Darkness covered our prairie town that cold night 50 years ago, and it must have been a relief. In the three months since the Kennedy assassination, daylight offered only a waking nightmare, for we were the malign incompetents who had allowed the murder of the president. Hope for redemption vanished when the gangster managed to murder the suspect with TV cameras running. Somewhere, someone typed “Dallas, the city of hate” for the first time, an epithet that stuck and stung.
The harsh spotlight intensified as the trial date approached for Jack Leon Ruby, the nightclub owner who had point-blanked Lee Harvey Oswald in the gut with a Colt Cobra .38. Ruby did not want to die for his crime, and he had the wherewithal to hire the famous criminal-defense attorney Melvin Belli, of San Francisco. Belli’s two-pronged defense would posit that his client was crazy as a coot when he pulled the trigger and that Dallas, with blood on its hands from two murders, could only assuage its shame with an execution.
The world’s media came to town. But just as writers on deadline predicted another Scopes or Hauptmann trial of the century, a new tragedy bumped State v. Ruby to the side for a few days.
It was a fire, the worst in the city’s history in terms of loss of firefighters’ lives. Four young men died in the blaze that began in the basement of a Commerce Street restaurant called the Golden Pheasant. Someone pulled the first alarm at 2:33 am on Sunday, February 16, 1964, the day before the start of jury selection in the Ruby case. Within minutes, that fire got big, and deadly. Within days, police arrested the owner of the eatery, Charles Darrell Bryant, age 32, a sullen veteran of the arrest-bail-trial process. Bryant had gone through the restaurant-fire thing before: four years earlier, another place he had owned on Commerce called the Copper Cow had gone up in flames in the middle of the night, an unfortunate event that yielded him $37,000 of insurance money. After a week in jail on suspicion of arranging the arson of the Golden Pheasant, Bryant posted a $20,000 bond and hired Dallas criminal-defense attorney Charles Tessmer.
Thus the trials of Bryant and Ruby were linked by a pair of defendants who were so sleazy that they made you want to take a shower, both of whom retained brilliant, theatrical attorneys to battle the legal steamroller of cigar-chewing Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade. TV, radio, and print covered the twists and turns on the road to the verdicts as if the Cowboys were playing the Redskins. Organized crime hovered like foul smoke over both defendants.
There was no one to pull for in either trial, unless you could summon the spirits of four men in the arson case who did not attend. The prosecution and the newspapers invoked their names: Gresham, Henderson, Bigham, and Manley. Firemen.
Dallas 50 years ago was half as populous as it is today, twice as white, and about twice as much fun. Although exurbanization had already begun with the planning of NorthPark Center and Preston Center malls, downtown still had it going on. Step onto the crowded sidewalk and you heard car horns and clanging trolley bells and newspaper vendors shouting out headlines. We had two dailies then. The German Jewish merchant princes who put our town on the map still had their giant anchor stores: Neiman Marcus, Sanger Brothers, and Titche-Goettinger Co. Movie marquees lit the night. The Melba, the Tower, and the Rialto were air-conditioned for your comfort and did great business, as did equally long-gone hotels—the Baker, the Dallas, and the Statler Hilton. Dotted here and there were dimly lit dives where anything was possible, a prime example being Ruby’s Carousel Club. Pictures of girls in a frame out front.
Restaurants were the heartbeat. Even the department stores offered great food, and the Baker Hotel could seat 2,000 for dinner. French cooking and French chefs were in vogue, but this is cow country. Who had the best beef? Arthur’s? That new place, Vick’s? Cattleman’s? Not according to a woman who grew up here and could afford to eat wherever whenever.
“The steaks served at the Golden Pheasant located on Commerce between the Adolphus and Neiman Marcus were the best in town,” wrote Caroline Rose Hunt in her foreword to Dallas Is Cooking, a cookbook by Renie Steeves. “A stuffed Chinese golden pheasant looked down on diners.”
Actually there were two big taxidermied birds atop pillars in the foyer, and a mezzanine level accessed by a staircase in the back of the main room, and waiters in starched white jackets hovering over starched white tablecloths. The ornate decor included a bright yellow awning sheltering the stained glass and polished brass by the front door. “Dallas’ Most Exclusive Dining Room” its ad proclaimed, a bit of puffery, but not that far from the truth. The Golden Pheasant opened in 1915 and remained part of the downtown landscape until the summer of ’62, when Bryant bought it and ran the brand into the ground.
There is no need to demonize Bryant. His life speaks for itself.
