by Charlie Lambert
When certain people come into our lives and make their mark, even if they move on and we never see them again –we remember them forever. When I was in grade school in Memphis Bob showed up and left his mark on me in a very special way. Our lives intersected on numerous occasions for the rest of his long life. His name was Robert Lee Ewing. He was my mother’s older brother who was born in 1909 in Memphis. At first glance, his life may seem to be pretty routine. He never got rich or famous during the 93 years of his life. At one time he was a “railroad bum” riding the rails from Memphis to California on empty freight cars some eighteen times. He never had children. He died quietly in a care facility without fanfare. Sounds almost like “Solomon Grundy”. But he was much more.
The allusion to my first encounter with Bob was when I was nine or ten years old. He was visiting from California. He opened a small bank account for me and entered a contest at the bank, a jingle contest that asked new account holders why they were saving money. I do not recall what he wrote but my entry came in first place and won a pony and saddle. Bob left his mark on me from then on.
“Bob”, as he was known in the family, led a more than notable existence as my story will attest. He moved with his parents to several locations in the Cooper-Young area as a child, ending up at 927 E. Parkway South, right in front of the Fairgrounds. At age 14 (1923) he was one of the neighborhood kids who took a test ride on the sparkling new Pippin roller coaster there, recently reconstructed after a storm. At about the same time he began working for Clarence Saunders in his first Piggly Wiggly Grocery store at 99 Jefferson St., the very first self-service grocery store in America. What he did exactly he never said but I assume he was a clerk of some kind.
Bob’s humor and stories were especially memorable. One I remember so well is the one where he wants to make the point that he and his family were very poor in the early years. He said they saved up so they could go out one Friday night to get a hamburger. While they were away a “burglar” (one of Bob’s favorite allusions) broke into their simple home. When they returned, everything was in place, but the burglar had left a note under a rock on the kitchen table, reading, “You have to be kidding”. Was anyone ever really that poor? That’s typical Bob humor.
In his twenties he traveled around the country installing “frozen custard” machines for its national contractor. Frozen Custard, or ice cream with egg yolks in it to make it soft, was invented in 1919 in Coney Island by the Kohr Brothers and gained nationwide acclaim when they sold it to visitors at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Bob installed the first frozen custard machine in Memphis in the 1930’s. The building where it was sold was built to look like an ice igloo and two, snowball throwing bears were placed out front to enhance the fantasy of the popular ice cream. Those original bears were moved elsewhere in the 1950’s when a restaurant (Fairview) was built in conjunction with the frozen custard stand. Speculation has never ceased among the public about the original bears and where they were relocated. One thing is sure, their replacement bears were far less distinctive sculptures and never measured up to the first ones.
One time early in his life, Bob encountered a man named Ludwig Rosencrans, a student at Southwestern College (now, Rhodes). They had a lot in common, including wanderlust. Ludwig told Bob he planned to move out west and get rich searching for treasure, specifically, the Lost Dutchman’s Gold in Arizona on Superstition Mountain. Soon after, Bob boarded a freight train and rode it all the way to California. His plan, with his good looks and “assumed” great talent, was to become a movie actor. Unfortunately, other than being handsome and young, he had no connections in the industry, so his prospects were dim from the start.
Once in Hollywood, he remembered his grandfather, William Bestie, talk about an elderly actor named Alec Craig who came from the same hometown that Bob’s grandfather hailed from, Dunfermline, Scotland. Craig had a distinctive Scottish brogue and had been playing minor, often uncredited roles, in 100’s of pictures for many years from the 1920’s on. He introduced Bob to a casting supervisor of extras at MGM studios. “Extras”, actors who appeared in background parts and rarely spoke any lines. In a year or so, Bob was a regular among the thousands of wanna-be young men hoping for a break in the industry. He was soon in a picture with Spencer Tracy and had a closeup with him. Tracy even hired Bob to wax the bar at his home. Though nothing developed from this chance meeting, Bob made a number of appearances in numerous films from various studios during 1937-38. He played in Joan Crawford films, films with Franchot Tone, and with many other well-known celebrities. He had a nothing role as a patron of a racetrack in Jean Harlow’s final film, SARATOGA. Though it was supposed to take place all over the country in different raceways, Bob said the whole thing was filmed at Santa Anita Racetrack near L.A. Oh well, he got to see Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon vie for Harlow’s attention until Harlow died suddenly before her part in the film was done. He observed stand-ins representing her in the rest of the film and its successful bookings after her death as fans flocked to theatres to see their idol and how the director handled her absence from the latter part of the film. Even at $3.00 a day, he was there in one of the most historic films of 1937, Jean Harlow’s last hurrah!
