By Jim Hanas
FEBRUARY 21, 2000: The man in room 372 woke up early, minus his pants and his passport.
What a strange turn of events. The man in 372 had endured much in his career. Boarding school, Oxford, and a constitutional crisis the likes of which his country had never seen, before or since. He had emerged from the last victorious, but never could he recall waking up early, minus pants and passport, in a place called -- what was it? -- "The Admiral Benbow Inn," he saw from the neon sign out front as he hustled himself down two flights of dew-covered steps and into the lobby wrapped in nothing but a towel.
This turn of events didn't seem all that strange to the staff -- "In Midtown, you can see just about anything," the desk clerk said later -- despite the fact that the man had checked in under a woman's name, Joan Jones. It was probably just some foreign way to spell John.
The man remained composed -- as composed as pantslessness would allow -- as he waited for a cab and negotiated with the bellman for a pair of pants that didn't fit. When the taxi arrived, he rode away, leaving not so much as a police report to remember him by.
Malcolm Fraser, prime minister of Australia from 1975 to 1983, would later tell a reporter that he had no idea how he'd come to be at this place, this Admiral Benbow Inn, on this night in 1986. He had given a talk at the Economic Club of Memphis, taken a cab down to Beale Street from the Memphis Country Club to see the sights, and then he'd strolled over to The Peabody. Then, whammo, he woke up early, minus pants and passport.
Someone must have drugged him, the prominent statesman theorized.
Drugged indeed, chuckled the locals. Bluffed by the Bluff City, more like it. Snookered by the mojo, the cruel juju, and the great fumes of humility that rise off the Mississippi like fog and leave even conservative politicians -- trained though they may be in the rugged ways of the Outback -- gasping for air. Welcome to Memphis, your excellency sir. Hope you enjoyed your stay.
Or, as the desk clerk told the reporter: "He didn't look too prominent at 7 o'clock in the morning."
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.
"That's going to be lit up like you just drove up on a new Tiger Market," says Charlie Musselman, indicating the parking lot in question.
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."
Sunbelt Hotel Brokers, a firm for which Musselman works as a sales agent, tried to engineer the sale of the Benbow for three years before Sunbelt's owner, Jere Allen, decided to buy it himself by purchasing Allad Investments, which has owned the motel since 1983. Last month, the new ownership was granted a tax freeze by the Center City Commission that will hold taxes at their present rate for six years after the motel has been remodeled. To receive such consideration, applicants are required to invest at least 60 percent of a project's value into improvements. The new regime plans to invest $3.3 million improving the Benbow, more than three times its assessed value. "They were elated about what's happening here," Musselman says.
The motel will be remodeled in sections, one building at a time. Only 85 of the Benbow's 190 rooms are currently fit to use, and all 190 will be stripped to the walls, recarpeted, repainted, and refurnished. Somewhere along the line, it will cease to be the Admiral Benbow and become a Villager Lodge franchise complete with blue-and-gray trim, replacing the current scheme of ruddy brown and tan, colors reminiscent of a damp Band-Aid circling the drain.
The nautically tooled Escape Hatch lounge, currently piled high with broken television sets, will be refigured as a meeting room, and the long-vacant restaurant will be leased.
Nightly stays will run $49 to $69. Currently, a night at the Benbow runs $29, and contrary to popular misunderstanding, an hour costs the same. Musselman says the new management has cracked down on crime, has been quick to call police and quick to prosecute, netting seven arrests in one weekend alone. But it will be the higher rates, Musselman thinks, that will ultimately turn the place around.
"The kind of people that check in here are very rate sensitive," he says. "Once you start doing the fix-up and the clean-up and bump the rates, they go away."
And with a parking lot lit like the surface of the sun, the new ownership hopes to attract the mix of business travelers and Medical Center business that the Benbow was built to serve in the first place.
When the Admiral Benbow opened in 1961, it was a nice place, a "beautiful" place, in fact, according to boosters of the day. Designed in "the Jamaican influence" -- part modernist box, part Spanish Revival neo-tack -- it was the first motel in Memphis to be more than one story, and certainly would have been the first with a massive, reinforced concrete palm tree in front of it had the tree ever made it off the plans and onto the pavement. Like plans for parking ramps that would have allowed guests to drive up to their second-story rooms, it did not. Neither did the penthouse.
