• photography by Brandon Dill •
F or over half a century, the P&H Café has been a Midtown institution, a favorite haunt of five generations of brooding intellectuals, cutting-edge musicians, flamboyant bohemians, stunningly beautiful theatre people, and just plain drunks. Today it’s also a Memphis shrine.
T he comedians are drinking, some of them heavily. They steel their nerves with long gulps from longneck bottles, plastic cups, or sweaty, silver tallboys. Table lamps and Christmas lights cast a warm, orange glow on the comics inside the P&H Café. Outside, this nondescript beer joint flickers dimly on what is a somewhat rundown stretch of Madison Avenue, like a candle in the dark. Inside, it smells of cigarette smoke, freshly popped popcorn, french fries, beer, and hamburgers. To anyone who’s been there twice, it smells a bit like home. A tiny tornado of smoke swirls when the door opens and the comedians look up. (Proud of its tradition, the P&H remains one of a handful of smokers’ bars in Midtown.) It’s Thursday night, Comedy Night, and that open door could bring inside a comic either better or worse than those already gathered. It’s open mic, so anyone who wants it can get five precious minutes on the tiny P&H stage. Five minutes to make the crowd like you, laugh with you, love you, and remember you tomorrow. The show gets cranked up with a lively emcee who is clearly better rehearsed than the comedians, just as clearly at home on stage and no doubt counts himself among this evening’s funniest people. The raucous room settles quickly down.
The real comedians are tense because, as in the world of karaoke, they could be called upon to perform at any time. Unlike karaoke, they have to have written their own stuff, and there is an expectation that that stuff will be good. So, the comedians are drinking, some of them heavily, to steel their nerves for the night ahead.
A few comics quickly come and go. Beer has lubed the laughs and relaxed the room. It’s clear that this particular night’s motif is something like “Subtlety is for Woody Allen Movies.” The jokes come hard and quick, extreme and grotesque. Brief sets make for one-liners about sex, violence, or bathroom stuff, all of it perfectly punctuated with precisely picked profanities. It’s aggressive, in-your-face, nasty, loud, bare-knuckle comedy. Forget tongue-in-cheek. These jokes are jammed down your throat.
But the jokes are funny. And laughter rises from the crowd of comics even on softer fare about Facebook, video games, Siri, and first dates.
Looming above it all — the comedians in the seats and on stage, and the jokes, and the laughs, and the beers, and the smoke, and the nerves — is a massive punchline; well, several massive punchlines. The overhead icons speak to today’s comedians from decades past.
Yes, the huge, browning panels up on the P&H ceiling above the crowd show figures — once-upon-a-time important political figures here in Memphis and Tennessee — caught in time, distilled in satirical scenes, as if they were on a comedian’s microscope slide.
But time has wrung the context from the punchlines. It’s the nature of the medium. Political satire has a short shelf-life. And even when this Monday-night’s set comedians look up, they probably see only puzzling hieroglyphs of a bygone zeitgeist.
But given the proper Rosetta Stone, the comedians could perhaps interpret the now-obscure ceiling art, the work of a group of comics and political pranksters who were probably a lot like themselves.
Let’s help them out, and put this odd ceiling fresco in its proper context. Let’s go back to a time when the still-homey and proudly divey P&H Cafe was a true hub for artists, academics, professionals, bums, weirdos, politicos, journos, jocks, rednecks, philosophers, and activists of all persuasions. And home, of course, for the Memphis Gridiron Show gang.