Bob went back to Mr. Craig who correctly assessed Bob’s problem telling him he was having too much fun playing small parts. He suggested more aggressive and dedicated attention to his hoped-for career. Making it in films was no part-time endeavor. But Bob was too young and in too much of a hurry to get on with life for bit roles in stinkers. He remembered Ludwig Rosencrans and the Dutchman’s gold. Bob never made another film but instead took a freight to Arizona and tramped to Superstition Mountain. Rosencrans did not move there permanently until 1946 after 4 years in the Army. Rosencrans also had spent a short time in Hollywood as an extra one ignominious film after another (except for one shining moment in the memorable classic, IF I WERE KING, starring Ronald Colman as French poet Villon). He made enough money to live by playing billiards in L.A. When he and Bob reunited in Arizona after the war they bonded and worked together seeking the lost goldmine for many months. Ludwig gained fame over the years as an eccentric fanatic with an obsession for finding his quest and by living in a cabin on the mountain. He became known as “The Sage of Superstition Mountain”. He spent forty years on and off in that cabin. He never found the lost goldmine but eked out an existence by making small discoveries of gold that he sold to pay his bills. He was a writer as well. He became famous despite having never found what he lived his life searching for.
Bob had joined the Navy just in time to serve during WW2. He loved being at sea and eventually found himself as a pilot of one of the Higgins Boats on June 6, 1944, off the coast of Normandie. His job was almost as dangerous as being one of those shuttled to the beach because he made numerous trips back and forth that day. He managed to maneuver his craft out of danger and lived to tell the story. After becoming disillusioned with gold mining in Arizona he married his sweetheart, Lucy, and settled permanently in southern California. He worked as a plant manager for a carborundum company and retired to a lovely house in Downey, California that had seven orange trees. I was a visitor to that house as a 13-year-old and thought California was heaven on earth.
My second encounter with my uncle was because my usually stingy grandfather needed company on his visit to Bob and Lucy in 1956 on the Sunset Limited train from Memphis to L.A.’s famous Union Station. “Papaw” and I had a compartment, club car, and fancy dining facility on the three-day trip. He had, for once, loosened the purse strings. But he soon discovered how much money he had spent and decided to make it worthwhile by staying with his son for six-weeks. His coffers were even lower after I won $100.00 from him playing poker all the way across the country. During our long stay we visited Knott’s Berry Farm, the Famous Farmers’ Market in Hollywood, Disneyland during its first full year of operation, and even Las Vegas. I remember slipping into a casino and dropping an illegal dime in a slot without being caught and going to “the strip” to the Flamingo Casino midnight show to see Dorothy Collins from “YOUR HIT PARADE” on TV. Bob had made all this possible –and I was only a kid.
The years went on and I’d see Bob and Lucy when they drove to Memphis every three years to see his parents. He retired and moved to rural Oregon where I visited them almost every year for the next twenty years. They took me all over the beautiful Oregon countryside. When Lucy died fifty-four years into their marriage, Bob moved back to Memphis to live with me, our last encounter and one of the hardest for him in his old age. He was ninety years old and proceeded to lead us a merry chase as he attempted to become the head of the household. He had been accustomed to ruling his various domains for most of his life and this was new territory to conquer. Most of the time he was congenial but when any one of us (me, my wife, or my mother, his sister who also lived with us) crossed him, he could unload a mouthful of venomous rhetoric and sarcasm to tell us exactly where we stood. Instead of being offended we all laughed, and I wrote it down, considering it classic humor. At my last Oscar party, he showed up in a pair of pajamas and a bathrobe to which he had attached a tag saying, “Looking for the Cuckoo’s Nest”. His humor was always in view, usually dry and witty. He died at ninety-three, holding my hand and expressing his appreciation for having known me. “You are a class act, Charlie”, he said, as he closed his eyes for the last time. Everyone should have a “Bob” in their lives for better or for worse. I cherish the memories of him and hope to be as memorable a character to someone before I die as he was to me.
SOURCES: Internet, “The Sage of Superstition Mountain, Piggly Piggly, Family albums, Press Scimitar, Early Maxwell column from 1937, Internet history of Frozen Custard, Internet Movie Data Base: Alec Craig, actor.