The S&W’s rebirth is something I didn’t expect to witness. I always thought the building, or at least its rare art-deco shell, should be saved, and despite a couple of big projects which called for its hasty doom, preservationists occasionally found reason to hope. But every blue-sky ideal for it over the last 28 years has been to save it as something else: a health club, a nightclub, the lobby for a cinema; even, by part of one short-lived proposal, an entry for what would have been an undeservedly cool county justice center. John Craig and company have saved more of the building than most folks expected them to, and they even discovered details concealed during the S&W period, like elaborate second-floor skylights. And it is, once again, going to be a gracefully spacious restaurant—a rarity downtown—if not a cafeteria.
It was so popular it’s almost cliche to mention the S&W as part of your childhood.
Here’s a way to make your business immortal, and permanently beloved: cater to harried parents. The parents themselves may eventually forget you, but the kids will grow up loving the place, and won’t ever let anybody tear it down. To middle-class Knoxvillians born between, say, 1925 and 1965, the S&W was an essential setting of well-spent youth. When people talk about their childhoods, you’d suspect there were no other restaurants downtown. In fact, there were dozens, several of them good and interesting ones appreciated by adults. But the S&W was where you came when you had a few kids in tow to see a movie at the Tennessee Theatre, or to go shopping on a Saturday at Miller’s or J.C. Penney. When people over 45 speak with nostalgia about the Knoxville of their youths, they answer with almost monotonous predictability: “Mom would take us to Miller’s and then the S&W.” “We’d go to the S&W for supper, and then a movie at the Tennessee or the Riviera.”
I’d almost be inclined to tell them to just shut up about the damn S&W if not for my own fond memories of the place. It was certainly the most elegant establishment I’d ever been allowed into, at age 6 or so, and I always imagined that if I were ever to see a big star in Knoxville, like Ed Sullivan or Jack Benny or Red Skelton, it would be at the S&W. It was easy to imagine the Beatles there, all in one booth, wearing suits, of course; everybody dressed up when they came downtown.
For those who know cafeterias only as institutions of blanderie, gathering places for geriatrics lured by an early-bird special, the S&W may take some explaining. It was a cafeteria in the days when cafeterias were the glamorous, chrome-plated new California ideal, not just modern but moderne. The S&W made me think of Oz. It was a big fancy theme park, with revolving doors, multiple mirrors, a balcony, a spiral staircase. I don’t remember the food at all, just the fun of navigating the place, the long shiny line past all the food in the world and smiling women in uniforms, and at the end, tall, angular Slim, who looked like Scatman Crothers. A casual acrobat, he balanced multiple trays on his arms, which, if my memory is correct, were about nine feet long.
We went to other restaurants, but they had nobody like Slim, or for that matter a live organist playing your popular favorites beside the brass-railed spiral staircase. The one people remember best is Lois Harris; she released a record album of her S&W favorites in 1967. She’s long gone.
But Jane Parker of Old North Knoxville says she was the S&W’s very last organist. I understand there are rivals for that claim, but Jane says she has witnesses she was there on closing day in 1981. A local show-biz veteran, as a singer she was a regular on WBIR’s show Stars of Tomorrow, broadcast around the corner in the Ely Building in the late 1940s. Later on, she had a significant cameo in the 1965 Tony Perkins art-horror film The Fool Killer; in it, she performed one perfect scream. In this space some years ago I wrote about her brief motion-picture career.
In her role as the S&W’s organist, she says, her favorite tune was “Tico-Tico,” the spritely samba instrumental familiar to a generation or two. “The Tennessee Waltz” was a predictable favorite, and “I’ll Get By.” For one friend named Marjorie, she played “Margie (I’m Always Thinking of You).” One man always requested “Release Me.” She explains. “I think he had a crush on the blonde cashier. If you’d seen his wife, you’d know why he wanted to be released.”
She remembers local celebrities like Mayor Randy Tyree, who was a regular, and Zoltan Rosnyai, the KSO’s Hungarian-born conductor. “He was smiling and a-grinning at what I was playing,” she says. “But I don’t remember what it was.” The new S&W won’t have an organ, but it will have a piano. Jane hopes to play it now and then.
She thinks of herself as an S&W old-timer, but no one has memories of the S&W older than those of Mr. Von Garrett. He’s 92, a semi-retired carpenter in Halls. He was still a teenager in 1936 when he worked on the S&W job, the modern new downtown cafeteria which he recalls combined two old buildings, a bank and a cigar store. While working in downtown Knoxville, he began dating the woman who became his wife. He’s now a widower, but they remained married for 57 years.
When work was complete, he got 100 feet of wood-leaf molding that he found appealing, and brought it home: 100 feet of it, maybe more. It sat in his basement for the last 73 years. “It was in good shape,” he says. “It was kind of unusual, and I didn’t have the heart to throw it away.” A restoration contractor came out to have a look at it, and purchased the piece from Garrett to install along the spiral staircase. The S&W is paneled with fancy wood and memories.