The Gridiron ShowT he whole point of the Gridiron Show, not just in Memphis but in other places around the country, was to come together and look at the humorous side of politics,” says Paul Boyd, now Clerk of the Shelby County Probate Court. Boyd is also a past board member of the Memphis Gridiron Show. “Like with any sketch show or any type of satire, you take the truth and embellish it a little bit. So, that’s what we did.” The Gridiron Show group joked with and gibed at those in the Memphis power structure, politicians mostly. Rarely did anyone get their feelings hurt by the skits in the shows, explains Boyd. These were roasts, modeled perhaps after the televised celebrity ones made so popular in the 1970s by Dean Martin. But the P&H roasts were usually focused very directly on local politics, not surprising when one considers that the main organizers were political journalists. Politicians do have (or should have) thick skins, and the Gridiron skits went for scratching that, not for blood. Longtime Memphis Flyer political editor Jackson Baker remembers the Gridiron Awards fondly. “During their heyday, in the 1980s and 1990s, the shows in the Peabody Skyway were the creation of the CA’s Terry Keeter, as majordomo, along with his CA sidekick, Larry Williams. Attendance there — and at the party at the P&H afterwards — was de rigueur for anybody who was anybody in the political universe, either local or statewide. Governors and U.S. Senators had the annual event on their schedules. The show was sometimes overlong, and some of the same jokes got repeated from year to year, but the skits kept up with public events, more or less, and there was some good singing talent involved.”
Paul Boyd remembers how the last-ever Gridiron Show, held in 2009 at the Al Chymia Shrine Temple, recreated a famous dinner between outgoing Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and then-brand-new Memphis Mayor A C Wharton. Boyd can’t remember the jokes, exactly, but he says it was a funny night, and Wharton was there and took it all very well.
Politicians were typically drawn into the productions, many of them standing on the business end of the punchline. Current Memphis congressman Steve Cohen still cites his “Memphis Gridiron Show Headliner Award” in his official bio. Other contemporary alumni of that last Memphis Gridiron Show include former Shelby County Commission chairman James Harvey and former commissioner Steve Mulroy. Adds Jackson Baker: “Some politicians got picked on pretty seriously back in the day. Many of them were satirized, often unfairly, as simple souls. They tried to grin and bear it, but some of them, as I remember, stopped coming after a while. Hard to blame them.”
Mostly the Gridiron Show was run by members of the media; the show proceeds funded journalism scholarships at what is now the University of Memphis. Little evidence of the Gridiron gang exists today on the internet — they barely missed the cut, the heyday of the group already being in the rearview mirror by 1995 — but an amazing YouTube video still exists from 1986 that shows the group’s prominence, pull, and pert profanity.
Memphis congressman Steve Cohen still cites his “Memphis Gridiron Show Headliner Award” in his official bio.
Back then, the group was run by the aforementioned Terry Keeter, a longtime political reporter for The Commercial Appeal. The grainy video shows Keeter as the ringleader of a 1986 project that took the Gridiron Show “on the road” to the Memphis in May barbecue festival. In a newsboy hat, suspenders, with pens stuck in his shirt pocket, Keeter glad-hands the crowd that centers all around then-Tennessee Senators Al Gore Jr. and Jim Sasser and then-Tennessee Governor Ned Ray McWherter.
In the 1986 YouTube video, the Gridiron players treat a patient Gore to their song, the “Porno Rock Blues,” all about Tipper Gore’s Capitol Hill crusade against explicit sexual lyrics in music. (The players end their song with a rousing rendition of Chuck Berry’s “My-Ding-A-Ling.”) Later, swinging a barbecue sauce mop as a conductor’s baton, Sasser directs a Gridiron choir in a song entitled “The Good Ole Barbecue,” an ode to pork both literal and figurative.
All along, the Gridiron Show script never was quite fair; it called for lining up politicos in the two most basic camps — good and evil. In the 1986 show, for example, you had on one side guys like Jake Butcher, a onetime gubernatorial candidate who was later busted for bank fraud. On the other, you found a piano-playing (and youthful!) Lamar Alexander, who was the state’s governor, a politician who in that year had won wide acclaim in Memphis for playing a medley of Memphis music as a key performer at that year’s Sunset Symphony event.
To set the scene for that 1986 show, Gridiron went uptown and hired Brad McMillan, political cartoonist for the Memphis Business Journal, to paint huge set-pieces as props, large panels that put every public figure in their proper political camp. The good ones were given (of course) angel wings. The perceived evil ones (of course) were given devil horns.
