A night in Hell

BCE posts on his stay in one of THOSE hotels; most of the saltier old road-dogs among us will need no explanation of what I mean by that, I trust. Naturally, BCE’s nightmarish and all-too-familiar story put me in mind of one of the single most atrocious dumps I can remember staying at: the Admiral Benbow Inn, in Memphis Tn. Regrettably, I made the mistake of DDG’ing the God-forsaken pit and wound up falling into the dreaded Search Engine Sinkhole, hitting links like a blow-junkie lab rat fiending for another sweet, sweet hit, sucked in by article after article chronicling the poor old Benbow’s rise and fall. Never woulda thunk it, but there’s some truly interesting history there, great gooey gobs of it. The backstory:

Dear Vance: Who the heck was Admiral Benbow, and what happened to all those motels here that were named after him? — J.F., Memphis.

Dear J.F.: Just like Colonel Harland Sanders with his Kentucky Fried Chicken empire, John Benbow (1653-1702) was a real person, an admiral in the British Royal Navy. During a long career at sea, he served as the commander of several vessels against various enemies, ranging from Barbary pirates to the French fleet, and I don’t have the time or energy to go into that here. Benbow died from injuries received in battle, with a biographer noting the cause of death was “the wound of his leg, never being set to perfection, which malady being aggravated by the discontent of his mind, threw him into a sort of melancholy.”

The admiral was buried in Jamaica, and his fame was so great that Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the 1883 classic, Treasure Island, named a tavern in his book the “Admiral Benbow Inn.”

Many years later, another enterprising gentleman in Memphis would do the same.

Allen Gary was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1913. Somehow he ended up in Memphis, as so many men and women from the Magnolia State do. In the mid-1930s, he attended Central High School and Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College). At some point, he met up with a business partner, George Early, and together they converted a nineteenth-century stable on Bellevue into a popular eatery called, quite naturally, The Stable. When it opened in 1941, it might be considered one of this city’s first theme restaurants. Not only was it decorated, inside and out, like a rustic barn, but the menu for this “Dispenser of Southern Horse-pitality” included such dishes as the Stagecoach, Hack, Hansom, Buggy, Surrey, and Sulky.

By all accounts, the Stable, located at Union and Bellevue, was a success, and quite a few readers have asked about it over the years, remembering good meals and good times there. But Gary and Early decided to branch out, forming other enterprises. Gary had befriended two of this city’s leading “hospitality men” — motel king Kemmons Wilson and drive-in operator Harold Fortune — and after serving for a time as manager of Fortune’s Belvedere, one of the chain’s largest and fanciest locations, Gary worked out an arrangement with Wilson to open restaurants at Holiday Inns around the South.

This wasn’t quite enough, though. In 1950, Gary and Early converted a brick cottage at Union and Willett into a cozy restaurant that they named the Admiral Benbow Inn. So the first Admiral Benbow in Memphis, or anywhere else for that matter, wasn’t a motel. Newspapers admired the new venture, noting that “its interior furnishings are completely modern in contrast with the fifteenth-century atmosphere.” Even though the tiny building sat just 20 feet from Union, “in the Terrace Room, eating pleasure blends with the busy traffic scene.” Just like in the fifteenth century!

At some point, it seems Early dropped out of this enterprise; I don’t know why. By 1960, Gary was operating 18 restaurants, an accomplishment that earned him a place in American Restaurant magazine’s Hall of Fame. A story about Gary in that publication — perhaps you saw it? — observed, “A restaurant operator whose receipts his first day in business totaled $7.10 [they are talking about the Stable] is today doing a business volume that exceeded $2 million in the fiscal year that just ended, operating restaurants in hotels in six Southern states.”

That still wasn’t enough for Gary. He next conceived Benbow Snack Bars, free-standing diner-type establishments, which often had little more than a counter and 12 stools, much like the nationwide chain of Toddle Houses. These were designed to be erected near motels that had no restaurant of their own, you see, but I was never able to determine how many Benbow Snack Bars were actually constructed. American Restaurant magazine, packed with helpful information, does say that Snack Bars “have been added in Memphis and in Laurel, Mississippi, and Gary is currently studying sites in 10 states” but didn’t say where, exactly, the Memphis locations were.

In 1960, Gary returned to his roots. He tore down his first venture, the old Stable, and erected the first Admiral Benbow Inn — this time a motel — at Union and Bellevue. The modern styling was certainly eye-catching, with lots of white concrete, bright colors, and suspended walkways linking what was considered this city’s first two-story motel. Of course, it included a restaurant along with a lounge called the Escape Hatch. He soon opened others — on Summer, next door to Imperial Bowling Lanes, and on Winchester, close to the airport.

As you can see from the images here, the Admiral Benbow Inn was certainly a nice-looking place and stood out from most of the hum-drum motels being constructed at the time. During its first years, it boasted occupancy rates of 100 percent. But for reasons that I don’t fully understand (since the Lauderdales never frequented such places), the motel developed a bad reputation. In fact, by February 2000, Admiral Benbow had declined to the point where my pal Jim Hanas wrote a Memphis Flyer cover story about his brief stay there. With a title of “Broken Palace: The Last Days of the Admiral Benbow,” you can tell it’s not a flattering portrait.

