte's. What do you know about it?
— H.H., Memphis
Dear H.H.: I know that if you turn to "Ask Vance" for happy, heart-warming stories, then you'd better keep turning the pages, because the story of Furlotte's is a sad one.
Arthur Furlotte was an A&P store manager in Wisconsin in the 1930s, then moved to Memphis after World War II and opened a steak house at 1011 South Third, across from Gaston Park. Newspapers said his slogan was "Catering to Nice People from Everywhere," and the back of the old postcard (above) brags that Furlotte "serves the best food on earth, or anywhere else."
Maybe it was true, because by the mid-1950s, Furlotte had also opened a drive-in at 3170 South Third, a coffee shop downtown in the Ambassador Hotel, and even an eatery called the Flying Saucer (no, not the one you know today) at 164 South Court. A restaurant review from 1951 glossed over the food, but noted the cluttery décor of the establishment on South Third: "Unusual or old firearms and military equipment, plus novel uses of fishing and other sports equipment, are comment-drawing decorations on the wall of the new restaurant." Those guns, as it turned out, were a bad idea.
Things apparently went well for several years, then Furlotte began to make the news for all the wrong reasons: Drunken driving convictions. Several arrests for assault with a deadly weapon. Yet another arrest for extortion. And then the worst: On the morning of June 17, 1963, Furlotte picked up an old Japanese rifle, shot his wife to death at their apartment at 2209 Florida, then turned the gun on himself. He survived, but spent months in the hospital. After he recovered, a judge declared him insane and committed him to the Central State Hospital in Nashville. After several years, he was transferred to the state prison, and in 1969, newspapers announced he would be paroled "as soon as a suitable program, including employment, for him is complete."
I don't know what happened after that, but he died in Sumner County, Tennessee, in 1978 at the age of 71. Most of his restaurants are now vacant lots. As I said, not a happy story, is it?