Looking Backward

By Bob Litton

I cannot prove it, but I believe each generation suffers from a slowly declining appreciation curve when it comes to the past. More concretely, what we enjoyed immensely several decades ago no longer appeals to us, at least not as much as it once did.

I know that such is true for me. Over the past couple of years, in order to develop something more substantive and whole out of my life, I have gathered books, CDs and DVDs of radio dramas, novels, movies and music that at one time really had me hooked (Bill and Coo, Walt Disney’s Song of the South, Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah, Mondo Cane, Erroll Flynn’s recording of The Three Musketeers, a Roy Hamilton album, etc.). None was completely disappointing, but they naturally had lost the luster that had remained many years in my memory. The memories were more substantial than the actual works, as they can be attended now.

Those items I could retrieve; albeit finding them, in most cases, was surprising and can be attributed only to our new era of electronics and antiquarianism. Other elements in our memories are more definitely lost forever — except in our memories. Here, I am thinking of those buildings, vehicles and devices which were once common. Of course, some old items can be obtained, such as early cars and telephones, but usually only by people with a lot of money and mostly for the purpose of producing period films. The rest of us are not interested enough in obtaining such things for keeps, even if we could afford them; we just enjoy reminiscing about them. They are closely associated with the atmosphere and events of our youth.

At least one current magazine concentrates its editorial material on the long ago: Nostalgia. I flipped though it, or one like it, a few years ago with minimal interest; for I considered it a bit silly and time-wasting to read about old places and traditions. Even today I doubt that I could read one of those articles all the way through, but my reason would be slightly different. That magazine issue contained articles about such things as butter churns, out houses and button-up shoes; subjects which (except for the out houses) had disappeared from the daily scene before I came along. However, now there are elements from my world which have disappeared forever, and I find I am curious about them.

Most of my early life was spent in Dallas and the surrounding countryside — a countryside which has disappeared along with many of the restaurants, stores, theaters and vehicles of my youth. Is it not strange? At the time you are there, in that life period, and all those places and things are there also, it never occurs to you that one day they will not exist. So, now I am at the age when looking backward seems the only thing to do: toward the past is the only view that is tangible. I do what I once looked askance at when I saw older folks doing them. I reminisce. I become nostalgic. And that, dear reader, is what you are in for if you continue beyond this period.

When I was in the five- to ten-year age range, I and my mother lived in a duplex apartment on Noble Avenue in what at that time would have been called East Dallas but now is described as Old East Dallas, for the city limit has subsequently extended far beyond that point. It was just a couple of blocks south of the McKinney and Haskell intersection, where North Dallas High School still stands. There were houses and modest apartment buildings all along Noble then. When I drove through that area a couple of decades ago, I discovered that the Noble Avenue homes had been transmuted into multi-story office buildings or luxury apartments and a huge parking lot. Our old apartment was now a parking lot! It was a shock to me and a little bit depressing because, although I would not have been surprised to see the old residences gone and some newer homes in their places, to find the street itself so radically altered that I could not identify a single structure was like having one of my legs torn away.

Over the decades I was vaguely aware of other changes taking place in the city, but they did not affect me as much as the “new look” of Noble Avenue. That was because I watched the changes as they happened. Even when I was a preteen, I had witnessed the construction of Central Expressway (US75) where there had been a railroad track; my playmates and I used to gambol amid the large clods of dirt on the slopes of that construction site.

I also lived through the disappearance of the ice and milk deliverymen. We children used to feed the milkman’s horse with handfuls of grass wrenched from our yards. And I wondered how much the leather protective piece, along with the large block of ice, on the iceman’s back weighed.

During my high school years, I noted how the old street cars had been transformed, first into electrically-powered buses (with electric cables on their roofs connected to a power line, just like the former street cars except without the rails in the streets) and then into gasoline-powered buses.

The major changes, however, occurred downtown. Once upon a time, the sidewalks had been crowded with shoppers and movie-goers and littered with the trash people heedlessly tossed. There were the major department stores: Sanger Bros., A. Harris, Green’s, Titche-Goettinger…and, of course, Neiman-Marcus. During the 1950s and 60s, shopping in downtown Dallas declined as shoppers began to prefer the closer and supposedly safer shopping centers that had developed in various corners of the city. In 1961, Sanger Brothers and A. Harris, both owned then by Federated Department Stores, were merged as Sanger-Harris. By the 1990s, about the only major department store still open downtown was Neiman-Marcus. And, although many people still worked in the inner city, there was much vacant office space, and not many folks lingered after 5 p.m.

As for the theaters, I remember “Theater Row” on Elm Street. I was not around, of course, during the 1910s-1920s, when several of those theaters were built in the heyday of vaudeville. However, I remember the lineup in the 1940s and 1950s. From the east facing west, one could walk along the opposite side of the street and view the colorful façades of the movie houses: Majestic, Melba, Tower, Palace, Rialto, Capitol and Strand. The old theaters generally had colorful decors, especially the Palace, which was unique in that it also had a grand organ which would rise out of the floor at one end of the stage, with delightful music being played, just before the movie started.  But, as with the department stores, the downtown movie houses were victims of the movement to the suburbs, where new theaters multiplied, and where, of course, television became less a novelty and more of an entertainment necessity. I remember when even the neighborhood movie houses began to go under, especially the Casa Linda theater, which closed in 1999 after showing its last film: Titanic. Now, that’s a prophetic film to show as one’s finale, is it not?

Dallas was also particularly gifted with plentiful and varied dining spots, both high dollar and low dollar — as well as the moderately priced, of course. I am not asserting that such is no longer the case; I haven’t resided there in more a dozen years; I am only saying that the restaurants and cafes that I enjoyed are mostly gone now.

The less upscale but still colorful and popular eateries included Roscoe White’s Easy Way on Lover’s Lane and then on Lemmon Avenue, a restaurant with attached bar, that specialized in barbecue but sold American blue plate specials as well; the China Clipper on McKinney near Haskell, where I learned my first Chinese words; Little Gus’ diner on Lower Greenville (a fun greasy spoon spot).

Downtown near the Dallas Times Herald building and “Big Red” (the old county courthouse) was a cozy German restaurant called the Blue Front. The heavy-set German who owned the place worked the register while customers were served cafeteria-style. The walls were covered with framed photos of celebrities who had eaten there.

Then there was the mysterious eatery that fascinated me: the Pirate’s Cave. You entered that place down a short flight of stairs from the sidewalk. It was owned and operated by a couple of Greek brothers, Basil and George Sedaris.

Well, all those places are gone now, and I am doubtful that I would experience the same delight I took in them all those many years ago even if they could magically materialize and I could go back to them. Nostalgia is a fun but skinny mistress.

Finis

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