Chester Martin Remembers More About Downtown Chattanooga

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Today's story about downtown Chattanooga is just a continuation of the last one - prompted by my totally unintended omission of the CAPITOL Theater! Seems that that movie house is remembered by many readers - including myself. It used to carry some rather off-beat films  which were never shown at either the Tivoli or the State. It also had great newsreels during World War II that seemed more "in-depth" than the ones I saw in either of those other two theaters.

Once the Capitol showed a really entertaining film with Will Rogers - only film of his that I ever saw. (Do read up on Will if you have never heard of him or know little about him).  In  that film he was portrayed as a horse-racer who gave long speeches while shooting pool. It was incredible how all his shots with the cue matched perfectly with his speeches!  Word was that Rogers was a real-life "pool shark", and his wizardry at pool (in that film) was not by trickery.

Anyway, a faithful reader of my stories - from Cincinnati - reminded me that the Capitol Theater was also home to the famous "Mickey-Mouse Club" sponsored by Lovemans Department Store. Mrs. Madeline Barry was the long-time Publicity Director for that store, and the mother of Joan Barry who went on to later TV fame on Channel 3. Both those ladies lived directly across the street from my wife and me when we were first married. According to my Cincinnati contact (Mr. Miller) an eye-doctor, N.R. Norris, had an office next door to the Capitol - which I also remember - and which may jog some other "senior" memories as well!

Penney's was on the southeast corner of Market at 6th Streets and I was always fascinated by their system for paying. It was the only such system I ever knew as a kid where a store attendant placed your cash or check in a vacuum tube and sent it away upstairs where unseen hands opened it and took your payment out, replacing it with the proper change, receipt, or whatever, and then returned it to the department where you were waiting. That system is quite common nowadays, especially at banking drive-throughs. But back then it was all new and it was fun to watch your payment speeding through clear plastic tubing to its destination. I remember lots of them going at once, so I guess that was good for Mr. Penney!

Way down Market Street - almost to 9th - and on the same side of the street - was a landmark Chattanooga business - for years and years: UNCLE HERMAN'S CHATTANOOGA SHOE STORE! His sign, which hung over the sidewalk, had his own self-portrait plus the name and address of the business. Inside, for a long time about the time of WWII he had a "fluoroscope" machine that sat in the middle of the floor with an opening at floor level where you inserted your feet! It was unattended, and great fun to play with, and the idea was to try on a new pair of his shoes, then go to the fluoroscope and wiggle your toes. You peered down through a viewer on top  and could see very graphically whether the new shoes fit or not. They usually did, and, since you already had them on your feet, you simply paid and wore them out of the store! Oh, WOW was that ever fun for a ten year old boy! Very sadly, however, his and similar fluoroscopes all over the entire U.S. were condemned by the radiation police for creating over-exposure to that invisible radiation!  Fortunately, though, Uncle Herman had ONE OTHER ace-up-his-sleeve to grab kids' attention, and that was the world's most rickety, dilapidated, and creakingly delightful old elevator to the second floor! Folks, you may never know the delights of the earlier days in your fair city! Trust me, I am telling you the truth! When his store finally closed it was that elevator that thousands of his former customers remembered best!

Very few of you will remember our old Market House which stood where Patten Parkway is today. It was probably out-of-date, and no great loss to the city, but it was like an enclosed farmer's market in the middle of town. My dad used to take me there sometimes as he knew several  of the vendors. I remember the pungent aromas of fresh vegetables and meats, the spaciousness of the interior, but totally lacking in "glitz" or air conditioning. Cold in winter and hot in summer. Modern farmer's markets would doubtless have neon signs or colorful posters of some kind, but I do not remember any such embellishments at the Chattanooga Market House. The war had just ended so Patten Parkway was created in the empty space left by the market. Some marble monuments are still there, but the original idea to keep an "eternal flame" going did not last long. The Parkway was used to display such things as (military) tanks and smoke-screen equipment that no one had ever seen before except in newsreels. Hitler's supposed personal limo was also displayed there. (These special displays were only for perhaps two or three days' duration at a time; not permanent).

Thinking about the end of World War Two, I have to remember some of the great people who were Players in our city of that day:  LUTHER was just getting his start in radio. Ernie Fagans, the sportscaster, was another, as was Gus Chamberlain. Glenn Ellis of the YMCA, who was the driving force behind Camp Ocoee, Joe Engel, baseball promoter, who gave us the stadium that bears his name. Engel also gave us the "Knothole Gang" that kept many a young man's mind focused  on baseball and away from any evil distraction! There were MANY more of these altruistic types, folks, who were not just purely out for a dollar! Chattanooga has benefitted by having excellent newspapers as well. So, whether you are an expatriate in Dubai, a sojourner at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, or sitting in your new condo overlooking Ross's Landing (having left your former Mountain residence behind), I hope you will take a minute to reflect, and glow with pride about your roots in good ol' Chattanooga, Tennessee!


Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter and artisan as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at

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