The motel was also a gamble. Its founding father was Allen Gary, a darkly handsome restaurateur whose friends told him (quite accurately) that he looked like George Raft, an actor legendary for playing Hollywood mobsters. He was born the same year as Kemmons Wilson (he in Tupelo, Wilson in Osceola) and attended Central High a year behind the future Holiday Inn founder.
Gary served as manager at the Pig-N- Whistle carhop on Union and, later, Fortune's Belvedere before founding, with partner George Early, The Stable restaurant in a Civil War-era farmhouse at the corner of Union and Bellevue in 1941. The city's first bottle bar, The Stable announced the substance of its "Southern Horse-pitality" with a drawing of a drunken horse on its menus as waiters in starched white jackets served up five kinds of steak and set-ups to go with your "upsets" amid rustic squalor complete with wagon wheels and flintlocks.
Eventually, The Stable's star got hitched to the future of Holiday Inns, as Gary took a seat on the board of directors of Wilson's booming concern and Early-Gary Enterprises opened almost a dozen Admiral Benbow Inn restaurants in Holiday Inns across the country.
Which is where the gamble came in.
The launch of the Benbow motel chain required not only the demolition of The Stable, but also for Gary to resign from the board of Holiday Inns, which he did in 1962, a year before Holiday Inn stock began trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
"All of us at Holiday Inns of America, Inc. and the Board of Directors wish you every success in your operation," read a letter from vice president Bill Walton accepting his resignation.
Meanwhile, business boomed at the Benbow. Two months after it opened, it was humming away at 95 percent occupancy, drawing a mix of business travelers, Medical Center traffic, and other visitors to downtown Memphis. Some days, its occupancy exceeded 100 percent, as out-of-town shoppers rented rooms for the afternoon and checked out in time for their rooms to be rented again.
Another location was built by the airport in 1963, followed by another, a franchise purchased by Gary himself to kick-start franchise sales, on Summer Avenue. The offices of Early-Gary Enterprises, now Admiral Benbow Inn, Inc., moved across Bellevue to a refurbished turn-of-the-century frame house outfitted with windows like portholes. There, Mr. Gary sat at his desk in front of an original oil painting of Admiral John Benbow himself, the 17th-century British naval hero whose name appears in the opening pages of Treasure Island, attached to an Admiral Benbow Inn. Meanwhile, the Midtown location was expanded to 182 rooms. "Which will make us, I believe, the biggest motel in Memphis," Gary observed.
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.
Japanese trash-rockers Guitar Wolf bunk here whenever they're in town. Ironic boys and girls from Central and MUS and Hutchison likewise check in after escaping formals at stuffier locales to take in the dangerous soul of the place and to slurp down compounds of PGA and Jungle Juice at rates of which daddy would surely disapprove.
"Apparently somebody who means something to the economic structure of the city must have gotten ripped off there," McCarthy says, reflecting on the coming rehabilitation of the Benbow. "That's why this is happening."
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.
Mary Ann Bills, who has worked at the Benbow since 1977, most recently as manager, knows a thing or two about the motel business. She knows, for instance, that if a person checks in and the switchboard lights up like a Christmas tree then that person is either a drug dealer or a hooker.
A sign taped to the front desk says: "Absolutely No Room Refund After 10 min. Check Your Room," a precaution Bills says is mostly for locals. "You know, they'll go up there and do a little business," she says, "stay an hour or so and then come back and complain."
Bills has borne witness to the decline of the Benbow, a decline that dates from before her time here, to the death of its founder, Allen Gary, in 1965. The mission was to have 100 Admiral Benbows built by 1970, but that number topped out at less than a dozen when the company was sold to Morrison's, the cafeteria people, in 1968. In 1975, the meager chain's corporate headquarters were moved to Tampa. Eventually, the properties were sold and sold again with the Midtown location ending up in the hands of Allad Investments.
The loss of momentum in the late-Sixties trickled down as a curse on all of Benbow's houses, leaving them each with a touch of infamy.
In 1972, 101 pounds of marijuana were seized from a 24-year-old record store employee at the location on Summer in what was then the third largest drug bust in local history. In 1981, the Airport Benbow, which has since become a parking lot, was the site of a fracas involving 480-pound professional wrestler Jerry "The Crusher" Blackwell, in which he was attacked by three women who would have absconded with his wallet if he hadn't subdued two of them with vigorous hair-pulling. Defendants facing pornography charges once used closed-circuit broadcasts taped at the Benbow on Summer as evidence that their trade did not, in fact, violate Memphis' community standards.
