Nothing says summer like the Fairgrounds. And nothing says Memphis like the old Fairgrounds of Memphis memories, a perfect diversion during these challenging times as captured so beautifully by fan-favorite Charlie Lambert. Originally published June 2019 for both our print and online editions.
By Charlie Lambert
Blame it on my age or insert-joke-here, but not many Memphians have the old Fairgrounds Amusement Park as firmly captured in their memory banks as I do. The memories are a wonderland of sweetness.
(For those of you not so familiar with the location of the Fairgrounds, today folks play frisbee golf about two to three hundreds yards south of where the amusement park’s midway games and rides were located, and the main entrance to the park was located where Tiger Lane starts today at East Parkway, in between Nelson and Oliver.)
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My very first recollection of it was while spending one of dozens of nights as an eight year old at my grandparents, Bob and Lilly Ewing (Mamaw and Papaw), who lived directly across the street from the Fairgrounds at 927 East Parkway. They were there before it was built in 1923. Indeed, my mother was born in the front bedroom of their home in 1920.
My grandparents had a big, eight-blade fan in the back window, typical of the cooling devices found all over Memphis in the 1950s. It quietly pushed evening air into each open window and made us feel truly blessed to be so cool in the middle of June, before air conditioning was common in residential areas.
One night, as I lay there with my window at my head cracked enough to feel the breeze, I heard more than the fan and the air – yes, more than Papaw Ewing’s snoring. A sweet song wafted in with the wind. I guess I had heard it before but did not associate it with the amusement park until that night.
The song was “Goodnight, Sweetheart” (written in 1922) sung by a male voice that I never was able to identify. Mamaw told me that when the Fairgrounds closed each night, a recording of that song was played to clear the midway and send people on their way. It was a favorite of one of the Fairground’s managers. The song was played for many years for that purpose. What a great way to end an evening of rides, cotton candy, and fun, I thought! Wouldn’t it be grand to be some small part of the amusement park – someday?
Within two years I was actually working at the Fairgrounds as assistant photographer at the “picture booth” on the main midway. This happened accidentally. My parents’ next door neighbor owned “concessions” at both the Memphis Zoo and the Fairgrounds. He needed help on Sundays at the Zoo and asked if my younger brother and I could help out just in the afternoons each Sunday. Our job was to rent baby strollers for fifty cents each. We had the renters sign their name and address and the time the buggy was checked out. They paid the money in advance and were asked to return the stroller to us by closing time. I was nine and Johnny, my brother, seven when we began our work lives.
Within a couple of years we were working all summer and on weekends at the Zoo and the Fairgrounds, where our neighbor had “picture booths.” The 4”x6” sepia photographs we took and delivered in one minute or less – for the grand price of twenty-five cents – still show up all over Memphis to this day. Elvis, who hung out at the Fairgrounds before he became famous, was one of the subjects of our twenty-five-cent specials. I did not take that particular one, but my former co-worker (Donne Walden) still had a copy when he died last year. The picture was taken in 1950 but is still perfect, without any fading or other deterioration.
By age eleven I knew all the other workers at the Fairgrounds, many of them long-term employees. The middle-aged women worked mainly in the ticket booths of the various rides and collected the tiny sum required to obtain three or four minutes of joyous abandon on a ride. I remember Mrs. Murphy (airplane ride), Mrs. Sue Walden (worked at the game Arcade), Mrs. Cassidy (Pippin), the kind Mr. and Mrs. Kirk – a couple from “up north” -who had an ice cream stand, and Janie Anderson (who periodically rented a room at my grandparents’ house). Janie was a charmingly beautiful older woman. At age eleven I thought her quite old, but she was probably less than 50at that time. She had a lot of “boyfriends” who’d pick her up at Mamaw’s after her workday. I never wondered where she was when she was not living in Mamaw’s rental room – I never asked and no one ever said.
