Old habits are useful. Although my wife and I packed a suitcase each, I always carry a backpack, a remnant of a bohemian attitude that flourished for me in the late 1970s. I stuffed the backpack with a road Atlas, a notebook and pen, and Kevin J. Anderson’s Spine of the Dragon. I enjoy traveling with books. A good book can help me unwind after a long day on the road.
We hit the road at 11:00 PM on Wednesday; the perfect time to begin a nine-hour drive. That would put us in Memphis for breakfast. This was my fourth road trip of the summer season, and more looming ahead. I’ve been to Memphis twice before, and I find Memphis fascinating. The city is old and decaying; the extremes between wealth and poverty are evident throughout the city. The many homeless and the drug addicts are evidence of civilization’s decline. Too often in Memphis I’ve witnessed these damaged souls standing on a street corner yelling at people only they can see; or sometimes simply curling up and sleeping on the sidewalk, oblivious to the torrential rain. This is the real America; the one people don’t like talking about.
|Flooding along the Mississippi shoreline|
I came to Memphis again for something far removed from the broken lives, boarded up homes and drug problems. The rain had been constant and once again the Mississippi River breeched the shore. The news was reporting that widespread flooding had destroyed dozens of crops. The television showed a farmer scooting across his bean field in a motorboat. We passed dozens of fields that had been turned into ponds, sometimes as deep as four feet. The soybean, corn and rice cops were devastated. My wife and I had come here to attend the Memphis Film Festival which is held in nearby Tunica, Mississippi, about twenty miles from Memphis.
Tunica, Mississippi had suffered betrayals. Once marketed as a rival location to Las Vegas, a proliferation of casinos and resorts provided gainful employment for a struggling population. Then Harrah’s folded, leaving behind a massive ghost town. Harrah had built a deluxe high-rise hotel and casino, including a faux medieval castle, an art deco movie house, all dominating the flat cotton and rice field location. Tunica once ranked third in the American gambling meccas, employing over four thousand workers. The 2,200-acre complex is deserted, the three hotels standing empty. The music has stopped; the glitter is tarnished. 29% of Tunica residents live in poverty. The two best surviving casino/resorts are Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall and the Hollywood Casino, situated opposite each other on Casino Strip Resort Boulevard.
|With Buck Taylor|
The Memphis Film Festival, now in its 46th year, was held at Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall. Western film stars dominated the festival. The American Western exists today as a point of nostalgia for those generations who recall the Technicolor sweep of a landscape that was at once simplistic, brutal and populated by a noble cowboy. To conquer the land was one thing, and then to overcome the evil ways of men was another. The Western is a quintessential American genre. Once a standard part of our entertainment appetite, the Western flourished for fifty years in films, pulp magazines, and television shows.
I’ve become quite familiar with film festivals and celebrity conventions, and my wife and I immediately indulged ourselves. Here were actors and actresses who influenced our culture, and added a dream-like quality to our lives. Robert Fuller, whose roles in Wagon Train, Laramie and Emergency made an impact on our childhood; Angie Dickinson, whose film and television career is legendary; Buck Taylor from Gunsmoke and dozens of films; Darby Hinton from Daniel Boone; Karolyn Grimes, best known for her role in It’s a Wonderful Life, but who also appeared with Randolph Scott in Albuquerque; Wyatt McCrea, grandson of Joel McCrea; Randolph Mantooth, star of Emergency; Patrick Wayne, son of you-know-who, and who also has an impressive filmography; Christopher Mitchum, son of another legend, and also a respected actor in his own right; and many others were available for discussions and autograph signings.
|With Wyatt McCrea|
Two important facts stand out: first, the convention hall was small. In addition to the celebrity guests there were not all that many vendors. There were a few vendors selling original movie posters, comic books, vintage paperbacks, and DVDs. Secondly, unlike many Fan-Fest Conventions, the celebrities sat in the open at tables rather than being hidden behind a screen. This added a friendly tone to the hall. A security team was present but the fans were respectable. One could wander the hall looking over the memorabilia for sale while standing only a few feet away from a celebrity. People took photos constantly, and that was nice for those on a tight budget who couldn’t afford to have a photo taken with their favorite star. Incidentally, the prices were reasonable, and Patrick Wayne was donating all of his revenue to the John Wayne Cancer Institute.
