Felicia and her brother in Memphis musical

What a great movie! Actually this was not a movie in the traditional sense. No, rather a film made of the Tony Award winning Broadway musical. This was shot in front of a live audience at the Schubert Theatre.

Memphis won the Tony Award for Best Broadway musical in 2010. This special showing is a very limited event nationwide prior to the cast going on a cross country tour.

Here in Honolulu it is playing at the Dole Cannery Theatre. The film screened Saturday night, Sunday afternoon and coming up Tuesday night. Tickets are $20 each and compared to tickets to the live show, a real bargain. Tickets to the actual musical in person would be at least ten times that, if you could even get tickets.

The theatre here wasn’t very crowded. I doubt there were more than 200 people in the whole audience. Too bad, as it was really something very well done. It was almost three hours long, with a fifteen minute intermission.

The story is basically true and takes place in Memphis in the years 1950 to 1954. Sort of pre Elvis, but in the same place.

Huey Calhoun was a ‘poor white trash’ guy who couldn’t hold a job. This was due to the fact that he was very sloppy, uneducated, couldn’t read or write and just wasn’t ‘good at anything’. While working as a box carrier, which he wasn’t very good at either, he was about to get fired.

He talked the boss into letting him run the records department. He played great music, sold a lot of records and the customers loved him. But he got fired from that position as well, because he played ‘black’ music and it was a ‘white’ department store.

He had been hanging out in a black nightclub and enjoying the music. He was the only white person in the place as in those days blacks and whites did not mix at all. To complicate matters, he fell for the owners sister, the lead singer in the club.

This was unheard of in 1951 in Tennessee. He just loved her. She was petrified.

Meanwhile, he decided he liked spinning records and tried to get a job at a local radio station as a disc jockey. He was rejected time and again due to the fact that not only did he have zero radio experience, he slaughtered the English language and had a terrible speaking voice.

Finally he broke into the recording studio of a disc jockey who was away from his desk and just started being a disc jockey. The station owner was outraged as he only played ‘black’ music and it was a ‘white’ radio station. The previous jock had only played Perry Como, Roy Rogers and Doris Day.

The radio station owner hated him but the audience loved him and he changed the music venue in Memphis to rock and roll. He later went on to early TV, and became number one at that, although he said he couldn’t spell TV.

Huey and Felicia kept their love affair pretty secretive, but eventually it became known and they got beaten up with baseball bats. She was in worse shape than he was, and due to the attack could never have children.

Eventually she goes North to pursue her singing career and he loves Memphis and so their relationship ends. Really amazing to think that this wasn’t all that long ago.

I was in high school while all this was going on. Living in Hawaii, I didn’t even know what segregation was. I went to a high school with no blacks. There were some Hawaiians, who referred to themselves as ‘mokes’. This meant ‘black’ in Hawaiian slang.

I never actually spoke to a black person, until I went to college at UCLA. In 1955 that school was segregated also. Not only blacks, but Jews as well.

Funny, the student body president and editor of the UCLA Daily Bruin (with a daily circulation of 16,000) was Marty Sklar. Not only was he Jewish, how he ever got elected is pretty amazing as out of 16,000 students, I doubt if there were even one quarter who were Jewish. (I know there were 23 sororities but only three for Jewish girls)

He became Disney’s first employee when Disneyland was built. He went on to shape the future of Disney for nearly fifty years. I remember that he was in charge of publicity and he gave his friends ticket books to Disneyland so we could fill it up when it opened.

As I was Jewish, I could only join a Jewish sorority and I got to stand on the library steps between class, rather than the Royce Hall English department steps. These were the ‘dating’ pickup places for the Jews and the Christians. (No mixing allowed) In between the two buildings was a long path we referred to as the Gaza Strip.

The blacks sort of hung out behind the book store. They were called Negroes. There was a very famous black athlete at the time. His name was Rayfer Johnson and he was the decathlon champion of the world. He was asked to join  a Jewish fraternity which resulted in near race riots. I had the good fortune to dance with him at one of our sorority afternoon dances.

He was a very outstanding man and went on to found the Special Olympics for special education children.

Back to Hawaii. The only other racial event I remember happened around 1957. Roy Kelly, who built the Outrigger Hotel Chain started with one dumpy hotel in Waikiki. It was called the Edgewater and was across from the beach, had no parking and just a curbside check in.

He built his first beachfront hotel and called it The Reef. His wife Estelle was in charge of reservations. Imagine how thrilled she was to have a national sorority book their reunion at their hotel for the grand opening. (500 rooms prepaid.)

When the guests showed up all at once, they were black. A 100% black sorority reunion. These were the women and their husbands. In those days there weren’t a lot of places they could hold such an event.

Roy and Estelle couldn’t do anything about it, but having 1000 black guests at the hotel, beach and pool almost ruined their reputation and cancellations came pouring in.

They survived this crisis, but at the time it was almost a ‘deal breaker’.