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Stories: Shirley Tyus

Shirley Virginia Larry Tyus was born on January 2, 1917 and has a lifetime of memories of Overton Park.  We are so thrilled that she shared some of them with us at the Overton Park Stories event at the Memphis & Shelby County Room this summer.

The Desert SongShirley started her performance career at Overton Park as a child in productions held at Rainbow Lake.
It was probably between ages 9 and 12.  It was so neat, because we’d dance, and the water acted as the curtain.  Behind the lake, we had the makeup and costume place, then the water, and the water and lights shaded the costume area from view.  We were always too busy changing clothes to have the time to go out and watch the other performances.

The productions were in late evening, early night.  One was “Rumpelstiltskin” and I was in the chorus.  We were fairies in one, I remember.  Seems like we did “Red Riding Hood” too.  I know it was a big deal, and pictures of it were in the paper.  We didn’t have television then.

Shirley and her best friends Lina and Kitty were in the chorus of The Desert Song, the very first Memphis Open Air Theater production at the Overton Park Shell in the late 1930s.
Alexander Gray was a big wheel on Broadway. He came down and had the male lead in The Desert Song.  I was in the chorus and I had a tiny part–all I had to do was be by this door that was offstage at a certain time.  Then he would come along and say something to me.  Then he took my arm and we had to walk the entire length of the stage.  I enjoyed that!

When we were working on The Desert Song, we rehearsed until 6:00 in the morning, and then we’d go home and try to get some breakfast and a bath and try to go to whatever job we had.  It was wonderful.  We’d have lots of fun.  Kids that I had taken dancing with when I was this high had grown up enough, as I had, to do props and everything else at that age.  Isn’t that something?

Shirley Tyus
Shirley Tyus

Later, Shirley’s daughter Kathy also performed at the park.
My daughter taught guitar and songs that were in these big theater groups.  Kathy taught for the Park Commission when she was a teenager.  She was tickled to make the money in those days.  She was in a lot of Children’s Theater productions, and she even had a chance on television.  A lady asked me one day, “Why don’t you take Kathy over to WHBQ this year?”  I said, “You really want to know?  With my luck, they’ll select her!”  My daughter had the feminine lead in seven high school plays–that’s too many, you know!  She was a very hard worker so she was chosen to do a lot of the parts. In one of the Park Commission productions, she was an elf.

Shirley remembers a lot of regular and special events that took place in Overton Park through the years.
It was a really big deal when Charles Lindbergh came to Memphis.  Airplanes were few and far between then.  Every time an airplane would go over, we’d look up to see if he was in it!  When he came to Memphis, he did a talk at the Doughboy statue.  It was wonderful.

We’d have things like Easter egg hunts.  It was so nice, all this green and the water in the daylight.  They had one every year.  There were pet shows and pet parades, and the area behind the doughboy would be the stage for the dogs and cats.  It seemed like they were always making some kind of improvement to the park.