The Old Master Says: Week 1, The 14’ Bust

Eight months before my son was born I started writing. I’ve kept plenty of journals over the years, mostly family stories, but I really began making it a point to jot down a paragraph or two each night in hopes that one day he might go back and read about his old man. It’s something I wish my Father had done for me, and the further along I got in the process the more I realized I had a lot to share; not just about family members he’ll never get to meet, but what it was like for us living South of Broad here in Charleston. I'd like to begin this series by letting the reader know I'll be writing these anecdotes and narratives with full transparency and to the best of my knowledge. My tendency to write with heavy sarcasm has been with me since grade school so I'll try my best to "*" when I'm laying it on pretty thick, just be aware there's a definite smirk across my face before the asterisk.

The Old Master Says: Week 1, The 14’ Bust

As a prelude to this series, and before we dive too deep, I’d like to travel back to 2019 when the idea of Morris & King was first conceived. March 15, 2019 I lost my Dad to Prostate Cancer, The Ides of March, a date he would have found exceptional to go out on. The months leading up to his passing I would sit with him 4 to 5 times a weeks as he regaled to me copious amounts of stories. The narratives would range from his childhood in Memphis, TN, his 20s at The Citadel and UVA Law School, his 30s in New Mexico as a Captain in The US Army with the Secret Service and Military Intelligence, his 40s as a prominent lawyer in downtown Charleston, life member The Hibernian Society, and president of the Greek Orthodox Church, his 50s as a Father, and his 60s going over the countless trips we would take together as Father and Son. As you can imagine I walked away with some wild stories, many of which I had never heard before. A majority of them about his Father, my Grandfather, John George Morris, a man I  never met, but whom I’m told my Dad and I both inherited our sense of humor, work ethic, and overall enterprenuership.

My old man, is best described as a character, even his oldest friends would agree with me on that, but most of all he was a hard worker. My sister and I both inherited that one almost to a fault, and as I began to think about his work ethic and the countless late night hours he would spend at his law office I knew where he got it from, my Grandfather, the first Greek-American Lawyer in the US and an incredibly active member in the community. Aside from practicing law my Grandfather was an entrepreneur, a prominent trait I would later inherit. He owned a series of different restaurants, one of which was the famous "Riviera Grill" which was considered a designated hot spot in the 1940s. That's him on the far left, and just like my dad, he lived in a suit.

Photos courtesy of Historic Memphis & The Memphis Flyer

Now, I wish I could tell you that pieces of his wardrobe were still intact and in my possession, but unfortunately there's only three items of my Grandfather's that seem to have survived, at least to my current knowledge: his high school graduation photo, and two oversized steak plates from his second restaurant venture, 'The Old Master Says'. I remember hearing about the 'The Old Master Says' ever since I was little, and again much later as an adult. My Dad would paint me a picture about the 'old school' atmosphere and more importantly the food. Giant plates heaping with American Style cuisine at the best prices my Grandfather could offer. He even tag lined the place with "Good Food at Popular Prices". His sense of humor, never dull, even came through in his marketing as 'The Old Master Says' sat on ‘Poplar’ Street.* I always thought that was such an unusual name, and an odd decision to use the phrase (which apparently he copyrighted) on multiple signage throughout his other businesses. The best part though, as if the name wasn’t strange enough, was that he commissioned a giant 14' bust of his own head and had it strategically placed on top of the building. A bold move, especially for the time. Unfortunately, in all my research through family photos I still can’t seem to dig up any photographic evidence of the giant bust, but my Dad swore it existed. My old man would even talk about how ridiculous it was seeing his Father's gigantic head on top of the restaurant, an utter embarrassment by today's standard.

Photo Courtesy of The Memphis Press-Scimitar
Completed construction of the 14' bust by Mike Abt, 1949.

My Grandfather, John George Morris. (My Father and I both inherited his chin.*)

In honor of my Grandfather, and in keeping with the unusual use of the phrases tradition, I’ve decided to dub this collected narrative ‘The Old Master Says’. The way I see it, he stuck to his guns despite the unusual name, despite my Grandmother's documented hatred for it, and opened a new business, giant 14' bust and all, which takes incredible courage and determination. I knew my Grandmother well in her old age, according to her, he most definitely was determined.* That same courage, drive, and work ethic my Dad would inherit and would later pass on to me. That said, I'll leave you with this...

There was fantastic article written in 2008 for Memphis Magazine by Vance Lauderdale, who re-accounts his findings of ‘The Old Master Says’ through the Memphis Public Records. Even he agrees the name was a strange choice. Who was the “Old Master”, and what exactly did he “Say”? We may never know, but at least I know now what it means to me. A symbol of determination, courage, and odd sense of humor that I myself continue to live by. 