Rehearsals for that year’s show were held inside the P&H. Once the Peabody show was complete — to rave reviews in the local journalistic community — all that remained afterwards were McMillan’s huge, wonderful set-pieces. To longtime P&H Café owner Wanda Wilson’s mind, there was only one thing to do with them.
“I wanted them, of course, but I didn’t want them destroyed, more than anything,” says Wilson. “As for putting them up there [on the ceiling], what better thing could I have done with them? Thank God I got to use them to make my own Sistine Chapel!”
Wanda Wilson’s Midtown chapel for the Poor & Hungry
W anda Wilson. Say it loud and it’s music playing. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying. Just ask Ed Weathers, editor of this magazine from 1978 til 1980 (and then again in 1992-93) and now professor emeritus in the English department at Virginia Tech.
“The genius of the P&H — the woman who made it so welcoming for all of us — was of course Wanda Wilson,” says Weathers on the phone from Blacksburg, Virginia. “It was easy to stereotype and dismiss Wanda the first time you met her, because of her Dolly Parton wigs, big hats, and cigarette-graveled voice. But you soon learned that Wanda was one of the world’s great human beings.
“Wanda remains the best judge of character I have ever known. Period. We went to the P&H to celebrate great successes and to drown the sorrows that come with broken hearts and lost loved ones. Wanda celebrated with us and, without ever indulging our self-pity, always gave us exactly the amount of sympathy we needed.
“Wanda was tough (I think there was a shotgun behind the bar) but, almost ironically, she was sweet, sweet, sweet. We all loved Wanda. We still love Wanda, even if some of us haven’t seen her in many years.
“It meant something that her employees also seemed to love her. I have just this moment realized that for all the sympathy Wanda gave us when we moaned in our beer, she never, ever in my experience moaned herself or expressed any of her own sorrows to us. Maybe she did to others, but not in my presence, even when she was sick. Wanda was a rock, a north star, a saint.”
Talk to most anyone who hung around the P&H back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and you hear much the same thing: that those years were a sort of “Golden Age” for the bar. And that the one and only Wanda Wilson was the center of it all.
“Had you been there 30 or 35 years ago, you might have seen somebody dancing across the bar acting like Fred Astaire. That would have been me,” says Chris Ellis, a former P&H bartender and now a successful Hollywood character actor; he played Deke Slayton in Apollo 13.
“On one side of the bar, you’d see a bunch of tobacco-chewing, mouth-breathing, leather-apron-types, munching the froth from a flagon of ale. On another, you’d have a bunch of effeminate actors carrying on about Barbra Streisand. Everybody seemed to co-habitate quite agreeably, and I think it was all because of Wanda Wilson.”
Always topped with one of her signature wide-brimmed hats, Wilson, originally from Parsons, Tennessee, has been the subject of paintings, photographs, songs, stories, and more. She played herself in Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer’s breakthrough 2000 movie, The Poor & Hungry, which Brewer named for the bar, because that’s where he wrote it and shot much of it. Anybody who ever hung out at 1532 Madison has even fonder memories of the place after they see the film.
“Honey, they changed the music [in the 2013 remastered version of The Poor & Hungry], and it doesn’t sound like it goes with it at all,” Wanda Wilson says, with a happy scowl. “And they cut one of my scenes, and that’s a mortal sin.”
Watch Wilson perform in the film, and you get a sense of why she looms so large and warm in the souls of those who know her so well. She’s firm and direct, and while some in the South may call this “sassiness,” it’s way more than that with Wilson. Maybe it’s a product of a deeper resolve and intelligence. But Wanda’s also generous of spirit and welcoming to all. Drape all of that with a glittery gown and a touch of the flamboyant and dramatic.
Craig Brewer recently posted some video he found of Wilson’s 50th birthday party on his YouTube channel. In it, she flawlessly works the packed house with equal grace for friends and strangers. Later, four bagpipers — their pipes piping at full throat — march in to wish her well on her big day. She’s not shocked but pleased in a way that says, “Of course, there’d be bagpipers.”
