Chester Martin Remembers The Grace Moore Era In Chattanooga

Saturday, July 9, 2016 - by Chester Martin
Library of Congress image of Grace Moore
Library of Congress image of Grace Moore

The national euphoria which broke out following World War II definitely generated a few grand years of optimism and creativity. It was an age of "settling in" following that war, and there was a palpable expectation of a highly promising, but yet undefined, future. The air was charged with electric energy. People had forgotten war times and were looking forward to better days.

The New York World's Fair of 1939 had hinted at that future with its theme, "The World of Tomorrow". An unwanted world war intervened, of course, delaying that dream for a few years. This nebulous future promised to bring moving pictures into your home, and your private car could be converted into your own private aircraft, for at the push of a button, wings would fold out, and away you would fly! (This according to ads in National Geographic). 

Chattanooga's inborn creative energy started to flourish once again - especially with the return of "the boys" from the war. Many things started up during that timeframe, such as the Chattanooga Symphony, and later, the Chattanooga Opera Association. Music of all types thrived - classical, jazz, pops - as witnessed by the stories that Jay Craven recently told in one of my articles. There was a strong Music program in all the City schools, and the Cadek Conservatory of Music was in its heyday. Kids carrying instrument cases could be found all over Chattanooga, and two little girls could be heard practicing "Chopsticks" most every evening from two blocks away, as windows stayed wide open all summer. Dancing, gymnastics and roller skating as an art form were all alive and well. 

The Chattanooga Times newspaper had close connections to the New York Times through the family of Adolph Ochs, who headed both newspapers at various times. Along with the "pull" that Dr. Werner Wolff, founder of our Chattanooga Opera Association - and that of the Chattanooga Times, Chattanooga could attract Metropolitan Opera singers to perform leading roles in some of our early operas. Besides all this, Chattanooga claimed to have produced an opera singer of great renown, by the name of Grace Moore. 

Grace Moore was a prodigy, to say the least. She had studied Voice in France, and became the star of a number of Hollywood movies. She made her way onto the stage of "the Met" before dying tragically in a plane crash - along with Swedish royalty - in that country. Her death was a crushing blow to opera lovers everywhere. When I went to Philadelphia to work many years later her name was still widely remembered in that opera-loving city. Her funeral was held at the "old" First Baptist here, which was located at the corner of Oak and Georgia Avenues. The church was packed with attendees, and the Met sent one of their top female singers to sing Ave Maria. The service was broadcast - all but the singer's part, as the Met forbade it. Her Moore family were owners of Loveman's Department Store. She is buried here in Chattanooga at Forest Hills Cemetery. 

Downtown was still vibrant at this time; all the old buildings and institutions were in place. Only the old market house may have been demolished to make way for the new Patten Parkway. Cameron Hill still proudly stood on the west side.The entire downtown was absolutely safe for everyone: black, white, rich, poor, old and young. Only the Telephone Company took precautions with their female employees who got off work after dark, providing them with free taxi rides home. Horses still pulled wagons through the streets and night vendors sold tamales out of ice cream pushcarts Streetcars rang their bells at slow-moving cars and pedestrians. Steam train engines still blocked traffic, and SOME parking was still free! 

Art had long been a big item on Chattanooga's menu, and as yet there was no suitable place to have large art shows. The Hamilton County Courthouse was the best venue available, and so clothesline shows were arranged on that lawn in good weather, or for inner hallways when bad weather.These only happened one weekend per year. All schools had some kind of art shows at least once a year, and the University always had a Senior Art Exhibition - downstairs in a nice, but small gallery in one corner of the Chattanooga Public Library building on McCallie Avenue. The new Warner Park field house, built ostensibly for the religious crusades of Billy Graham, served as a suitable place to have art shows, as "Hunter Gallery",  (original name of the "Hunter Museum of American Art"), did not yet exist. City High School had produced several highly promising young artists, and two of these included Roy Craven, brother of Jay Craven, the clarinetist, and Jarvin Parks. Steve Harding, my Kirkman HS art teacher, was so impressed by Park's work that he got the loan of one of his paintings and brought it to our classes at Kirkman for us to admire. The national "Scholastic Art Awards" was sponsored locally by Loveman's Department Store, whose Publicity Director, Madeline Barry, gave it plenty of TLC every year. There were legitimate theaters a-plenty, and I have discussed them in other writings. Artists like Fannie Mennen were just beginning to toy with the idea of a clothesline art show at her home which was "Plum out of Tennessee, and Nelly out of Georgia", while Lillian Feinstein was just beginning to dream of life as a sculptor... 

All of this "Grace Moore Era" of Chattanooga history was conducive to the bright future which was to follow. The boys who came home from the war did so to a GI Bill, which entitled them to a free education - so long as they kept their grades high. I have never known a more eager and dedicated group of people - former GI's - who worked hard for success. I knew at least one ex-GI who took Drafting at Kirkman Vocational High School and went to work for a local architect doing some very ordinary hum-drum drafting for several years. But during those several years he "learned the ropes", passed a "Board"exam, and became an architect in his own right. He was only one of many, or course, who were able to do the same thing.

Our "Grace Moore Era" was fleeting, however, lasting only until about when the U.S. went into Vietnam, (about 1959). It wore us down, as did the entire Cold War with the former Soviet Union. Optimism was overcome by new fears as Communist oppression seemed to be weighing down upon the entire Western world. The world had totally changed.

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

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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