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VOL. 126 | NO. 160 | Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Street Signs

Beale stakeholders say change is ‘slow but steady’

By Bill Dries

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More than a year after the city of Memphis reached an out-of-court settlement with Performa Entertainment that would put day-to-day control of the Beale Street entertainment district in the hands of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration, the federal bankruptcy case tied to that settlement remains unsettled.

Visitors stroll along Beale Street in downtown Memphis.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 17, according to U.S. Bankruptcy Court filings.

Performa, the company that has managed and developed the three-block entertainment district for the city of Memphis since 1982, filed for bankruptcy in June 2010 as part of a settlement of the Shelby County Chancery Court lawsuit that has more than two sides.

The city has still not reached a settlement with Beale Street Development Corp. BSDC is the nonprofit entity created as a middleman between the city of Memphis, which owns Beale Street between Second and Fourth streets, and Performa, which continues running the district for the city until the court approves the settlement.

BSDC is making a case against moving the Chancery Court lawsuit into bankruptcy court.

Performa filed the motion in May to remove the case from Chancery Court and make it part of the bankruptcy case in which Performa “consents to the entry of final orders and judgments by the bankruptcy judge.”

Meanwhile, a city task force on the future of the three-block entertainment district has been meeting sporadically since October on recommendations for how the city should proceed once the city has control of Beale Street’s day-to-day management.

Legendary Stax Records songwriter and performer David Porter, who is part of the group, agrees that the pace has been “slow but steady.”

“We’ve all been looking for a positive way to make it what it ought to be,” Porter said.

The key to Porter is that the district “stays true to what Beale Street really is.”

And musically, Porter says that means realizing that when visitors talk about blues on Beale Street, they may have a different definition than blues purists do.

“They say ‘blues music,’ but what they are really talking about is music of the ’60s,” Porter said. “If you come to Beale Street, that’s really what you are hearing. If you stay true to that, which it’s being played all over the world, then I think it works. I think if we get close to that then it’s going to work.”

Porter talked about the Beale Street of the past, present and future after a reminder of how much the street’s identity has changed.

He was among those who honored Lansky Brothers clothing cofounder Bernard Lansky Sunday as a historical marker was unveiled outside the old Lansky Brothers store at Beale and Second streets.

Porter was one of numerous musicians who bought stage and street clothes at Lansky’s, at first on credit. Others included Elvis Presley, B.B. King and Porter’s songwriting partner, Isaac Hayes.

Lansky’s son, Hal Lansky, now president of Lansky’s, said the tourists who come to today’s Beale Street are the “lifeblood of the city” even though they come for restaurants and live musical entertainment as opposed to shopping in its strictest retail definition.

“A lot of the younger people think it’s a cool street. It is a cool street. But I remember when the musicians were walking around, and the juke joints and the pawn shops,” said Lansky, who worked from his childhood with his father and his uncle at the Beale Street location.

“Every decade we probably changed our stripes,” he said after walking a crowd of more than 100 through the fashion styles Lansky’s featured. Peg pants and pink shirts in the 1950s, mod and Carnaby Street in the 1960s, Superfly suits and platform shoes in the 1970s – a decade Lansky remembers with some regrets. And the store then made the decision to go into the big and tall men’s business in the 1980s, a move other clothing merchants thought would fail but which was a shrewd business move.

“If we didn’t (change) we probably wouldn’t be standing here today,” Lansky said. “You’ve got to change. If you snooze you lose, especially in this economy.”

Lansky Brothers began at the corner of Beale and Second streets after World War II.

Brothers Guy and Bernard Lansky, with a $125 loan from their father, moved into the building after the previous tenant was murdered. The business had been a ladies secondhand store, and the brothers quickly decided they couldn’t make that work.

Instead they switched to Army and Navy surplus and began developing a trade built on the precarious business of changing styles of clothing for those who dressed to be seen.

The business is now at The Peabody hotel and is celebrating 65 years in business through three generations of the family.

Julie Lansky, Hal’s daughter, credits her grandfather with teaching her the “art of the sale” and her father with teaching her “the fundamentals” of a family business.

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