Elsewhere in this magazine you will find a most excellent list of 40 events, people, and ideas that have had a lasting impact upon Memphis since 1976. But for every true game changer, there are dozens of fakes, false alarms, wannabes, near misses, and bright ideas that turned out to be every bit as crazy as skeptics thought they were.
They seemed like good ideas at the time, or at least some of them anyway, but they were the bungee jumps and fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches of our time. Those of us who have lived in Memphis a long time and worked in the sweatshops of journalism remember far too many of them far too clearly for our own good. Here are just eight of them. RIP.
Alternative football. Never have so many big names achieved so little: Reggie White, Herschel Walker, Steve Young, Billy Dunavant, Fred Smith, Pepper Rodgers, and a guy from New York named Trump — all bright lights of the short-lived USFL, the United States Football League, the league that played in the spring. Memphis was a veteran of such experiments, having joined the World Football League a decade earlier. And when the USFL folded, Memphis would take a shot at the Canadian Football League, the Arena Football League, and the league with the guy nicknamed “He Hate Me,” whose name I forget. Thankfully.
Elvis on Beale. Two legendary names that simply could not make it work together. There was a restaurant on the corner of Beale and Second off and on for a decade from 1997 to 2010, but Graceland is, was, and will always be the place where true believers go for their Elvis fix.
They were the bungee jumps and fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches of our time.
Power couples. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were the Vander Schaafs (Pat and Claire) on the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission. In the 1990s, Dean and Kristi Jernigan were the driving force behind AutoZone Park and the riverfront development. More recently, A C Wharton and his wife, attorney Ruby Wharton, were a prominent pair. But divorce, disappearance, and political defeat did a number on the power couples Can anybody name two today?
Peabody Place. Remember Isaac Hayes’ club? Cosmic bowling? Jillian’s? The 22-screen Muvico movie theater? Tower Records? The indoor mall? The game room? All of those gimmicks were so “now” in 2001, and all so “then” now.
Main Street Sweeper. If you remember this follow-up to Operation Tennessee Waltz, the federal investigation of political corruption, you are probably in the news business. The Sweeper failed to convict Edmund Ford and investigated Willie Herenton but did not indict him.
Announced attendance. Faking attendance does not pay off in the long run, as the University of Memphis learned this year. Thanks to a complicit media, the Memphis Redbirds and the Tiger football and basketball teams got away with all sorts of gimmicks to boost “attendance” for years until this season’s empty seats at FedExForum became impossible to ignore.
School busing. In 1976, three years after busing had begun, there were still more than 40,000 white students in the Memphis City Schools. Today there are about half that many in the combined Shelby County and (former) Memphis school system. Optional schools, magnet schools, suburban schools, charter schools, performing arts schools — nothing really worked. More than 80 percent of the minority students in the Shelby County system attend a school that is 90 percent or more minority.
Annexation. The hostile takeover of the suburbs, never popular after white flight began in earnest in the Seventies, ran off the rails ten years ago when Memphis tried to take in South Cordova, Southwind, and Windyke. Then-mayor Herenton opposed it, the City Council backed down, and the annexes found some tough lawyers to delay it and, as now appears likely, defeat it.