But the original remains the most notorious.
Bills has seen it all, from hooker booms to drug dealer busts, from people checking out and leaving bodies behind to winos checking in and checking out for good.
She has seen the Benbow's occupancy bulge as other motels have closed, and she took phone calls from all over the world when Malcolm Fraser appeared pantsless in the motel's lobby. She has seen abortion protesters handcuff themselves to the razor-wire-topped fences of the Cape Cod-style clinic across the street -- once the headquarters of Benbow Inc. -- and occupancy fall off with the construction of the Ronald McDonald House downtown.
Although the motel still sees a lot of guests from the Medical Center and COGIC conventioneers drop in every year, things have been better. Bills attributes the Benbow's decline to the demise of the franchise, which left it without capital for improvements, and, like Musselman, to its relatively low rates.
"The clientele changed," she says. "Being right on the interstate has a lot to do with it. It's bad but it's not real bad."
The crime here isn't really frightening. It does not threaten to spill out into the community. It is below the radar of the Memphis Police Department's Organized Crime Unit, for example, which focuses most of its prostitution and drug policing to the east of the motel, at the corner of Jefferson and Cleveland. It is rarely seen on TV, as it was last year when part of the motel was evacuated during a police standoff involving a paroled former plumber who barricaded himself in a room here after allegedly threatening his wife at the clinic across the street and who told police they'd have to kill both him and his dog if they ever wanted him to come out.
The Hampton Inn just a few hundred yards away had as many reported car thefts (10) last year as did the Benbow, and nearly as many thefts and burglaries (8 to 11 and 7 to 8, respectively) and more reported cases of vandalism (3 to 2). The Benbow, on the other hand, registered two weapons offenses, six assaults, four robberies, one sex offense, and a murder.
The crime here is not random, but desperate, committed by people staring at bottom in close, dank quarters and seeing no other way out. A crack dealer with three gold teeth and twice that many aliases wakes up in the mid-afternoon missing money and hits the woman in his bed with a claw hammer because he can't find his niner. Traveling salesmen share a room until they've both had just about enough and someone gets stabbed with a pocketknife. A couple meet to reconcile in a room with a view of the empty pool and a fight breaks out instead.
"They're really going to turn it around," Bills says confidently of the Benbow's death and rebirth, already in progress. "Back like it used to be in the good old days."
They'd stayed for a few weeks but now it was time for them to go, the bums in room 207. The one who always went out, to bring back booze and money from somewhere to pay rent on the room, he left without a fight.
But the one who always stayed in, amid empty bottles and piles of clothes, he didn't leave. He never did. He hadn't even come out the previous day, when an ambulance showed up because his friend didn't think he was looking so good. He wasn't going anywhere, he told them.
Morning turned into afternoon and check-out time came and went. By early evening the police were called. They knocked on the door of 207, but there was no answer.
The man inside was the unruly, although not the dangerous, sort. At 55, he looked much, much older with scraggly hair, beard, and a body battered by booze. According to his rap sheet, he had been arrested dozens of times for public intoxication and disorderly conduct and, according to his police file, he had outfitted himself for these routine occasions with a tattoo on his middle finger: a question mark, a baffling ? aimed at the world.
The man inside 207 had himself become a baffling ?, at least as far as the world was concerned, by the time he'd holed up here at the Benbow. According to police reports, he had sometimes been arrested with blue eyes, sometimes with brown; sometimes hailing from Memphis, sometimes from Arkansas; sometimes with the ? tattooed on his middle finger, sometimes without.
Months earlier, arrested as usual for drunkenness, he told police he was country music legend George Jones.
When the door was opened, he was lying on the bed, his feet still on the floor, dead.
Due to wounds to his head, an autopsy was performed with few surprises. A bloated liver and cortical scars from falling down. No foul play. Cause of death: Pneumonia.
"About a month or two after he passed away, his daughter came looking for him and did not know that he had passed away," Bills says. "And when I realized who she was talking about, you know. It killed me to tell her that he had passed away."
In early 1998, a man called William Butler was buried at the Shelby County Cemetery on Ellis Road, just north of the Wolfchase Galleria. He had blue eyes and no tattoos, whatever his police record might say. Last known address: Room 207, the Admiral Benbow Inn.
Welcome to Memphis, your excellency sir. Hope you enjoyed your stay.
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