“I can’t articulate what it is about Wanda’s personality or Wanda’s soul that is such a bright light in my life, but there it is,” explains Chris Ellis. “Everyone who knew her recognized that about her and felt the same way as I did.”
Jimmy Carter’s daughter, the Berlin Wall, and strip pokerW anda Wilson and several friends sit sipping coffee and beer, respectively, on a coolish summer evening. Prodded into talking about those old days, they stare off at different corners of the bar, each one breathing life into memories that once stood flesh-and-blood in the same spot from which they now looked. Those memories seem to arrive in great clouds, large amorphous entities fluffed up with characters and events both mundane and/or scandalous. They start to describe their thoughts but pause, trying to wrap words around that fleeting and ethereal smoke. “All the Art Academy people used to come in here,” Wilson says. “And Jimmy Carter’s daughter [who graduated from the Memphis College of Art in 1992] used to shoot pool back there. She once donated money to a guy who worked with me,” Wilson explains. “He’d been wrongly charged with rape, and Amy Carter gave her allowance to his defense fund.”
Back then, academics huddled in the front, so the jukebox was turned down low and put way in the back, where the pool table was. Recalls Ed Weathers: “I loved the P&H because it was a conversation place. Yeah, there was beer and good burgers, but I went there to talk.
“Anyway, the talk at the P&H was the best of my lifetime. I went to talk to lawyers, actors, artists, academics, writers, and newspaper folks — people, generally, who loved words and ideas, as I did (and do), and who were just the right amount of unconventional.”
Weathers continues: “The music at the P&H was never so loud that you couldn’t talk. Like most of us guys, I had an ulterior motive for going to the P&H: Smart women seemed to feel safe there — it wasn’t a pick-up bar — so there was always a good chance that you’d get to share a table with a brilliant, beautiful, charming poet or actress or lawyer, but in the company of lots of other talkers, so there wasn’t much of that are-we-going-to-have-sex-tonight tension in the air.
“The interactions between the genders was healthier at the P&H than at any other place I spent time in in Memphis. I think this is an aspect of the P&H that was little appreciated.”
Newspaper types, intellectuals, and theatre groups called the P&H home, yes, but so did many softball and soccer clubs. Pitchers of beer were consumed in vast quantities by hippies, stuffy professors, and wanna-be athletes, well into the night. One soccer player who called the P&H home was Richard Banks, another editor of this magazine (1998-2000), who happened to be buying pitchers of beer on a historic night in November of 1989.
“Like any great bar,” Banks recalls, “tears occasionally flowed with the beer at the P&H. Folks crying over lost love as they sang along with ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ on the jukebox, during wakes, whatever; even once when a couple came barreling in the back door announcing their engagement.
“But the most poignant such moment for me was after a soccer practice, when I joined the Ireland-Paraguay Friendship Society team for what I promised myself would be one beer at the P&H.
“We were thirsty and focused on our beers,” says Banks, “until someone shouted an expletive and pointed at the TV behind the bar. There on the screen were people perched on the Berlin Wall, dancing, singing, and waving to cameras, all the while chipping off pieces of concrete.
“Someone turned up the TV and for a moment, the entire bar went quiet — which is remarkable for most any watering hole, but especially so for the P&H — as people tried to process what was going on.
“The silence was short-lived, though, as cheers and shouts started to well up from the clientele. A few folks started chanting ‘Tear down the Wall!’ while others started toasting with beers, water, salt shakers, whatever they had in hand.
“Amid all the celebration, there was one figure standing almost paralyzed at the bar, a young 20-something, still staring at the TV. Turns out he was an exchange student staying with one of my teammates. He was from West Germany and had joined our practice session that one night, night of all nights.
“All I could see for the moment was the back of his head, his hands down to his side, when suddenly he turned to his left and looked around to make sure if the rest of us were seeing what he was seeing. For that moment he looked lost, completely puzzled, then someone rushed to his side and hugged him. He wasn’t sobbing, but tears were beginning to trickle down the sides of his face, which got the waterworks flowing for the rest of us.
