Ode to the gym: In your walls, we sweated, laughed and grew

Alice Bolton remembers clearly the summer night in 1963 when she and her husband, Jack, drove across town to a night club on South Third to pick up the barely known Jerry Lee Lewis.

Jack was in charge of getting entertainment for the newly conceived X Club, the Friday night dance in Holy Communion’s new gym that launched something of a social revolution.

“We walked in down a long hallway of chairs and right by this scrawny-looking kid. We thought he a was teenager sitting there with his guitar,” Alice says.

It was Lewis.

“He was the shyest human being. We had to drag words out of him to get him to talk to us,” she said, remembering the strange trip back to Holy Communion with Lewis in the back seat.

When he got to the gym and starting playing the church piano, the crowd was agog, including the very mild-mannered rector, Eric Greenwood.

“Eric Greenwood was the epitome of reverence and learnedness. His eyes were just popping,” Alice said. “It was just wild. Jerry Lee was playing with his feet and all.  The rector, who was a musician in his own right, was worried, wondering if that piano was going to survive.”

The gym, which will be torn down to build the new gymnasium and wellness center, is a repository of Memphis history from the mid- to late-20th Century. Cybil Shepherd and her brother, William, played basketball in it, sweating and scoring and learning the teamwork that contributed to the success of hundreds of Memphis teenagers. After desegregation, Holy Communion opened its doors to multi-racial teams, making the church a place where all Memphians could play together.

The gym opened in April 1963. Three months later, Associate Rector Dan Matthews introduced the X Club, attracting teenagers from as far away as Brownsville, Tennessee, for the live-music stage.

“It was a brilliant idea,” said Dan Conaway, a member of the church’s Words3 writing group, and back then, a member of the congregation.

“It attracted the East Memphis crowd as well as the town crowd. It was a lot of fun for everyone involved; plus, they had great bands.”

Randy and the Radiants, a well-known Memphis garage band, performed. So did Tommy Burk and The Counts. David Porter, a complete unknown at the time, appeared with his buddy, Isaac Hayes. Elvis was invited.

“Jack called Colonel Parker. He said Elvis was getting overexposed and didn’t need to perform at an East Memphis church,” Alice said.

The Brotherhood of St. Andrew sponsored the club and provided all the volunteers.

“The X is the symbol of the Brotherhood, so it became the X Club,” said Fred Beeson, who along with John Salmon and Matthews, were the brains behind the gig.

“At the time, there was not much for teenagers to do. We met on Friday nights in the summer. We got those name entertainers, which was largely because of Jack Bolton, who was the sales manager for the TV station,” Beeson said.

To get in, boys had to have an X Club membership. More than 100 did.

“Boy, did I catch a lot of flak for that,” Beeson said. “The boys were the members, but all  the mamas wanted girls to be members too.  But we thought it was a good idea because then the guys would have to ask the girls for a date.

“You had to bring your card, a girl and $2 to get in the door. We thought asking a girl for a date was an important part of  growing up. Sometimes they said no,” Beeson said.

Conaway was a member.

“It wasn’t hard. All you had to do was ask,” he said. “But you had to have a card, so you felt like you belonged.

“That is a key period of time in  your development,” Conaway said. “You’d just meet all kinds of people there. It was a very cool thing to do, and that rubbed off on Holy Communion. It was a happening kind  of place.

“I met a lot of people I still know as a result of those summers.  Kids that went to Central High came to those parties. So did kids from White Station, East, MUS (Memphis University School), Hutchison, St. Mary’s and kids from Midtown. You were either dancing or looking for someone to dance with,” he said.

Now, some 50 years later, the gym’s story is less amusing. For ten years or more, the roof has leaked, which means Tom Cowens, who referees basketball games, often has a wad of paper towels tucked in his sock or waistband for quickly mopping up the floor.

“Julie (Fike) and I and are often wiping the floor during the games,” he said. “It’s just become part of the job to watch for water on the floor.”

The gym, which has only one bathroom, also doesn’t have regulation-size basketball court. On one side, it butts dangerously close to a concrete-block wall.

It’s scheduled nearly continuously by St. Mary’s during the day, and with church recreation leagues and fitness classes on nights and weekends.

During basketball season,  Zumba gets rerouted to the parish hall one night a week and back to the gym in the hopscotch it takes to accommodate all the teams and classes.

“I have to coordinate it all,” said Julie Fike, head of Holy Communion’s recreation and wellness programs. “We have meetings that are backing right up to the classes starting, and then things have to be set up.”

The new gym will have dedicated space for church wellness classes, allowing it to offer a larger variety of classes and more sections of each.

In its day, the gym with the beamed ceiling and pine floor, was a showplace. In the oxygen molecules, surely there are traces of Lewis and Porter and Hayes and their legendary performances.

 “When we drove Jerry Lee back to the night club around 11 that night, he reverted to his former shy, country-boy self,” Alice said. “It was amazing.

“What  is so funny is that I went for 40 years without this ever crossing my mind. About five years ago in one of Dan Matthews’ talks at Calvary, he mentioned the X Club and Jerry Lee Lewis. That brought all the memories back.”

Demolition is not yet scheduled, but that doesn’t keep Beeson from thinking about the cross the Brotherhood placed high in the left-hand corner of the ceiling.

“For us, it was a symbol that they would always be dancing under a cross,” said Beeson, from his new home in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“I sure want to somebody to save that when the gym comes down.”

Posted by Jane Roberts at 10:36 AM
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