Thursday, July 11, 2013

I'll Have the Lobster and the Bacon

Come on in, honey, and get some of this A/C. I see you finally found a parking space!

It's so nice when a guard oversees your arrival.

I was headed to the Virginia Historical Society's banner lecture, "The Jefferson Hotel: The History of a Richmond Landmark" by Paul Herbert.

"It's packed back there!" my new best friend warned me as I headed down to the talk.

Sure enough, the room was already near capacity, with an audience that looked to have a median age of about 70.

No problem. I never mind being on the young side of the demographic.

The VHS blurb had said that Herbert had "loved the Jefferson since his first visit there more than 20 years ago" and I would have guessed that most of this crowd's memories went back two or three times that far.

Hell, my first visit was 21 years ago (for a local radio station's dance night) and I'm not even a local.

Clearly Herbert didn't know that 20 years is nothing in this town.

He'd brought over 50 slides relating to the Jefferson Hotel and proceeded to tell us all kinds of arcane information, a lot of which got the crowd smiling and nodding in agreement.

Starting with how Lewis Ginter, the man who'd originally built the hotel, had made his third fortune in tobacco by selling pre-rolled cigarettes that came with trading cards, he told us about what a model hotel it was when it opened in 1895.

The roof garden shows were a big hit, but only for a while because the Jefferson charged 50 cents while the other venues in town only charged a quarter.

When he got on the subject of the Jefferson being known for the alligators in its Palm Court, the blue hair next to me stated to no one in particular, "I've seen the alligators."

Apparently a common method to herd the baby alligators was sticking the bristle end of a broom in their mouth and dragging them back to the pond.

And despite certain northern newspaper assumptions, the hotel had not been named after Jefferson Davis. Duh.

Herbert mentioned the big-names visitors, essentially "everyone famous who came to the east coast between 1900 and 1960," people like Winston Churchill and John D. Rockefeller (both named "honorary Virginians"), Charles Lindbergh and Elvis (who mortified the Jefferson's manager by eating bacon with his fingers).

I was surprised to learn that the Jefferson had so many full-time residents (80 when it closed in 1980 and as many as 100 before then), including Horace Ganz, its most famous.

Of course, back in those days, the manager and his family lived on site, too.

We heard how the opening of the nearby Hotel John Marshall at the beginning of the Great Depression hurt the Jefferson as people fled further downtown to the fancy new kid on the block.

Prices told the most unbelievable story, with rooms $1.50 in 1895 (with another $1 for a bathroom), a full dinner for $2.50 in 1930, a lobster dinner for $8.50 in 1970 and $7.50 for Mother's Day dinner in 1975.

And, yes, Billy Joel was a 25% owner of the Jefferson for a while, even showing up behind the piano on his occasional visits to town to sing and play.

Sure, that would have been an unexpected treat, but personally, I'd rather sit with Elvis and eat bacon with my fingers.

Historical anecdote aside, is there another way to eat bacon?

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