White Lies and White Knuckles

Jackson's skyline around 1930, with the Tower Building (later Standard Life) the white building on the left side.

“I took piano lessons for three years, and the only piece I remember was ‘Drifting,’ which I played in my first recital at the teacher’s apartment on North State Street. That teacher had a nervous breakdown (I probably gave it to her) so I started taking from Mrs. McLean. She was very strict, especially about practicing. I didn’t like to practice, and the rest of the family didn’t like to hear me practice and then I would get a lecture from her when I went for my lesson.

“So that I wouldn’t get upset and want to quit, Mama suggested that I just tell a little white lie and say that I had practiced an hour every day. I was terribly guilty feeling when recital time came and we played on the roof of the Robert E. Lee hotel and I received one of the medals for having practiced so faithfully. I was already upset because the recital was being held on the roof since I was scared of elevators. When we would go up there to practice I would walk up the steps (eleven floors) rather than ride the elevators. This fear had developed after we were in Kennington’s Store one day when the elevator fell. No one was hurt, but from then on I was afraid to get on one. The tallest building in Jackson was the Tower Building, and our dentist had an office there. I dreaded the elevator more than I did having the dentist hurt me. There were no elevators which you operated yourself. They all had operators. I still don’t like elevators.”

View of the Tower Building taken from the roof of the Robert E. Lee Hotel in 1930.

I had no clue that Sara ever took piano lessons. Cathy and I escaped that fate as children, gladly, as so many of our little friends were trapped indoors, banging away in futility on nice afternoons while we scooted off to Woolworth’s or a movie. Sara did buy a small electric organ at someone’s garage sale and place it prominently in the living room, and I remember my dismal performances of “On Top of Old Smoky” which she would applaud and declare the sure indication of deep musical talent. Right. Another organ came along in the ’90s, courtesy of a St. Andrew’s Episcopal School garage sale, and that one was a source of great delight for her grandchildren through the years. Sara was probably right about the piano teacher’s nervous breakdown being an Evans-initiated tragedy: This branch of the family just doesn’t have those genes, and woe be unto any poor music teacher who takes us on.

And the elevators? Sara never got over that fear, which may have been one reason she never left Greenwood much after she moved back in 1932. Look at that skyline picture of Jackson: Elevators were just part of your life, unless you were in very good shape, which Sara likely was at age 9. But you can only climb 11 or 12 flights of steps every day for so long. When we would get on elevators as we traveled, she would generally huddle in the back corner, with a wild look in her eyes, and then all but knock folks down getting off when the doors opened. But escalators weren’t much better. We rode them on our trips to Goldsmith’s and every time, every time, we would get a preliminary warning lecture about children losing their toes in the machinery if they didn’t pay attention. It’s a wonder we could function at all. And we still can’t play the piano.

Ed. note: The Robert E. Lee Hotel, on North Lamar at Griffith Street, was completed in 1930, so it would have been the showplace of Jackson when Sara had her dishonest piano recital there. Its “modern conveniences” included private baths, telephones and individual radios in 300 rooms. The twelfth floor featured a convention hall and roof gardens, which was undoubtedly where the recital was held.

The Tower Building, on South Roach Street just off Capitol, later came to be known as the Standard Life Tower. It was finished in 1929 by the Enochs family, who also owned the King Edward Hotel. At 19 stories, it towered over everything else in downtown Jackson and was completed, start to finish, in five and a half months. Unfortunately, as with New York’s Empire State Building, it opened just as the Depression hit and wound up in receivership. Despite years of abandonment, it still stands and is being converted into condominiums.

About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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