Tuesday, July 29, 2008

See You In the Funny Papers

While we were at Vanderbilt, we had a lot of opportunities to see and hear from important and famous people. And I am not just talking about the annual IMPACT Symposium.

The poster above celebrates an event from late in our junior year (the weekend of April 28-29, 1972) that saw 10 of the best comic strip and comic book creators and artists in the world come to Vanderbilt.

Even today, over 35 years later, the roster of those present is very impressive:

Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury)

Stan Lee (Spider-Man, The Hulk, Thor, The Fantastic Four)

Mel Lazarus (Miss Peach, Momma)

Thomas K. Ryan (Tumbleweeds)

Dave Berg (MAD Magazine's "The Lighter Side")

Allen Saunders (Mary Worth, Steve Roper)

John McCampbell (Superstar, a comic strip that focused on country music and Nashville)

James Childress (Conchy)

Jack Kirby (Captain America, the Sandman)

Gahan Wilson (cartoonist for Playboy, The National Lampoon)

At the time of the event VERSUS magazine on campus wrote: "To say that the weekend of April 29 will find an interesting program scheduled by Forum is to speak a soft understatement. While "interesting" is an apt word, a better description might be wild, wonderful, wacky, fantastic, imaginative, and, of course, thought-provoking."

The free symposium was part of a nationwide celebration that year of the 75th anniversary of of comic books and comic strips. One of the organizers was Class of '73 member Bill Zimmern, who chaired the Forum. He told THE TENESSEAN: "The goal of the symposium will be a serious look at the past, present and future of the comics", adding, "the comic strip and jazz are described by many historians as the only two authentic art forms that originated in America."

But not all was serious scholarship that weekend. Lunch was provided by Tex Ritter's Chuck Wagon Restaurant and Steve Greil, another Class of '73 member who was instrumental in organizing the event (and who gave me the clippings and other information for this blog posting) also told me he took a number of the artists out for a night on the town in Nashville while they were here.

Where did they go? To Printer's Alley to see Heaven Lee :)

Now I can't remember what I did this April weekend in 1972. Unfortunately, I did not attend this terrific event and have absolutely no memory of it. I wish I had gone and I hope those of you who did will post your memories of it below, along with other memories you might have about other special speakers who came to campus while we were students.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Mid-Summer's Night "Heaven Lee" Dream

While we were students at Vanderbilt, the legal drinking age (along with the voting age) was lowered to 18.

That meant many of us (if we could get off campus) got our first chance to experience a bit of Nashville's nightlife (such as it was in the early 1970s).

One place some of us got to visit for the first time (legally) was Nashville's (World Famous) Printer's Alley, a hidden-away collection of smokey nightclubs and bars located between Third and Fourth Avenues North stretching from Union to Church Streets downtown.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Printer's Alley, as its name suggests, was the location of many of Nashville's printing and publishing companies. It was also part of Nashville's "Men's District", with saloons, gambling halls and speakeasies, a tradition that was still in full swing when we arrived at Vanderbilt (although the approval of liquor-by-the-drink for Nashville in 1968 began a decline of The Alley after people could go to respectable restaurants and get their mixed drinks).

The Alley, especially The Black Poodle Club, was also known for exotic dancing. And during the days we were in college, when someone said the words "exotic dancer" in Nashville they were usually talking about Heaven Lee (yes, she was), a Cuban-born daughter of a wealthy plantation owner (according to one Nashville-history website I found) whose real name was Vianka de la Prida.

She performed off-and-on at the Poodle Club (if you'll pardon the pun) for over a decade, reportedly earning as much as $57,000 by 1980. She developed something of a following at Vanderbilt. The photo of her above was taken on a trip to campus where she visited a fraternity house (anyone remember which one?) for dinner.

There are also reports I found on this Nashville history web site that she "once lead a panel discussion on women's rights for a Vanderbilt fraternity." Was this on the same visit or another time?

I also remember a picture in our COMMODORE Yearbook of her being interviewed by Class of '73 member and WRVU Station Manager Steve Womack when she came to campus (hey, who could miss a scoop and a news assignment like that!).

If anyone has some memories of her visit or visits to Vanderbilt please share them below. Or tell us about going downtown to see her at the Black Poodle?

Or maybe you remember another big splash she made in the local news in 1970 when, again according to a Nashville history website, she appeared to ride (ala Lady Godiva) nude on horseback down James Robertson Parkway "to protest environmental pollution.... she later told a TENNESSEAN reporter she had worn a body stocking."

Things got a bit devlish for Heaven Lee after we graduated. Metro passed a law that made her wear pasties (her's were lace because, she said, she believed nudity was art). She had a couple of bad marriages, a drunk driving arrest, a near fatal car crash and finally had to declare bankruptcy. But perhaps, worst of all, she angrily denied reports she was really a tranvestite.

Heaven Lee seems to have left Nashville about 1990, and was last reported living in South Florida with her mother. For a while it appeared Printer's Alley was headed south too. But the area has been revitalized and might be a place to go visit if you want to sample current Nashville nightlife you come back for Reunion weekend October 24-25.

By the way, the old Black Poodle Club is no more. The building it was located in is now "The Fiddle and Steel Guitar Bar", also known (according to Printer's Alley website) as the "Cheers" bar of Nashville and "a place where musicians, artists, tourists and Nashville locals meet to listen to the finest country music in Nashville since 1996."