|With Darby Hinton|
We mingled. We took photos. We chatted with the stars. When I was chatting with Angie Dickinson, I mentioned Randy Scott whom she worked with on Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend (1957), her 10th film. Angie said, “Oh, Randolph Scott was such a fine man. He mentored me on that film. I was young and just starting out, and he was such a gentleman.” Later, Karolyn Grimes said to me: “Randolph Scott was a real gentleman. Of course I was a little girl at the time, but I had become ill, and when Randy found out, he carried me off the set so they could look after me.” Randolph Scott has consistently been described to me as a gentleman over the years.
|With Angie Dickinson|
I was in awe of Patrick Wayne. I spoke with him multiple times over the weekend, and he was a delight. “I’m very privileged with a great family.” He said to me, “and I want to help get rid of cancer.” When we were talking about his film career he offered this tidbit: “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger is one of my favorites. Jane Seymour was in that and she’s so beautiful.” When I asked him if his father’s film, Circus World, will ever be released on DVD he said, “I don’t know. I don’t have anything to do with that, but it was a great movie. I wasn’t in it, but the beautiful Claudia Cardinale was in that one!” He also spoke fondly of making The People that Time Forgot (1977) with the late, great Doug McClure.
|With Patrick Wayne and Christopher Mitchum|
Christopher Mitchum was another favorite, and sat at the table next to Patrick Wayne, his co-star in Big Jake (1971), one of John Wayne’s best films. Mitchum told me he still has his father’s fedora from Out of the Past and he’ll never part with it. Mitchum was fascinating. He spoke at length with me about the modern audition process, which is done via e-mail, and he recounted an experience where one young casting agent looked over his resume and noticed he had worked in several films with John Wayne. This kid asked, “Is that the famous John Wayne?” I liked Mitchum immediately. He was down to earth and happy to spend time talking with people. He shared his feeling that 1969 was a turning point in Western films because The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid featured the “bad guys” as the heroes. He preferred the traditional Western, such as Big Jake, which we agreed is one of John Wayne’s later classics.
|With Robert Fuller|
Robert Fuller’s fan base and popularity is incredible. The demand on Fuller throughout the weekend never abated, and exceeded all other celebrities. He can be a lady’s man, and the ladies love him, make no mistake about that; and he’s a man’s man. My wife and I were both thrilled to finally meet him. We had him signed a Dell comic book and several photos. He told me how lucky I was to have such a beautiful wife. My wife asked him, “Can I have a hug?” and Fuller said, “We can do whatever we want, and we can take our time!” He looked at me and said, “We’re two bad cowboys!” It made our day.
Of the memorabilia I looked at, I was lucky to find a comic book for the Lawman television series signed by the late, great John Russell, and I bought it on sight. I also purchased No Strings: In Search of Dickie Jones by Ann Snuggs and had her sign it for me; and Wyatt McCrea’s 52 Weeks, 52 Western Movies. We finished the weekend by taking another walk around Beale Street in Memphis where we visited the legendary Tater Red’s Lucky Mojo and Voodoo Healing Gift Store. I first entered Tater Red’s back in 1996 and this iconic store hasn’t changed much. Down the street, I spent a few minutes speaking with a young homeless man near the Elvis statue, and he impressed me with his knowledge of the bronze statue created by sculptor Andrea Luger. I gave him money for food. We talked about his effort to find work, and I told him to keep at it. This kid was sharp. When I told him I was from Chicago he rattled off every stop on the El line. He’d been to Chicago twice.
|The King of Rock and Roll|
Beale Street was nearly empty when we arrived that morning, but about noon we could hear guitars playing inside some of the restaurants and saloons. The acrobats were performing in the street for tips and the scent of grilled food began wafting from the enclosures.
|The iconic Tater Red's|
We avoided Graceland this trip. A quick visit to Beale Street was the best way to end my third visit to Memphis. I might go back some day. Memphis is alluring, and its rich, dark history speaks to me. There is much to learn here, and the traveler’s long and winding road is full of surprises.
|Spooky Voodoo Doll from Tater Red's|
Text and photography copyright© 2019 by Thomas McNulty