On Wednesday, March 30, 2016, the Midtown Memphis Development Corporation (MMDC) presented the second annual Mojo Of Midtown Awards to people and organizations who, through their talent, motivation, innovation and Mojo, have made a significant difference in promoting and preserving this most vital part of the City of Memphis. The event will took place at Midtown landmark Circuit Playhouse, 51 South Cooper.
And the winners are…
ARDENT STUDIOS – JODY STEPHENS ACCEPTING
Among both fans and creators of Memphis music, the names of recording studios and record labels are almost as well known as the artists themselves. Ardent Studios is one of those, along with Sun Records, Stax Records, American Studios and Hi Records. From Soul to Rock to Power Pop to Contemporary Christian, Ardent Studios has been the source of some of the world’s great music for fifty years. As the late John Fry put it, “Something good happens here.” Ya think?
In 1959 John Fry, at the age of fifteen, cut his first single. In 1966 he moved his makeshift recording studio out of his parents’ garage and Ardent Studios began. The Madison Avenue studios – on the edge of Overton Square – have been Ardent’s home since 1971.
Try wrapping your head around even this brief sampling of performers who have recorded at Ardent: Isaac Hayes, Led Zeppelin, Sam and Dave, The Staple Singers, Bob Dylan, Al Green, The Allman Brothers Band, The White Stripes, Big Star. Then there’s the talent at the recording consoles. Besides Fry there were Jim Dickinson, Terry Manning, John Hampton, Joe Hardy and Jim Gaines. The current engineering/production staff includes Adam Hill and Mike Wilson.
Ardent Studios is celebrating its first fifty years this year by moving forward into its next fifty. Led by its new Chairman, Pat Scholes (past Ardent senior staff, co-owner) along with other senior staffers – Elizabeth Montgomery, Dan Russo and Reed Turchi – the team continues to build momentum with artist development as a core theme. New releases on both Ardent labels and anniversary studio promotions feature a “giving-back” component by offering 50 free days of studio time and other packages to emerging artists.
Jody Stephens is now Director of Business Development at Ardent. He recorded there too, first as the drummer for the legendary Memphis band Big Star. He says the key to Ardent’s success and longevity was that John Fry knew “creative relationships were based on personal relationships” and that “you know great things can happen here because great things have happened.” Just looking at the gold and platinum singles and albums on the walls of Ardent, it’s easy to see that he’s right.
EKUNDAYO BANDELE – HATTILOO THEATRE
The Midtown Memphis Development Corporation is pleased to honor a Memphis theatrical pioneer with a Mojo of Midtown Award. Ekundayo Bandele is the Founder, Chief Executive Officer and the Artistic Director of the Hattiloo Theatre. But those titles don’t begin to describe this remarkable man. Or the impact he has on our city.
In November of 2005 Mr. Bandele had a vision to build a theatre in Memphis that, in his words, would “…showcase the diversity of Black artistic expression in theatre, music and dance.” As CEO he led the $4.3 million capital campaign that resulted in the addition of still another anchor to the revitalized Overton Square. In June of 2014 the doors of the Hattiloo Theatre opened. And it was debt free.
Ekundayo Bandele grew up in Brooklyn with his mother, who instilled in him a love of the arts. But his roots were always firmly in Memphis. Caring for his ailing father brought Ekundayo back to Memphis in 1994 and he truly never left after that.
Besides his other roles with Hattiloo, Mr. Bandele is an actor, director, producer and writer. He’s the author of six plays including Judas Hands and If Scrooge Was A Brother. And he’s still working on his novel.
Hattiloo’s mission statement is to showcase work by Black writers while attracting all audiences to its intimate space, to make live theatre accessible to audiences regardless of income and to give an artistic outlet for disadvantaged and underrepresented talent.
BROAD AVENUE – ARTS DISTRICT
The MMDC is pleased to honor the people behind the new life on an historic Memphis street. Broad Avenue (in the early days the main street of Binghampton) was a thriving area of warehouses, stores and saloons for decades. Then eastward movement of the population combined with the bitter battles over Interstate 40 resulted in Broad being cut off from commerce. But now the Avenue is back, thanks largely to the transformative power of art and artists.
The Historic Broad Avenue Arts Alliance is a volunteer group of business owners and residents who push for the redevelopment of Broad Avenue and Binghampton through economic development and promoting and fostering art activities. The result of those efforts has been $30 million dollars in economic development.
On Broad Avenue you will find eclectic offerings of art, home furnishings, clothing, artisan made crafts and high fashion. Artists are at work in studios dedicated to classical dance, painting, sculpting, jewelry design, tattooing, photography. And much more. Also on Broad are businesses offering countertops, restaurant equipment, pet supplies, custom framing. And it’s home to the nation’s only custom memorial design studio. Four companies on Broad specialize in marketing and digital design. And there’s a bike repair shop that also serves beer.
With the commercial and artistic traffic came food and entertainment; five restaurants and bars, a beer tasting room and two coffee shops. There are also indoor and outdoor event spaces.
You can’t miss the new Broad Avenue. It’s right there beneath that great old water tower.
INDIE MEMPHIS – RYAN WATT ACCEPTING
The Indie Memphis Film Festival’s mission is to “transform the city into a connecting point for filmmakers, musicians, artists and audiences.” It’s working – and beautifully. In 2015 the festival attracted 9,800 film fans (that’s a record), who came to see personal visions on film ranging from Oscar nominees to movies made made by upcoming filmmakers. The films are screened in venues all around the city, including this very theatre.