The men, too, were long-term workers and each specialized on one or another of the rides: Fred Walden, the Ferris Wheels, and Mr. Ventrini, a huge man with a round face and round glasses, the Old Mill (tunnel of love boat ride). Another old-timer managed the Pippin (the now-legendary roller coaster rebuiltin 1928 after its predecessor, built in 1923, had been destroyed by a storm). I didn’t know it at the time but my mother’s brother, Bob, was one of the teenage neighborhood kids who got to take a test ride on the Pippin the day it was slated to open in 1923. That was the same Pippin that became famous after Elvis rode it over and over and declared it his favorite Fairgrounds ride. It became the “Zippin Pippin” when the park was converted into LibertyLand in the 1970s. It is now (the cars, at least) still rolling in Green Bay, Wisconsin – one of the oldest, wooden, roller coasters in America.
Oh, the wonder of that fairy land with the Tumble Bug or “Bug”! My aunt Maude took us on it when she was in her 80s and had to hail the driver to stop the ride and let us off when she realized what a rough trip it was. The Bug moved at great speed on a single track that went up and down and caused a lot of unavoidable motion and jarring. There were also twin Ferris Wheels. That was my favorite ride. I noticed that the Ferris Wheels disappeared later in my life and learned they were not money-makers since they had to be stopped over and over to let old riders off and new riders on. That problem was solved when someone invented a Wheel that ran slowly enough to let passengers on and off without stopping–and the popularity of the Ferris Wheel was reborn! (I rode one in Chicago a few years ago for $12.00.)
Oh, and I must not forget the Merry-go-round! I rode it frequently and thrilled to the lively organ and calliope music played asit went round and round. That ride, like the Pippin, is still operating for new generations to enjoy as part of the Memphis Children’s Museum under the moniker “Grand Carousel.” There were many other rides,but these were my favorites.
When not working at the photo booth, taking pictures of visitors, I’d amuse myself walking around, buying treats like Memphis and county fair favorite Pronto Pups, and riding on one of the 20or so mechanical amusements. Believe it or not, there was no admission to the Fairgrounds;and on many Saturdays, rides, all of them, were five cents each for children. On most Saturdays, the park was packed with rowdy kids and gangs of screaming tots running from ride to ride with a string of paper tickets in their sugar-covered hands. Was there ever a more joyous place on earth for kids with a pocketful of nickels and nothing to keep them from ride after ride all day long?
Those halcyon days went on for just a few years but still live in my memory. The period of 1954 to 1959 stands outas some of the happiest timesof my life. That’s not only because I was young and carefree but alsobecause of the fun I had knowing and being part of such a large family of wonderful, friendly co-workers. Times were changing and some of my cronies retired or died. Plus, the fading attraction of going to an amusement park reduced the numbers of visitors. There were other forms of entertainment for kids and adults, many with new-fangled AC. The Fairgrounds began to lose its luster. No longer could it remain open until the midnight hour for the ritual playing of “Goodnight, Sweetheart”; and the midway lights dimmed sometimes as early as 8 or 9P.M.
And as for me, I moved on to high school and other jobs at much less glamorous places, like grocery store checking stands. My grandparents died in the early 1960s and their house was sold. Many of the old favorite haunts across the street were closed or changed to attract more visitors. I wondered whether “my song” was still played at whatever hour the park closed. I thought about my various experiences there and the mystique of being a small part of something special that was not destined to last forever. The only thing I have left now is my memory of four or five incredible years lost in the clouds, aimlessly drifting through time, in a wonderland called the Fairgrounds.
I pass it in my car all the time. The rides are gone, and last year Mamaw’s house was torn down and a sad, empty lot sits where I spent so many happy days and nights. I must say I am sad about these and other changes I have experienced, but that is what life is made of. Sometimes the only things we have to cling to are our memories of the past, and it is always sweeter and more perfect in our minds as the years pass.
I have the world’s best collection of recordings of “Goodnight, Sweetheart.” Every version I find I wonder whether it is the one played all those years ago that filled the neighborhood nights with beauty. I’ll never know!
I treasure my reflections about the Fairgrounds. I bet you have something like that that makes you feel warm and happy inside. I hope so. We all need that from time to time. <>
Feature photo: Fairgrounds entrance on East Parkway, from a vintage 1950s-era postcard (historic-memphis.com)
Charlie Lambert is the feature writer for the Memphis Heritage Keystone Page of StoryBoard Memphis. A version of this article appeared in the May Bicentennial Issue of StoryBoard Memphis in print, on pages 1 and 13.