It was here, in fact, at the Admiral Benbow in Midtown that a fellow named Malcolm Fraser woke up one morning in 1986 to find himself without clothes, luggage, or money. Now this would be disconcerting for anybody, but Fraser just happened to be the former prime minister of Australia, in town for a business visit, and was supposed to be staying at The Peabody. The whole matter was never sorted out, but it’s typical of the decidedly unusual events that seemed to plague the Admiral Benbows in Memphis over the years.

So what happened to them?

Okay, so far, so…well, so dull, honestly. Aside from the mysterious Fraser saga, it’s the sort of dry, aggressively mundane stuff only a Memphian with an obssessive local-history fetish could find interesting, or maybe somebody who was being paid to act as if he had such a fetish. Hang in there though; we’re just about to hit the motherlode.

Memphis celebrates, occasionally even enshrines, its motels. The Lorraine has been encased for future reference as the National Civil Rights Museum; the Heartbreak Hotel, once a mere metaphor in the spiritual neighborhood of Lonely Street, now stands in literal glass and stone on Elvis Presley Boulevard; and the success story of Kemmons Wilson and Holiday Inns Inc. is eclipsed only by that of Fred Smith and Federal Express in the local mythology.

Even the dutiful Gideons have abandoned the Admiral Benbow at the corner of Union and Bellevue, however. There is no trace of either testament in the several drawers in room 245, one of which has had its front torn off and placed neatly inside it where the Bible ought to be.

The television is cockeyed from a failed attempt to rip it from its security mooring, although it doesn’t work so well anyway, and like most everything else in the room, it is rutted with burns from careless cigarettes and/or crack-pipes.

Seven doors down, a man was once stabbed with such a pipe by his so-called boyfriend, or so he said when, out of breath, he waved down a police cruiser at the corner of Madison and Cleveland. The boyfriend told a different story. He himself had been savagely beaten with the room’s telephone by the first man, he said, who had then stabbed himself with the crack pipe. He was only giving chase, he explained, so he could help.

The phone in 245 looks as though it may be the veteran of a beating or two. The plate over the keypad has disappeared, and much else in the room has been either picked clean or otherwise rendered useless. The cover of the heating duct leans beneath the sink. The bathtub faucet leaks hot water and cannot be made to stop. Pee-colored formica peels from the sway-topped sink and the flesh-colored stucco walls crack indiscriminately. The door’s security latch is no longer secure (nor any longer technically a latch, really), the hidden workings of the light switch are not hidden, and the peephole — the one you’re supposed to look through before, ever, ever opening the door — has been plugged with a tiny piece of cloth.

And not a Bible in sight, here when you really need one.

Unlike Memphis’ celebrated motels, the Benbow does not represent anything prized about the city or its history, anything people actually draw paychecks promoting. It is not a monument to the civil rights movement, the birthplace of rock-and-roll, or Memphis’ role as a universal crossroads.

Instead, the Benbow represents another side of the city, a side people draw paychecks keeping quiet, a side that’s as old as the city’s days as a rough river town and crime capital of the known universe.

It’s here that Little Pete, a 19-year-old gangsta from South Memphis, got pinched for shooting a man just off Elvis Presley Boulevard. Where a man once celebrated Valentine’s Day by flying into a drunken rage, trashing his room, and slapping his girlfriend around, all before 10 a.m. Where guests have occasionally tried to off themselves with excess anti-depressants, detergents, and razor-blades.

If, as everyone seems to agree, the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of The Peabody, then it just might end somewhere in the tomblike parking lot here at the Admiral Benbow.

The Benbow’s seediness comes only in part from its dilapidation. Part of it is a matter of architecture. The elevated rooms, once a clever parking solution, create a claustrophobic above-ground subterrain ricocheting with shadows and echoes. A series of catwalks connecting the motel’s four buildings makes you feel as though you may already be in prison, so, well, what the hell anyway. In urban planning lingo, these effects might be described pathologically, symptoms of a property that is “sick.”

Once, when the Monkees stayed here, the parking lot and catwalks were overrun by screaming, teenaged girls.

A half-naked woman lies bloody and motionless beside the bed. G-men let a tabloid photographer into the room to snap some shots of the corpse, of the spectacle of blood and breasts and the 9mm cupped in a cold hand.

Nothing serves to verify the Benbow’s status as a dive — with all the campiness that implies — quite like this scene from The Sore Losers, the burlesque allegory from local cult filmmaker Mike McCarthy.

Mid-scene, there is an establishing shot of the motel’s neon sign and marquee, and audiences are expected to get the joke. “Cheap applause for the local crowd,” McCarthy explains.

Everyone knows you haven’t slummed until you’ve slummed at the Admiral Benbow.

Although McCarthy had his car vandalized while filming at the motel, it didn’t keep him from putting out-of-town talent up here during the filming of his latest movie, SuperStarlet A.D., at least for a night.

