Earlier this week, we asked a question about what songs make people cry. We had more than 100 responses, which provide a wide gamut of musical tearjerkers. Some brought up songs that were written to frustrate tear ducts: Landslide, In the Arms of Angel (you are now thinking of a dog because of that), The Living Years. Some answers were tongue in cheek: Hail to the Chief, the Chipmunks Christmas, the ending credits to Game of Thrones. Other answers were tied to emotional memories of lost loved ones and the like.
We learned about what types of music makes people cry. It was an interesting group of answers, but no one asked us why we asked the question. Now that we have brought it up, you probably guessed it was because the Complete PR team likes to make people feel miserable.
No, it is because music brings out a strange emotion in people. That was underscored by the response to our question, but underlined and circled by the response to a short opinion piece in the Greenville Journal by local writer, Brad Willis. It actually came out last Friday in the print edition, and we read it (because we read everything) and we thought it was very good.
However, not everyone was nearly as happy as us with it. On Wednesday of this week, the Journal shared the piece on social media as part of a bigger push it did with its sister publication, GVLToday, which did a great job summarizing the past few years of debate on Greenville’s music scene. And then the deluge. We are not going to get into the debate, but it has become the hot topic in Greenville.
But the music scene is a topic that has deep roots in Greenville’s psyche. Long-time Greenvillians will remember the old Greenville Memorial Auditorium. This was Greenville’s first major entertainment venue. If you lived in Greenville between 1959 and 1996, you got to see everyone from Strom Thurmond (who opened the building) to James Brown (who played the last show) and everything in between. It stood at the corner of East North and Church streets downtown. New-time Greenvillians will recognize the spot as the curious empty lot surround by a green fence that is perpetually being talked about for development.
But what many people may not remember is the battle to build the Memorial Auditorium.
It was first discussed in 1938 when the local Lions Club passed a resolution to build an auditorium to serve Greater Greenville. The group made the motion again in 1940 and called for the Greenville Delegation to do something. That was followed by a public vote to take out $300,000 in bonds to build it. That vote passed 1,147 to 806 in favor. A board was appointed, and quickly legally was handcuffed when a lawsuit was filed to contest the election results. Before a decision could be made, Greenville and the rest of America got caught up in a real war that sort of led to the whole idea being abandoned. But sometime after the Battle of the Bulge and the end of the World War II somewhat in sight, the Lions again made a resolution to make the auditorium Greenville’s main goal. That led to the lawsuit being reinstated and going to the State Supreme Court where it was decided the board that was created to build the auditorium was not valid under the state constitution. So to summarize, no Auditorium for you, Greenville.
But wait, a former Furman football star named Ed Smith who was by then president of the Lions (seriously, these guys deserve a medal) wouldn’t let the concept fail despite the state Legislature adding a stipulation of a $300,000 match. Smith ran past them, and by Spring 1949 plans for a 4,390 patron event hall were announced. Unlike the unencumbered look the venue would eventually have (aka the Big Brown Box), the original drawings showed a much sleeker venue with a mezzanine and room for eight offices fronting Church Street. It was mixed used before mixed used was thing. The Greenville News article announcing it said it would be great for ice shows, sporting events, dances and music.
What kind of music? That became the issue quickly. Some in Greenville wanted an Opera House that would draw in only musical acts. The feeling, according to a story from September 1949, was Greenville was already losing acts to the Orange Peel in Asheville. Kidding. They actually were worried about Newberry and Abbeville. There also was concern about the location. That it was too far from Main Street to be viable.
Smith and his team got a $1 million bond passed through the State Legislature and wouldn’t you know it, Greenville and the rest of America got into another war. This time in Korea. While that was happening, it was deemed that Greenville’s bond was too much money under state law and would need a Constitutional Amendment to make it so. That was done via a 11,700 to 4,796 vote to pass it. But again, a lawsuit. Again the State Supreme Court ruled against Greenville. This time saying the vote was misleading in 1956, but intentionally deceptive. That should have ended the battle, but here came Ed Smith who found that the $1 million bond was not under the legal limit anymore because so much time had passed. And by spring of 1957, work started.
But something else had started, Rock-n-Roll music. And some guy with awkwardly swinging hips had played Spartanburg in February 1956 in a concert that is talked about to this day. And Elvis Presley didn’t play Greenville because there was no venue big enough. Sound familiar?