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Playwright would feel right at home on Moon Lake

In 1926, the Clarksdale Elks Club built a lodge on Moon Lake. It had a bar, an eating area and living quarters upstairs.

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Posted: Saturday, October 12, 2002 12:00 am

Now, why they built it there is immaterial. The roads were gravel back then, and it was a lengthy trip to get there from Clarksdale; but that's where they built it, and it was a popular site.

Dr. Glenn Gates, the Clarksdale veterinarian, worked at the place as a boat boy in 1927. Most folks didn't have boats back then, but they had motors. So, Gates would mount the motors on rented boats and perform other chores around the property.

However, in 1936 (or so), the property was acquired by a gentleman named Billy Wilkerson, who leased the property to a gentleman who ran a casino, which he aptly named Moon Lake Casino. It then became even more popular.

Although somewhat short-lived, the casino built a national reputation as a fun place to relax and gamble. There were even rumors that the remnants of the Al Capone organization profited from the take at the casino. Rumor also had it that the same guy who ran the Moon Lake Casino had casinos on the seventh floor of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and at Black Fish Lake in Arkansas. It was the Capone rumors that prompted authorities to shut the casino down.

"It was all right to gamble, but it was something else to be associated with Al Capone and his gang," says Sarah Wright, who has owned the property since 1985.

What makes all this even more interesting is that both Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner were frequent visitors to the casino on Moon Lake.

In fact, Williams referred to the Moon Lake Casino in all but two of his plays. Faulkner's brother, John, wrote about it in Dollar Cotton, referring to it as the Moon Lake Hotel.

Williams, whose career is remembered this and every October through the Tennessee Williams Festival here, characterized the place as a house of ill-repute. Wright disputes this claim.

"There is no record of it as ever having been anything other than a casino, bar and restaurant," she says. "They treated it as a bed-and-breakfast operation - nothing resembling a house of ill-repute as far as I know."

Wright believes the theory that prevails about Williams and his writing: "If he liked you, he would base a favorable character into his play based on you. If he became vexed with you or you annoyed him, he would insert a not-so-favorable character into his play based on you."

Some Clarksdalians believe this and can tell you which characters were based on local citizens and who they actually were.

"Evidently, Tennessee, or Tom as he liked to be called, fell out with Wilkerson at some point," Wright says, "because, in Summer and Smoke, he referred to the Moon Lake Casino as a house of ill-repute. I don't know if it was or not. People brought their families here to stay the weekend as there were rooms for rent."

As everyone knows, Tennessee Williams lived in Clarksdale with his grandfather, the Rev. Dakin, pastor of the Episcopal church here and the Episcopal church in Tunica as well. Since the roads were bad and the vehicles of the day were not much better, Rev. Dakin would break the trip to Tunica at the Moon Lake Casino.

"They loved to go to the Moon Lake Casino, because the place served Kansas City steaks and even flew in lobster from Maine, no easy task as airplane travel was then in its infancy. That was Tennessee's introduction to this place," Wright says.

The place fell on hard times during the war and changed hands frequently, but remained open. Wright's foster parents, Henry and Vedah Trevino, bought the place on May 15, 1946, from a man called Pennington, who was about to lose the property, and it became known then as Uncle Henry's Place. Rental cabins were built, and Henry continued the tradition of good food and fun until 1974, when age forced him to close the restaurant. The family continued to rent the cabins until he died on Aug. 16, 1976.

Wright's mother lost control of the place in 1977, allegedly through a fraudulent action.

It took eight years for Wright, the mother of nine children, to get it back, but get it back she did. She had to make some renovations, but she reopened it as a restaurant in 1986.

At any rate, Uncle Henry's Place is still standing and, according to Wright, much in the same condition it was when Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner strolled the premises.

"Williams would recognize it," she says flatly. "It hasn't changed that much since he was last here."

And, when a party is going on in the old casino area, as it was last Saturday night, he and Faulkner would have felt right at home, no doubt.

And, although Maine lobster no longer graces the menu, the food served by Sarah and her son, George, is the closest thing to New Orleans that can be found in Coahoma County. The seafood is scrumptious and the steaks are outstanding, if not from Kansas City.

And the atmosphere is dripping with nostalgia.

With the Tennessee Williams Festival set for next Thursday through Saturday, now would be a good time for all Clarksdalians to visit Uncle Henry's. On Friday, you can enjoy dinner and a play. Gnadijes Fraulein, one of Williams' one-act gems, will be performed by a group of Ole Miss theatre students directed by University of Georgia Professor of Theatre Michelle Cuomo, an Ole Miss graduate. Dinner is at 7 p.m., with the entertainment following.

As if that weren't enough for one night, a musical piece about Blanche DuBois, a character out of Streetcar Named Desire based on the daughter of Clarksdale founder John Clark, will also be performed.

If those walls could talk, you might just hear Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner calling for another shot of their favorite bourbon while contemplating their next literary effort.

You won't be able to call for your favorite bourbon (liquor is not sold, but you can bring your own), but you can listen for Tennessee and Bill while you eat.

Before the night is over, you might just be inspired to yell for Stella.

Larry Liddell, a former Press Register managing editor, is director of personnel for Clarksdale Public Utilities.

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