“The surreal charm wears off when we realize the doors are broken,” co-star Gina Velour writes of the place in her diary of the shoot, which appeared in Hustler’s Leg World last year. “The moldy ceiling is hanging like fog, and there is a single, bare 60-watt bulb, just like in the movies. It’s the worst night I can remember in all my travels. I can’t do this for the next three weeks.”

And she doesn’t, demanding from McCarthy better digs in the Red Roof Inn up the street.

“They didn’t share my sense of humor,” McCarthy admits.

Evidently camp has its limits, even for aspirant B-movie starlets.

I have to say, Ms Velour’s Admiral Benbow experience closely corresponds with my own.

Even more fascinating Admiral Benbow lore at the linked articles—some of it amusing, some of it terrifying, none of it in the least shocking or too far out for Benbow survivors. And we are legion, because some years back just about every bar, theater, or other mid-level and below music venue in Memphis, as well as independent bookers and promoters, made it their practice to book hotel rooms for bands on tour at the Benbow. The place was filthy. It was dangerous. It was run down, literally falling apart in whole sections. And it was positively crawling with drunks, junkies, crackheads, hookers, johns, flim-flam men, muggers, and other fascinating specimens from every strata of Memphis lowlife, criminality, and dysfunction. There are roaches crawling up the walls of the rooms as big as your thumb—bigger, even. Go ahead, ask me how I know.

But for promoters and venue owners and such, the Benbow wasn’t entirely without its charms nonetheless. It was dirt cheap, and for people working that side of the music-biz street, cheap trumps all else. Especially when you know you don’t have to spend the night there your own self.

The first time a promoter tried to shoehorn us into the Benbow box, we took one look at our assigned room, looked at each other in horror, and agreed immediately that we would NOT be staying at this wretched shitpit after that night’s show, taking it upon ourselves to speedily flee to someplace fit for human habitation and just foot the bill ourselves, even though our contract rider called for two double-occupancy hotel rooms, comped. If I remember right, we ended up at a Red Roof not far away, likely the same one Gina Velour wisely decamped to.

Our next time in town, the guy who had booked us met us at the venue seeming quite pleased with himself at having procured our two rooms already, saving us the trouble of checking in. We pounced without delay: might these rooms happen to be at the Benbow, perchance? Sensing there was trouble afoot, his cheery face fell as he admitted that it was so. We informed him sharply that no, we would NOT be staying at the Admiral Benbow, neither tonight nor ever again. As a compromise measure, we WOULD be willing to hold off on starting the show until he got us rooms at an acceptable hotel, so he wouldn’t habe to miss anything.

It’s common knowledge in the rock and roll universe that when two touring bands hit the road together, even if only for a few days, there is a kind of accelerated bonding between the two camps which takes place, formed initially around all the experiences they have in common: days on end eating nothing but horrible food and the inevitable distress that comes along with it; hot, easy women in specific cities; crippling hangovers and how best to deal with ’em; where the closest liquor store might be, and who’s going to have to shag his ass over there after sound check but before downbeat to fetch a jug for the green room, and such-like topics. Included among these topics: the Admiral Benbow, and how incomprehensibly skeevy it was.

I mean, ALL of our peers knew the place; everybody had a horror story, each more grisly than the one before, and not a one of us doubted for a moment that every word was gospel truth. No one that had actually been there doubted, at any rate. Those who had lived to tell the tale KNEW the truth, having survived the trauma, learned the lessons, and earned the scars. The rest? Well, they’d be finding out soon enough, poor things.

Any hard-touring band that’s put enough miles under their asses can tell you that there are indeed places dotted all across the American road atlas which no normal person knows about, nor will ever see. We’ve all spent our share of sweaty, sleepless nights tossing, turning, and scratching our fresh insect bites in hotels and motels Normals wouldn’t even believe exist. But they do. Those squalid dens are indeed out there…WAITING.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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Cocklebur

Can’t say I have been there, but have stayed in some real shitholes. As a migrant wire-picker (telecom) for many years I have stayed in motels that required a sidearm.
My personal favorite was the one in Santa Cruz, right across the parking lot from the boardwalk, myself and a couple other guys from the crew stayed there. Right before tourist season the cops went through and arrested EVERYBODY that lived there except us. After they arrested anybody standing on the street.
We just watched and drank beer.

Ironbear

THere’s one like that off of SPID (South Padre Island Drive) down in Corpus.I think every port town has one or two just like it.

Only time I ever saw the cops raid it was after the fleet made port one Friday night after all the topless bars let out at 2AM.

kennycan

I’ve seen the bright lights of Memphis

And the Commodore Hotel

And underneath a street lamp, I met a southern belle

Oh she took me to the river, where she cast her spell

And in that southern moonlight, she sang this song so well

If you’ll be my Dixie chicken I’ll be your Tennessee lamb

And we can walk together down in Dixieland

Down in Dixieland

The very first time I heard that song it floored me. It’s great on Live At Neon Park album too!

Last edited 6 months ago by kennycan
Big Expat

Aye… full of, and I Quote: “Rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists!!!”

kennycan

Classic.

Ironbear

I think

i’ve stayed at that motel, or one just like it. never trust the quality of a place that has hourly rates.

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