If you don't remember Happy Hal, then you didn't grow up in Memphis in the 1950s, '60s, or even '70s. Because that's how long he was the "King of Toys" in our town. In fact, the photo here shows him in a typical role — showing off the latest gadgets for a bunch of children. In this case, it was something called a "spud gun," which you operated by cramming the barrel into a potato (yes, a potato) and when you pulled the trigger, it fired a pellet of mashed potato at your unsuspecting victim.
Looks like that kid on the right, in the checked coat, is about to shoot his eye out! Be careful with those spud guns, kids!
Born in 1923, Hal Miller was a remarkable gentleman. A graduate of Central High School, he studied at the New York Theater School of Dramatic Arts and earned a degree from Northwestern. When he returned to Memphis he appeared in just about every play in town. Besides acting and singing, he was also — like myself — an award-winning tap dancer.
But his big break came in 1955, when WHBQ-TV approached him about hosting a children's show called Snicker Flickers. Over the years, that program evolved into The Happy Hal Show, featuring Miller and a curious puppet he called L'il Bow, which a reporter once described as "an indistinguishable blue critter." He later told the Press-Scimitar that when he first asked the producer what the show would be, he was told, "It's not going to be about anything. It's going to be whatever you want it." Audiences obviously liked what he offered, for he stayed on the air for the next 17 years, hosting old movies, doing his puppet acts, and showing off the newest toys.
A toy store seemed like a natural step, and in the late 1950s Miller opened his first business at the corner of Bellevue and Lamar. He always claimed he was the first person to bring the Hula-Hoop to the Mid-South, and who's to argue? He moved Happy Hal's Toy Town to various locations over the next few years, eventually settling on a retail store at 1640 Union (where the Art Center is today), and a large wholesale operation at 269 Monroe (since demolished).
Miller opened another place, Happy Hal's Toys and Gifts, at 666 Beale, and lots of Memphians remember this place because it caught fire on the night of September 18, 1976. The very notion of a toy store burning down gave children here nightmares, especially so close to Christmas! But firemen quenched the blaze before too much damage was done, and Miller reopened just in time for Santa to stock up.
Miller shut down his toy operation in 1986, but never really retired. He studied painting at Memphis College of Art and became president of the Memphis-Germantown Art League, which he once said "was one of the highest honors ever bestowed upon me." He passed away in 1997, but is still remembered fondly by many people, young and old, who shopped at his toy store or — even better — got to sit in the audience during one of his TV shows.
PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES