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VOL. 8 | NO. 21 | Saturday, May 16, 2015

Square Roots

THE PAST: Young ambitions drove Overton Square's original appeal

By Bill Dries

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Lucy Woodson and George Saig went to lunch recently in Overton Square.

They chose Babalu, the site where the entertainment district began in 1970 with the opening of the former TGI Friday’s, just months after Memphis voters approved “liquor by the drink.”

Woodson, like others, has had trouble finding a spot in the square without a line on some nights.

Overton Square's past is reflected in this photo of Madison Avenue from December 1970, months after TGI Friday's opened.
These days, the square is seeing a revival of retail, restaurants and the arts.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig/Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries)

“You couldn’t get in anywhere,” she said of the district she and her late husband, Ben Woodson, as well as Saig, helped create 45 years ago. The square’s current managers, Loeb Properties, will commemorate the district’s founding this month.

Saig, a real estate broker, consultant and business owner, liked Babalu’s food but found himself comparing the restaurant’s new layout to the original Friday’s.

Both give credit to Loeb’s leader, Bob Loeb, for the square’s revival in a much different time and context than its early days.

‘No competition then’

In 1970, the TGI Friday’s in Overton Square became the first franchise of the Manhattan original after the square’s founders approached the restaurant’s owner about the idea. They created a Friday’s that was different from the original and became the archetype for the numerous locations that followed nationwide.

With Friday’s as its cornerstone, Overton Square was an innovation in a conservative, Southern city with a youth culture that aspired to be more sophisticated.

“It sounded like I couldn’t lose a lot of money and it sounded like a lot of fun,” Saig said. “There was no competition then, no competition anywhere in town.”

Saig, who was about 10 years older than the others and knew their older brothers and sisters, teamed with Ben Woodson, James D. Robinson Jr., Charles Hull and Frank Dogrell, all of whom were 25 or younger.

They all came from affluent families, had some business experience – though not in the volatile entertainment and nightclub industry – and had the confidence of being in their 20s.

“They were all friends and they all had jobs outside of putting Friday’s together,” Woodson said. “They thought that Memphis needed an entertainment district.”

More importantly, Memphis needed liquor by the drink, a change allowing bars outside of private clubs to serve mixed drinks. It had failed in a 1967 citywide referendum before coming up for a second vote in November 1969.

Despite strong opposition from local churches, the measure passed and became effective immediately.

“They built it before they knew that,” Woodson remembered. “All of our friends would get on the phone and start calling people just to get everyone to vote for it. They were worried about it. But they were sure it was going to pass.”

Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson was among those who were preparing for the measure to pass, which led to bars being established in Holiday Inn motels.

Overton Square’s founders were targeting a different crowd with Friday’s: a young, local crowd that had few other places to go in Memphis in 1970 and nothing even remotely resembling an “entertainment district.”

“It was real ‘not Memphis,’” said Terry Walker, a Midtown regular in Overton Square’s early days before moving to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1972. “We didn’t know New York at the time, but it was very New York-ish.”

‘That area was just dead’

The larger plan for an entertainment district built around Friday’s was there from the outset.

The day after the liquor by the drink measure passed, the founders unveiled their strategy, with leases already in place on other properties that would later be renegotiated to ownership.

Madison Avenue and North Cooper Street in August 1971, about a year after the TGI Friday’s opened. Overton Square's founders were still acquiring property, including The Looking Glass, a Friday’s competitor that lasted about six months and later became Bombay Bicycle Club.

(Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries)

The founders – who likened their plans to San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square – called their district Overton Square, named after one of the founders of the city of Memphis.

Saig says that part of Midtown was a blank canvas for such an undertaking.

“That area was just dead,” he said. “It was all of these little shops about 12 or 15 feet deep that were run down. They were vacant.”

The square’s creators negotiated a franchise with Friday’s founder Al Stillman, but they never intended to replicate the Manhattan restaurant in Memphis.

“We didn’t do anything like they did in New York,” Saig said, with one exception – the expertise in how to run a bar built to serve mixed drinks to anyone 21 or older who walked in off the street.

“They came down here and showed us how to lay out a bar,” he said. “We had one cooler that just kept beer cold, and we had the underground line that refrigerated where we never had to change out the kegs. That was what the New York outfit did to get on the right track.”

‘A whole new world for everyone’

That bar setup created a new nightclub experience for employees – and patrons.

“Friday’s taught people how to drink drinks they’d never had before,” said Woodson, who wasn’t old enough to drink at the bar when Friday’s first opened. The legal drinking age was soon changed from 21 to 18.

“It was a whole new world for everyone,” she added. “Everybody was wild and it was pretty crazy. … Once those doors opened, those bond daddies would drive up in their Lincoln Town Cars, and they would line up at the front of that Friday’s. Everybody was big-timing it then. They thought Memphis had come into its own.”

Friday’s 20-ounce sirloin steak was $5.95, according to a menu Walker kept for decades.

“And we couldn’t afford that back then,” he said. “We’d split a salad and a hamburger. That’s where we were.”

Overton Square’s founders marketed the district as something that was decidedly un-hippie but with a youthful identification and appeal. However, it didn’t take much to be a hippie in a conservative Memphis, where “long” hair stretched slightly over a shirt collar or below the ears.

“I was actually a hippie, but we got dressed up,” said Walker. “I was basically an antiwar protester. I marched with Martin Luther King Downtown. I was working at St. Joseph Hospital the night he got shot and was brought in. It was a turbulent time.”

In that turbulence, Friday’s had found a market that no one else had.

The Highland strip by the University of Memphis was geared toward a college-age crowd, but was mostly retail without central management or a unifying theme.

Overton Square was openly capitalistic by comparison.

Saig remembers estimating that if Friday’s could make $800 a day, it might break even. The first day’s receipts were $4,800 and stayed at that level for the next two years.

“We were making so much money it wasn’t even funny,” he said.

‘That was always the key – that location’

Liquor by the drink was legal, but there were other barriers like when the partners wanted to add an open-air seating section at Friday’s next to the sidewalk.

“They had so many old-fashioned rules,” Saig said of city government. “They wouldn’t let us open the windows because they had some kind of ordinance that you had to have a screen over the window.”

He credits Mayor Wyeth Chandler with “kind of running interference for us.”

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Meanwhile, shortly after Chandler took office in 1972, Memphis police raided the Highland Strip in a crackdown on drug dealing.

Friday’s wasn’t without competition in its early days. A bar called the Looking Glass “ran great for seven or eight months,” Saig recalled.

“That was the second place to open,” he said, sounding a note of caution about the square’s explosive early growth. “He was packing them in. But they couldn’t take care of them.”

The Looking Glass became Bombay Bicycle Club, which, along with the short-lived first-generation Lafayette’s Music Room, was controlled by the Overton Square Corp. and the mainstays of the district into the 1970s.

“The difference now is they opened with eight or 10 restaurants,” he said, referring to the square’s current incarnation. “I don’t know how the retail will do over there. Our retailers really couldn’t compete with as much competition as was out there in the shopping centers. They may make it on that end.”

Walker, Woodson and Saig all acknowledge Overton Square’s young patrons today are unlike how the three of them were at that age.

“Kids are so different and the times have changed so much,” Saig said. “But that’s a good location. That was always the key – that location.”

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