But Heaven Lee is not completely forgotten. The write-up on the Fiddle and Steel Guitar Bar mentions that "back in the '60s, it was the home of the world famous Heaven Lee. The club was always packed when she was in town."

Heaven Lee...yes, she was, and you are welcome to leave your memories below.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Pay Phone

Based on the number of responses we are getting on this blog so far, baseball seems to be a favorite topic. So with the Major League Baseball All-Star Game being played tonight, I thought it was time for another great Vanderbilt baseball story from the days when we were on campus.

I also wanted to do another baseball story to find an excuse to use the great photograph above of two of Vanderbilt's finest athletes ever, Jeff Peeples and Watson Brown.

My story isn't really about the Vanderbilt baseball team, per se. It's about what happened when we at WRVU tried to broadcast one of their games live in the spring of 1972.

In those years, WLAC-AM (1510) carried most of the major games, especially our SEC contests. But we at the campus station managed to work in our share of broadcasts. That included a game against Belmont that was actually played on old Diamond #1 in Centennial Park (where the Sportplex is located today).

I thought we broadcast a doubleheader that day (I remember it was Sunday afternoon). However in checking the Vanderbilt baseball media guide I couldn't find a twin bill listed that year.

Regardless, we rigged up a way to send the broadcast signal back to the station (including, I remember, someone wrecking their car on the way back and forth from WRVU to the park). We did it by sending the signal down a line from a pay phone booth (remember pay phones?). I think we used some alligator clips.

Anyway, we broadcast the game (Vanderbilt won, which the media guide confirms) and we went on with our business. Until about a week or two later when the WRVU Station Manager Courtenay Carson dropped by the studios. He was furious about a call he had gotten from someone at the telephone company. They wanted an explanation about a 4-hour-plus phone call made to the station from a pay phone in Centennial Park.

Now Station Manager Carson didn't know anything about our baseball broadcast of the Belmont game. Usually, you had to buy an expensive special line to broadcast remotes like that (we had a permanent line to McGugin to broadcast regular home games). So Carson denied any such call happening and swore to the phone company people that the station was innocent.

No, we told him. We did the broadcast, and yes, we did it using alligator clips and the line in the pay phone booth at the park....and all for one thin dime (the cost of a pay call in those days).

You should have seen the look on Courtenay's face. :)

There's another story I can tell about trying to broadcast Vanderbilt's 1973 SEC Championship Series game against Alabama from Tuscaloosa. But I'll save it for when the Major League playoffs get under way in October.

Don't forget to leave your thoughts below.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Where Did You Eat Off Campus?

With this article, we begin a series of postings over the next few weeks remembering (and seeking your memories so please post them at the end of this article below) of our favorite (and maybe not so favorite) places to eat while we were at Vanderbilt from 1969-1973.

Let's start with Rotier's, an Elliston Place restaurant/bar that was a favorite of Vandy students long before we came to campus and it has stayed that way right up until today.

First full disclosure: As a Nashville native I have been eating at Rotier's since before I can remember. My father was a very good friend of Johnny Rotier, the owner, and my mother and Mrs. Rotier used to stroll baby carriages together. I spent many a weeknight and weekend with my Dad at Rotier's, he having "one more beer," while I nursed a Coke and ate a piece of chocolate fudge pie.

Hey, it's a great memory, although I will confess, remembering all the times I was one of the few, if not the only, non-smoker in the place: If second hand smoke can kill you, I should already be long dead.

What Rotier's has always been famous for are its hamburgers, particularly my favorite, the grilled cheeseburger. Some like it on wheat bread, some on French bread. I like it with mustard and pickle, others like it with lettuce and tomatoes and onions. However you enjoy it, with a Coke or a chocolate milk shake to drink, it is heaven on earth , esepcially with fries or onion rings (my wife, Betty Lee's, favorite) on the side.

On the inside or the outside, Rotier's looks about the same today as it did when we were students. John Rotier has long since passed on, but Mrs. Rotier still comes in to the restaurant and helps out from time to time. Daughter Margaret Ann works as well with the youngest son, Charlie, now running the place (John, Jr. passed on at a way too early age a few years ago from cancer).

Over the years, Mrs. Rotier has become something of a legendary figure in Vanderbilt history. That was already true 35 years ago when she was profiled in our 1973 Centennial Commodore Yearbook. Here are some things she had to say:

"The children are still basically the same except in looks and dress..but long hair doesn't bother me anymore than flattops used to..I look for what's inside. ...Rotier likes the children...he has a genuine affection for the students..he likes to talk to them, and he likes to talk to the teachers that come by...some of them come back to see us years after they've graduated."

So there's an idea, come back to Nashville for our 35th Reunion October 24-25 and make Rotier's your place for lunch on Friday or Saturday before the homecoming football game. Or here's something else a little different you can do. When I was in Rotier's last week, I saw the restaurant now serves breakfast (that's right, breakfast) on Saturday mornings. Now, that's coming back to an old, very familar place and having a very new and different experience!

Remember, please leave your thoughts and memories about Rotier's below and suggest other eating places around campus you loved or hated to go to when we were in school.