“I broke my promise and had more than one beer at the P&H that night …”
There were somewhat lighter sides to life in the night at the P&H. Yes, more than a few long-term relationships were born here, but then again, so many short-term ones as well got the wind in their sails from a night at 1532 Madison.
“One night, I happened to meet a couple of stewardesses, and we ended up at the P&H Cafe playing strip poker,” says Chris Ellis.
“I was dealing and I was cheating. I had divested myself of all garment, just to create an atmosphere of uninhibited nudity.
“These ladies were two beautiful young women who were not acquainted with Memphis and had never been to the P&H Cafe. They were sitting at the bar taking off all their clothes, and this is late at night, probably well after midnight.
“Nearby, there was a table full of crusty old Commercial Appeal journalists talking about Ronald Reagan. They would just glance up whenever another article of clothing came off, then they’d go right back to their conversation about Reagan.” Says Ellis with enthusiasm: “That was the P&H I loved!”
Changing times and the next generationD ealing with health issues, Wanda Wilson sold the place to Nancy Heaton in September 1999. Heaton had worked there all her life, Wilson says; her parents had actually opened the original P&H in 1961, further east on Madison near Overton Square. Wanda acquired the bar in 1976, and moved it to its current location in the 1980s. Chris Ellis says of Nancy Heaton that she was a “light in a dark world, and as much an angel in human form as Wanda Wilson was.” Missy Branham, a Memphis attorney, says Heaton was a good friend and that she used to venture to the P&H nearly every day to see her and to eat her home cooking at lunchtime. Branham has been an off-and-on P&H regular since she started law school in 1978. “We used to have bomb threats at 201 [Poplar]. This was when [District Attorney General John Pierotti] was in office so this had to be the 1990s,” Branham says from her favorite P&H booth. “But if there’s a bomb threat, even if you’re in court, you have to clear out. You’re supposed to wait around and do the drill. But a bunch of us, we would come in here until it was safe to go [back] in.”
She laughs loudly. “Sometimes, I’ll come in here and wait for my jury verdicts,” she begins again. “I leave this number because sometimes my cell phone dies!”
The Curbi Cotton Carnival Krewe would hold court at the P&H, Branham explains. Roller derby girls. Musicians. Actors. Runners. Branham has seen them all through the place in her decades as a P&H regular. Filmmaker Craig Brewer asked her one night about the maximum time you could get for a misdemeanor. She told him 11 months and 29 days, and that line ended up in The Poor & Hungry.
Now, Branham can be found at the P&H most weekdays, ordering Heinekens and playing the bar-top video game machines, moving her hands on the screen with a studied precision. “I love it; it’s like a second home to me and they’re like family to me,” speaking of the many friends who have helmed the bar. “It’s where I feel most comfortable.” Through all the years, the different owners, and ever-so-slight changes to the physical landscape of the bar, Branham says it’s still a safe-haven and a magnet for a glittering panoply of Memphis bar folk.
Matt Edwards and Robert Fortner own the bar now. The P&H attitude hasn’t changed much. Still friendly. Still smoky. Still the beer joint of your dreams.
Outside, though, a new massive mural covers the old massive mural. On it, the Ellis-drawn, Wilson-inspired depiction of an angel holding beer mugs under a rainbow has been replaced with an updated, thinner version of an angel holding beer mugs under a rainbow. Inside, the ceiling over the back room (yes, where Amy Carter used to shoot pool and still home of the jukebox) has been removed and the room has been completely renovated.
But up front, the comedians are laughing. Some are heckling. It’s clear now that they’re all drinking heavily. This particular Thursday night will wash away. The night’s jokes, too, will one day be wrung out of all context and, thus, wrung of, you know, their funniness.
But not tonight. Tonight, the comedians are live, flesh and blood, and jumpy with nerves over what they might say next. And if they look up at those aging brown panels on the ceiling, the Gridiron Show jokers and the P&H’s Golden Age will remind them, as always, to live and laugh in the here and now. And while the “now” is relative through the decades, the “here” has been and remains the P&H Cafe.