Indie Memphis is a cornerstone of the Memphis Arts Community. It’s the only film organization to receive annual funding from ArtsMemphis; it is supported financially by the Tennessee Arts Commission. And it’s a two-time grant recipient from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Movie critic Elvis Mitchell says Indie Memphis attracts an “excited and engaged community” of audience members and says the festival “reaches out to new filmmakers whose work has an unmistakable sense of place.” FilmMaker Magazine notes “Indie Memphis is blessed with hometown strength –
the city’s special cultural and political history.”
At this moment, entries for the 2016 Indie Memphis Film Festival are being accepted. The nineteenth Indie Memphis Film Festival will be held in November. The Midtown Memphis Development Corporation is pleased to honor Indie Memphis with a 2016 Mojo of Midtown Award.
DR. SCOTT MORRIS – CHURCH HEALTH CENTER
Dr. Scott Morris, the Founder and CEO of the Church Health Center, chose Memphis as a place to live and work because it was where he felt he could do the most good. He had read that Memphis was the poorest major city in America. After completing both divinity school and medical school, Dr. Morris came here, bought a run-down Midtown building and the mission of the Church Health Center began. On September 1, 1987, Dr. Morris, with help of a single nurse treated twelve patients. In 2016, 70,000 Memphians will depend on the Church Health Center for their care. The goal was, and remains, to provide quality health care to the working uninsured. That includes primary health care, dentistry, optometry, counseling and social work services. Additionally, the CHC has developed Wellness and Faith Community Outreach ministries, which combine the efforts of medicine and the spiritual care of the faith community. The CHC’s goal is “…to seek to reclaim the Church’s biblical commitment to care for our bodies and spirits.” The CHC is the largest faith-based, privately funded health clinic in the country.
Dr. Morris sees the CHC as an extension of the biblical idea of discipleship: To spread the word of God and to be a healer. “When it comes to discipleship you don’t get to take a pass on the healing part. You need to ask how am I engaged in a healing ministry.”
The Midtown Memphis Development Corporation is pleased to honor Dr. Scott Morris with a Mojo of Midtown Award for recognizing a critical gap in the health care needs of so many in our community. And using his faith, his training and his talents to do something about it.
“The need is far greater than we are able to meet. Every day is the same. We see as many people as we can day after day after day.”
JUNE WEST – MEMPHIS HERITAGE
Here’s something June West knows as well as anyone: As Memphians we love our past although we haven’t always been kind to it. The list of historic buildings lost to poor planning and careless development – including Union Station and the Hill Mansion on Union Avenue – makes for painful reading. Since 1975 Memphis Heritage has fought to keep that list from getting longer. Memphis Heritage has surveyed 13,000 buildings, helping to turn Memphis into the #6 city in the country in the number of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. And a lot of that important work has been done on West’s watch; she’s been Executive Director since 2002. Among the significant victories, a 2010 effort to keep the south side of Madison in Overton Square from being converted to a big box supermarket. And now the Chisca Hotel, Sears Crosstown Building, the 19th Century Club and the Tennessee Brewery all fit within Memphis Heritage mission statement: Giving Memphis’ Past A Future.
Memphis Heritage is about more than identifying and saving historic buildings for the sake of saving them. A recent study showed that twenty-four percent of all visits to Memphis by out-of-towners fall under the heading of “heritage tourism.” Saving what makes Memphis unique is good business.
And the work goes on. June West continues to speak for Memphis Heritage in discussions about what the plans should be for the Central Police Station on Adams and the Mid-South Coliseum. And she sees the debate over the greensward at Overton Park as a major historic preservation issue as well. It’s an effort to convince Memphians that “green space is as much of an asset as a building might be.”
Educate, Save, Improve, re-Use. Those are the watch-words for Memphis Heritage. We’re proud to honor June West for helping make those words an important part of the Memphis conversation.
WILES-SMITH DRUG STORE – CHARLIE SMITH ACCEPTING
The Midtown Memphis Development Corporation is pleased to honor a Midtown institution that provided service and a sense of community for seventy years. And a milkshake we’re still talking about.
Paul Wiles opened what was to become Wiles-Smith pharmacy in 1944. At the time it was the only pharmacy between Main Street and East Parkway. Charlie Smith went to work there as a pharmacist in 1959, after his time in the service. In 1965 he bought the business from Paul Wiles. Wiles-Smith was more than just the corner drug store. It was a place where neighbors met and talked about births, deaths, marriages. And the
soda fountain was a magnet for teens from Central High and Catholic High and Immaculate Conception.
“Our place was a hangout,” Charlie Smith says now. “Kids would ride bikes and park in back. They would charge things to their parents’ accounts.”
By the time the pharmacy closed, in 2010, Charlie Smith was serving the grandchildren of his original customers. Still, Charlie Smith adapted and kept Wiles-Smith in business as a place to eat a good lunch at a good price. The regulars referred to it as Justine’s East and the Midtown Country Club. The menu was savory and sweet; homemade chicken salad, a BLT, a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon. And milk shakes were so good they attracted Alton Brown from the Food network, who loved the food and wanted to buy the porcupine.
When Wiles-Smith opened there were 156 independent drug stores in Memphis. Charlie Smith thinks there are ten left. Maybe. To him Wiles-Smith was a bit like the little town he grew up in.
“I truly, truly miss working there. I really miss seeing the people in the store.”
We hope this Mojo Award reminds Charlie Smith that Memphis misses him.
The Midtown Memphis Development Corporation (MMDC) is a 501(c)3 non-profit group with a mission to promote economic development, cultural activities, recreational choices, and historical integrity of Midtown Memphis. MMDC works with local government and neighborhood associations to support the beautification of Midtown streetscapes, infrastructure, safety and amenities.