Dear Vance: While I was looking through the old Memphis Press-Scimitar files at the University of Memphis library, I came across references to a restaurant on Poplar that was topped with a giant statue of the owner. What do you know of this curious establishment? — B.K., Germantown

Dear B.K.: Let me just tell my half-dozen readers that I recognize the initials B.K. as belonging to my pal, Bonnie Kourvelas, the talented host of the WKNO-TV series Southern Routes and producer of several of WKNO's Memphis Memoirs segments. Bonnie is an accomplished historian in her own right, so I knew that if she tossed something my way, it would be especially intriguing.

So I did what I always do when faced with such a challenge. I read her letter, thought to myself, "Oh, this can't possibly be true," and resumed my daily 19-hour naps in my special "Vance Lauderdale" limited-edition La-Z-Boy.

After a few weeks of dawdling in this fashion, I grudgingly pulled myself out of my comfy chair and headed over to the U of M library, to see what the heck Bonnie was talking about. And that's when I found the picture of The Giant Head. As you can see, she wasn't making this up.

Bonnie tells me that she was actually researching the local Greek Orthodox community and the Greek Food Festival held every May at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on Highland. And yet tucked into the old Press-Scimitar files were several photos and news clippings about a rather enterprising fellow named John George Morris (above). Despite his somewhat British-sounding name, I assume Morris was Greek, and that explains why he and his Giant Head ended up in the Greek Orthodox files.

Here's what I found out. Morris, a former attorney, was the co-owner of a fairly successful restaurant at 1380 Jackson Avenue called the Riviera Grill. In 1949, he purchased Friedel's, a restaurant that had opened some 10 years earlier at 3135 Poplar, right across from East High School.

Now here's where things began to get just a little strange. For reasons that were never explained, Morris and his co-owner, James Bryonis, decided to name their new establishment "The Old Master Says." Who is the "Old Master" and what, exactly, does he say? I have no idea. But Morris told reporters that he planned to spend $75,000 — a large sum in those days — to jazz up the place. Among other things, he added booths everywhere ("having found that people like to eat in semi-privacy"), bought one of the city's first Seeburg 100-selection jukeboxes, painted the walls peach and cherry, and — this always signifies a classy establishment — put up mirrored columns.

What's more, he announced that the popular hostess at the Riviera Grill, Verna DeShazo ("who was chosen Miss Restaurant of 1948") would come to The Old Master Says, and according to Morris, "the other waitresses will be almost as pretty." My, I bet that made those women feel special. Almost as pretty.

But then came the most astonishing feature of all. Morris first commissioned noted Memphis artist Burton Callicott to sculpt a life-size bust of himself, dressed in a suit and tie. Then, using a mathematical process that the newspapers called "miraculous," the proportions of this bust were increased so that designer Mike Abt could construct a 14-foot version, built of "gypsum composition on metal lathe," which would somehow be placed on the roof of the new restaurant. Abt, who has been mentioned in this column many times, was the Tech High School art teacher who designed most of the elaborate Cotton Carnival floats year after year, so this was right up his alley.

"It's the biggest bust that's ever hit this part of the country," Abt told the Press-Scimitar . "I don't know of any as big on the face of the earth — unless it's the head of the Statue of Liberty."

Morris admitted he had been pondering various ways to promote his new restaurant's trademarked motto, "Good Food at Popular Prices," when he thought, "Just put me up there." He told reporters, "It will be unique — maybe even grotesque." Well, he was right about that. The big head, which would be "criss-crossed by flashing floodlights at night," would certainly have been one of the strangest buildings in Memphis — especially since, if you ask me, the head looked more like Chairman Mao than Morris.

Now here's the real mystery. I found old photographs of the restaurant just when it opened (opposite page), and pictures of the bust when it was still under construction (below). But I have never found anybody who remembers if The Giant Head was ever placed atop the restaurant. It pains me to say it, but I suspect the restaurant was — get ready for it — a bust.

And another element of this mystery is: What happened to Morris? The Old Master Says restaurant opened in March 1949. It was no longer listed in the city directories in 1951, which means it stayed open for only one year, maybe less. And Morris himself was no longer in the telephone books in 1951, which suggests he either passed away or moved elsewhere. That same year, his Riviera Grill also passed into new ownership, taken over by a trio of Greeks: Nicholas Koleas, Pete Futris, and Steve Ritsos. That building, much altered, today houses the offices of Memphis City Councilman Joe Brown.

Dobbs House took over the establishment on Poplar and operated it as Dobbs House #4 for several years before transforming it into one of our city's first theme restaurants — the much-loved Luau. And it too had a giant head, not on top of the building, but out front by the entrance. That one was modeled after the stone heads found in Polynesia, instead of the ambitous John George Morris.

Today the building is a paint store — an appropriate use, I guess, for a place with such a colorful history.

Back in 2008 my Dad read this article, reached out to the author, and described in detail, that every strange word of the giant bust was true.

1 comment

Wonderful story… had heard some of it and I could hear George’s voice as you were writing. Didn’t know you were so gifted in prose! Can’t wait to read the next chapter.

Carla May 08, 2023

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