Left: The famous hubcap in the Latta Theater is a nod to the space's former life as Ford auto garage. Right: The large oil and acrylic painting, "Quite the Thing," by artist Lanessa Miller, was created at the Latta during her six week residency there. Inspired by the property's history and deep roots in local music culture, the artist depicted a typical weekend jamboree (Circa 1950) at the Latta Ford Motor Company, donating the work to Arts in McNairy at the conclusion of the residency. The painting now hangs in the south theater entrance as another reminder of the creativity of generations past.
The hubcap goes largely unnoticed, but occasionally someone asks about it.
For people who don’t know the history of the Latta building, it probably does seem somewhat incongruous; an old hubcap stuck in the wall of a beautifully appointed community theater and concert venue. It’s positioned high on a brick column near the stage, where it has acted as silent sentinel, watching over hundreds of performances of every variety for more than a decade now.
It was not always so.
Before new life was breathed back into the place, the hubcap was witness to dereliction and decay. Mice and rats scurried across the garage floor when it wasn’t flooded, while birds came in through holes in the roof to nest in the Latta building’s steel girders. The thriving business where local men and women had spent entire careers; the showroom floor where folks had kicked the tires and dreamed of the day they could save money enough for that new Ford, and then bought it; the garage and makeshift concert hall where Elvis Black, and Waldo Davis, and Carl Perkins, and the Latta Ramblers had electrified grateful audiences with their music; that historic space sat empty and falling in on itself, a shell of its former glory, a bothersome eyesore in the shadow of the County courthouse.
It took almost five years to recover and restore the former Latta Ford building. The process included consensus building, open public meetings and discussions, committed local leadership, countless hours of planning, and fruitful partnerships between a half dozen government and nonprofit agencies. It was worth every second and every cent.
Arts in McNairy’s residency at the McNairy County Visitors and Cultural Center has been transformative for this community. It is, at once, an astounding mobilization of contemporary creative resources, and a respectful homage to the the traditional music and culture of generations past. Local creatives are again invited to publicly practice their art for appreciative audiences, while touring acts and exhibits provide quality entertainment and learning opportunities for locals, who would otherwise have to travel many miles for similar offerings.
At the 2020 McNairy County Music Hall of Fame inductions, Arts in McNairy board member, Christy Sills remarked, “A whole new generation of McNairy County youth is familiar with the name Latta. When they hear the name, they are most likely to associate it with the property situated at the corner of West Court Avenue and North 4th Street in downtown Selmer. More precisely, they are likely to think of the cultural experiences they enjoyed at what is now affectionately referred to as “The Latta.” Sills went on to recount some of the history of the Latta Ford Motor Company building as a cultural space, noting that the hundreds of children and adults who come through the doors today, are heirs to an incredible legacy of creative community building, renewed in their generation by Arts in McNairy’s dedicated volunteers.
I could not agree more. When I walk in the Latta to find dozens of proud parents, grandparents and student artists lingering in the gallery at a youth art exhibit, I can’t help thinking of the shiny Fords that once graced those colorful tile floors. When I walk into a theater packed with wide-eyed school children, enthusiastically applauding the young cast of a local community theater production, or watch a bluegrass band take the stage, I can’t help thinking of Earl Latta. I’m convinced he would be deeply moved by the impact Arts in McNairy has made on the community he loved, and grateful that such programs are carried out in the majestic old building that still bears his name. Latta is, quite literally, etched in stone above the door.
So, when some curious soul asks, “What’s with the hubcap?” I can’t wait to tell them the story. You can imagine how that goes; it’s taken me four installments to tell it to you here. But the way I figure it, you shouldn’t ask if you don’t want to know.
I start by telling them that the hubcap was used to cover the open vent hole, when a wood burning stove was removed many years ago, and how the workmen scratched their heads in confusion when we insisted that it stay as a constant reminder of the building’s history. Sometimes the astute listener will ask me, “But what does a hubcap have to do with the history of a theater?” That’s when I know I’ve hooked them.
And so I begin, “There was a young man named Earl Latta…”
The four part series, Fords and Fiddles, appears as a guest column in the March 2023 issues of The McNairy County News.