Co-owner John Hannah smiles for the camera inside the coffee shop.
Dear Vance: Have you ever written about the old Ritz Coffee Shop, just down the street from Sun Studio? – g.t., memphis.
Dear G.T.: As it so happens, I’m doing that right now, so I hope you’re happy.
In most books about Elvis and Sun and Sam Phillips and all the musicians who flocked to the tiny studio at 708 Union, the one eatery that usually gets mentioned is Taylor’s Restaurant, right next door to Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service. But just a few doors to the west, the Ritz Coffee Shop also attracted a rather stellar clientele over the years, so it certainly deserves a mention of its own.
I’ve recently been in contact with Beverly and Burton Alderson, and it was his aunt and uncle, Elizabeth and George Peeler, who co-owned the coffee shop, along with Elizabeth’s brother John Hannah and his wife, Annie.
Okay, all this can get confusing, so try to follow along. John Hannah and Elizabeth Peeler were brother and sister. In the late 1940s, John was a warehouse supervisor at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass company here. George was a construction worker. The city directories didn’t specify if the two wives held jobs outside the home.
For years, the Hannahs and Peelers lived just three doors apart on Lewis Street in North Memphis. For reasons that I can’t explain — presumably to save money — all four moved into the same house at 258 Lewis. At some point, someone must have decided, “Good grief, now that we’re all living together, why don’t we start a business together?” Now I wasn’t there at the time, so those might not have been their exact words, but in 1949 they opened a restaurant at 710 Union. According to old city directories, it was the two women — Elizabeth and Annie — who were originally involved in the place, which they named the Ritz Café. The two husbands apparently decided to take part in the venture a bit later.
The café joined other “ritzy” establishments around town: The Ritz Apartments on McLean, Ritz Barber Shop on Union, Ritz Beauty Shop on Cleveland, Ritz Grille on Jackson, and Ritz Theatre on Poplar. Now you might think it was quite savvy of them to start a restaurant down the street from busy Sun Studio, but you’d have it wrong. The Ritz came first, opening when Sam Phillips was still described in the phone books as a “radio man” for the Hotel Peabody.
But let’s jump ahead a few years. By 1953, Memphis Recording Service was in full swing, and the restaurant, now called the Ritz Coffee Shop, had moved into a new building down the street, at 672 Marshall. (Dell Taylor moved her own restaurant into the vacant space at 710 Union.) I’m not sure why the Peelers and Hannahs moved their little eatery, or why they decided to change the name from café to coffee shop. As Beverly Alderson tells me, “That’s a misnomer because it was a pure restaurant. They served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They opened early in the morning and closed early in the evening. It was well-known for its hand-made dumplings. It was a very happy family atmosphere.”
According to Alderson, Sam Phillips and Elvis and many other big names dined at the Ritz on a regular basis. “You name the recording artists — all of them — and they came to the Ritz.” But it wasn’t just a hangout for people in the recording industry. “The place was also frequented by Memphis city government people too,” she says.
The photos here, taken by a family friend named Clifton Bomar (I just wanted to give him the proper credit, you see) shows the Ritz as it looked in the mid-1950s. That’s John Hannah, smiling at the photographer inside the curiously empty restaurant. The smaller snapshot shows Elizabeth Peeler chatting outside the front door with an unidentified customer. It’s probably hard to see, but the café window had a colorful, hand-painted sign, complete with a steaming cup of coffee. Judging by the pictures, it was by no means a fancy establishment. Customers could perch on a row of stools at a rather plain wooden counter, or relax at a dozen little tables across the room. Except for a mirror behind the counter, and a clock over the restroom door, there’s not a single work of art in the place. It didn’t matter. Nobody came there for the fancy atmosphere; they came for good food — and those hand-made dumplings.
George Peeler died in 1952, and Elizabeth and the Hannahs kept the business open. In its last years it was called the Ritz Food Shop, which sounds to me more like a place where you would buy food than eat it. The place closed sometime in the early 1970s, and the owners retired from the restaurant business. John Hannah died in 1980 at age 73. Annie died in 1989 at age 79. Elizabeth Peeler passed away in 1985 at age 81. In later years, the place housed Dixie Vending and Supply and later Mid-South Paint Company. The last time I visited, it was the headquarters for the F.U.N.N. Youth Center.
As Beverly Alderson told me, “It was a place of Memphis history which is gone with the wind.” I write about a lot of those places here.
Putt-Putt on Perkins
It wasn’t the first miniature golf course in Memphis, but the 18-hole Putt-Putt near Goldsmith’s was one of the most popular.
Dear Vance: Perhaps you can settle a discussion about the location of the miniature golf course that was close to Perkins and Poplar in the early 1960s. I say it was on Perkins (near present-day Kroger), but I have friends who insist it was on Perkins Extended (a block west, putting it closer to present-day Macy’s). Who is right? – b.d., memphis.
Dear B.D.: Well, at least everyone seems to remember that it was on Perkins, but as you pointed out, there were (and still are) two Perkins that cross Poplar, and when you drive around the rather congested area today, it’s hard to imagine where a golf course — even a miniature one — could possibly have been located on either one of them.
But I have visual proof, in the form of an aerial photograph of Laurelwood Shopping Center, taken in November 1962. Look closely and you can see the little Putt-Putt golf course just southeast of what was then Goldsmith’s department store. It was located at 555 South Perkins Extended, just north of the Southern Railroad tracks.
Several years ago, I talked with Aubrey Smith, who at one time owned and operated all the Putt-Putt establishments in town, including the large (and much more elaborate) complex out on Summer. He confirmed that the first Putt-Putt in Memphis opened in 1960 on South Perkins Extended (shown below) and was originally owned by a fellow from North Carolina named R.D. Buie. Smith purchased the property in 1963 and, since somebody else wanted that land (an International House of Pancakes stood there at one time), he moved everything across the street, to 560 South Perkins Extended, where Chili’s stands today. Smith’s “new” Putt-Putt opened in 1964 and stayed in business there until it closed in 1971.
Got a question for vance?
Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103