Courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries
Susie “Creamcheese” Huddleston, shown here taking part in a college festival, is perhaps the best remembered of the group of friends that ran Fantasia.
Dear Vance: What is the story behind the classical music bar called Fantasia, located on Madison in the late 1970s? — k.n., memphis.
Dear K.N.: Fantasia is one of those odd little places that people remember fondly, but never very accurately, as it turns out. And even more frustrating, even though I spoke with (at last count) 12,575 people who claimed they visited the place on a regular basis, not a single one of them bothered to take a photo of it.
So I turned to my Facebook friends for help, seeking information and images, and that turned into quite a headache. Many people, it seems, confused this cozy establishment, tucked into a former home on Madison just east of Belvedere, with other bars and clubs along Madison that were also called Fantasia at one time or another — or at least that’s how they remembered it.
Luckily, two of those friends — my good pals Wayne Dowdy and Brigitte Billeaudeaux — had access to old newspaper articles and photos in the archives where they are employed: the Memphis and Shelby County Room at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, and the Special Collections Department at the University of Memphis Libraries, respectively. So, with their capable assistance, I was able to piece together the charming history you’re about to read.
In 1969, two young fellows named David Hyde and Laurence Hall met in the Navy when they were stationed in Okinawa. “One day I took Laurence to a coffee bar where they played classical music — a bit of a novelty at the time,” Hyde told me. “He wondered if such a place would fly in Memphis, but we didn’t give it a lick of thought for several years.”
After they got out of the Navy, Hyde went to school at the University of Missouri and Hall moved here and attended Southwestern, where he met Robert Hamilton and Susie “Creamcheese” Huddleston (so named because of her creamy white complexion, I’m told). That notion of a classical music bar was revived, so Hall purchased an old house at 1718 Madison. For years that property had been home to various members of the Friedel family, and then served as offices for a doctor named Samuel Paster. Working together, the four friends (Hyde had by this time joined them) gutted the interior and transformed it into what newspapers called “an offbeat gathering place.”
“Because of the novelty of a classical music bar in Memphis,” Hyde told me, “people who could not believe such a place existed came to try it out.”
In a city crowded with clubs and bars, reporters tried to explain the concept behind Fantasia: “The idea is to offer an alternative to the rowdier, more raucous diversions in Overton Square and along the Madison strip,” according to a March 6, 1979, Commercial Appeal article. “You will find no jukebox, no greasy burgers, no foot-stomping country music, or deafening rock-and-roll. You will find classical music, original artworks, a limited but interesting menu, and a nice selection of wines, liqueurs, and non-alcoholic beverages.”
Why the name Fantasia, which many people associate with the 1940 Walt Disney movie? “We found a definition of ‘fantasia’ that has nothing to do with that,” explained Huddleston, who became one of the managers. “It’s a composition in which fancy and imagination have been given more importance than strict order and form. We don’t follow the formula for restaurant-bars, and we were looking for a name that would bring together the arts and classical music.”
She and the others were quite adamant about a bar where people could talk without shouting. “Loud music puts people in a bad mood, makes people irritable, and makes them lose their appetites,” she told the Press-Scimitar. “Classical music never goes out of style.”
The place was tiny, barely able to hold 80 people, and didn’t even have a stage, just a small performance area with a piano. The interior was quite basic, with tabletops laminated with sheet music, dark paneling, and neutral colors. What brightened up Fantasia was the ever-changing display of paintings and artwork from local artists, most of it for sale. “We wanted a subdued atmosphere,” said Huddleston, “one that would provide a backdrop for the art. People don’t go to museums anymore, so we’ve got to take the art to where the people are.”
It also helped that Fantasia offered unusual food, including Vietnamese specialties, and claimed to have the best-stocked bar in Memphis, offering more than 40 wines and 60 cordials and liqueurs.
And people definitely came to Fantasia. On weekends, customers were often turned away because it was so crowded, and the music was confined to the piano or the tape deck since there was no room for musicians to stand. You’d never know who might turn up. One evening, the members of Jethro Tull paid a visit after their show at the Mid-South Coliseum. Another night, June Lockhart, quite famous for her roles in the TV series Lassie and Lost in Space, showed up for a drink.
In 1980, a newspaper article declared, “Popularity of Fantasia Is a Classical Success Story.” It was “an institution, a refuge for Midtowners, college students, and people who’d just attended the symphony or opera.” The club had begun hosting live jazz performances, wine tastings, and shows broadcast over the Memphis State University radio station. A popular event was celebrating composers’ birthdays throughout the year.
Despite its popularity, five years later, that same newspaper announced everything was coming to an end. “One of the city’s best-known forums for classical music will end tonight,” wrote CA columnist Whitney Smith on July 16, 1985, “ending a symphony of Midtown memories going back nearly seven years.” The old building was demolished to make way for an expansion of Zinnie’s, which quickly became known as Zinnie’s East. It’s now the site of Frida’s Mexican restaurant.
Many Memphians were dismayed by this news, even threatening a boycott of Zinnie’s, and Huddleston told reporters, “It’s unusual that so many people feel that way about a bar and restaurant. I guess that’s because Fantasia was more than that. But though the place will be destroyed physically, if people use the spirit that remains, maybe a new Fantasia can be created.”
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES
The Brass Rail
Dear Vance: Looking through my mother’s old letters, I discovered she had an anniversary dinner with my father at a restaurant called the Brass Rail. Where was this place? – k.t., memphis.
Dear k.t.: In the Lauderdale Archives, I have an old matchbook for the Brass Rail, but since on the back it carried the vague slogan “The House of Refinement,” I always assumed this was a long-gone haberdashery in Memphis.
But you’re correct. It was actually quite an elegant restaurant, located at 18 North Second, near Court Square. I managed to turn up an old advertisement (shown above) from a Cotton Carnival program, and I really admire the bold lettering and the modern entrance. For an anniversary dinner, this indeed appeared to be a special place.
The owner was a fellow with the dashing name of Waldemar LaSalle, who opened his “House of Refinement” sometime around 1945 in a three-story building that had been home to a popular restaurant called Dinty Moore’s for almost 20 years. LaSalle also owned a smaller eatery called LaSalle’s Restaurant (later LaSalle’s Coffee Shop) at 103 Court Avenue.
He closed both places in 1952. I have no idea why he did that, though it’s possible he passed away or moved from Memphis. After 1953, city directories have no listing for Waldemar or Daisy LaSalle, his wife.
I wish I could tell you more about the Brass Rail, but without a menu I have no idea what was offered there. The nice building on North Second became home to Alfred’s Clothing for almost 30 years, but — with the façade so drastically altered that it’s not recognizable as the restaurant you see here — more recently it has housed a Goodwill store and then a short-lived health spa. LaSalle’s Coffee Shop on Court was demolished years ago for a parking lot.