Call us cynical, if you must, but we seriously doubt that anybody associated with the formation of the Memphis in May International Festival really dreamed that the event would still be around, bigger and better than ever, when it first kicked off 36 years ago with a salute to Japan.
That first festival featured the Beale Street Music Fest, and other events on the first Memphis in May calendar included a kite-flying contest and a Japanese/American business symposium, but not a whole lot more. As Lyman Aldrich, the festival’s first president, tells Marilyn Sadler in this issue ("The Birth of a Tradition"), this was quite a different city back then. Memphis in 1977 — especially the downtown that we celebrate in this issue — was unrecognizable from the city of today.
True, the Main Street Mall had just opened, but pedestrians wandered past empty buildings. It’s almost hard to imagine a downtown without The Peabody, the Orpheum, AutoZone Park, Beale Street, FedExForum, and the Cannon Center, but those were just pipe dreams — if they were even dreams at all — in 1977.
Most of downtown Memphis was dormant, if not clinically dead. Anyone seeking a place to eat, drink, or relax after work rarely headed downtown. For proof, we needn’t look any farther than the three restaurants highlighted in our “Memphis-style Smorgasbord” on page 43. In 1977, Evelyn & Olive was an abandoned apartment building, Lunchbox Eats was home to a rundown grocery, and the Twelve Bar Club was — along with about everything else on Beale Street — vacant.
Meanwhile, as the city leaders struggled to determine whether to jumpstart the riverfront area or abandon it completely, Memphis in May remained the one true constant in our community’s gradual rebirth. The Beale Street Music Festival, which seemed a hit from the beginning (despite the best efforts of Mother Nature over the years to wash it out) has become one of the premier music bashes in the country, though most of the 2013 lineup wasn’t even born in 1977. A little backyard cooking contest, pitting two dozen teams who set up tiny charcoal grills in a parking lot, lives up to its name today as the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
The range of countries honored by the festival over the years has embraced nations that most schoolkids (we hope) could spot on a map — Canada, Russia, Italy, and Brazil — along with somewhat lesser-known, but no less deserving countries, such as the Ivory Coast, Morocco, and Tunisia.
This year’s honored country may have some readers wondering, “What does Sweden have to do with Memphis?” Well, when MIM first saluted Japan, the only real business connection was a Datsun forklift plant here; industrial giants like Sharp and Mitsubishi came later, and Memphis in May played a role in bringing them here.
Back to Sweden. Think the Mid-South doesn’t have links to this Scandinavian nation? The mighty Electrolux Corporation, which will soon open a new factory here, is a Swedish firm, as are its affiliated brands Eureka, Tappan, Philco, Westinghouse, and more. Heard of them? Yes, we thought so. Anyone who owns a Volvo or Saab is driving a Swedish automobile. And today, so many tourists from Sweden visit Graceland that Elvis Presley Enterprises offers audio tours in Swedish.
And then there are other, older links. Memphians rarely saw movies featuring Swedish star Ingrid Bergman because our cranky censor, Lloyd T. Binford, didn’t approve of her lifestyle. William Faulkner journeyed to Stockholm to pick up his Nobel Prize for Literature. And speaking of Nobel, it was dynamite — invented by Swede Alfred Nobel — that brought down the King Cotton Hotel to make way for the Morgan Keegan (now Raymond James) Tower.
One last Memphis connection: Let’s not forget a local institution — Sweden Cream, the cozy drive-in on National, which has been serving up that country’s native fare since the 1940s. Not “real” Swedish food? Aw, who cares? On a hot day, just order the vanilla ice-cream concoction called the Swedish Blitzer, pretend it’s a Scandinavian delight, and you’ll feel cooler already.
Michael Finger is a senior editor of Memphis magazine.