In addition to his starring role in a previous restaurant fire, the slim, soft-spoken Bryant and a friend kicked and beat a handcuffed bartender during an extortion attempt. He was not convicted, but the barman knew damn well who had broken his nose in five places. Bryant also got a long look as a suspect in the car-bombing death of fellow boulevardier and “gambling figure” Phil Hodges, and endured many legal problems related to his roles as a club owner and an expediter of liquor licenses and vending-machine contracts.
On February 15, 1964, the day before the big fire at the Golden Pheasant, there was a little fire at the Golden Pheasant. A cook arriving unusually early discovered burning rags in a basement dressing room, ignited, apparently, by a very odd setup: a bun and bread warmer suspended from a coat hanger. It was cold in North Texas that weekend, with overnight lows around freezing, so the little stainless-steel box with its door open supposedly warmed the buns of waiters changing into uniform.
At 11 am, about the time that Bryant would have been assessing the damage and opening his restaurant’s fancy front door for the Saturday lunch crowd, Gresham, Henderson, Bigham, and Manley punched in.
If you knew one, you knew all four. Each of the firemen sheltered wives and kids in unprepossessing single-story houses in East Dallas or Mesquite and handled the mortgage on salaries of about $500 a month. They hung Sheetrock or slapped mortar on bricks on their off days. All four worked 24-on/48-off at downtown fire stations. Each married his high school sweetheart. Gresham, Henderson, Bigham, and Manley were peas in a pod, midcentury, middle-class, solid citizens.
But distinctions emerge when you lean in a little closer. Private Jim Gresham, age 25, wasn’t scheduled to work that Saturday, but a friend and fellow firefighter named Bill McDonald wanted the day off, so Gresham filled in, thereby excusing himself honorably from shopping for furniture with his wife and their 3-year-old daughter. Mrs. Gresham bought the furniture without him; he would just have to wait until he came home on Sunday to see it.
Not for the first time, Jim Bigham took his son to work. Ricky, 15, loved the station-house grub, the joking and camaraderie, those gleaming red trucks, and staying up late before retiring to one of the bunks arrayed around the big room upstairs. But even more than the station-house culture, Ricky just loved hanging out with his dad. Bigham had played baseball at Sunset High, and, at age 36, still played summer-league fast-pitch hardball. He’d had stints in the Navy and with DP&L before he went to work for the city in 1951. “A firefighter’s firefighter,” recalls a co-worker, Bob Bailley, 88. “Purposeful. Jim always wanted to carry the hose in and get that fire out.”
The other two grew up together near East Texas and were great friends. Last summer, five members of the Canton High School class of ’53 met me for lunch at Papadale’s Grill & Cantina, a pale-orange-stucco buffet joint hard by Interstate 20, to talk about their old friends. They recalled the time Jerry “Bucket” Henderson made some sort of squeaking sound with his chair in sophomore English, and, while the others suppressed giggles, Mrs. Kennedy sent Ben Allen Pruitt to the principal, where he got a wallop with the paddle. Bucket drove his ’41 Ford—aka the Gray Ghost—so fast that he’d take a corner on two wheels, and he dressed so neatly that “he looked like he came out of a band box.” He and classmate Kathleen had gotten married, probably in the summer before senior year, their matrimony kept secret because the school board would never have allowed a married student to wear the Eagles’ green and white football uniform. How many kids did they have, five? Yes, five.
Bucket lived with his grandmother, didn’t he? Wonder where his parents were? His classmates didn’t know that the two potential fathers in Henderson’s life had rejected him thoroughly. When his mother divorced when he was 2 and remarried, the new guy didn’t want anything to do with him—thus the handoff to grandma. And when, in his majority, he organized a trip to Houston to reacquaint with his biological father, that man refused to even meet with his son.
Back at Papadale’s, the crew from Canton thought back on handsome Ron Manley, who was so good at football, twice all-district as a left end. His girl and later wife was Cornelia “Neely” Peel, and is she still alive? Doesn’t she live in Dallas? Ron’s daddy had a truck farm, tomatoes and watermelons, and those seven kids worked. Didn’t they also have a little country grocery store out on 243, in Dawson?
And on and on, with memories great and small, until, for a moment, everyone at the table fell silent. “What we’re talking about here,” said Jean Sanders at last, “is two all-American boys.”
Not that there’s any need to idealize Gresham, Henderson, Bigham, or Manley. Their lives speak for themselves.
They came together in the middle of a cold night, startled out of sleep by 100 decibels of vibrating fire bell. They jumped into steel-toed rubber boots and heavy gray fire-resistant pants. They hooked their arms through suspenders, threw on jackets outlined in reflective tape and fastened by four rows of heavy metal hooks and clasps. There was a patch of light-gray corduroy sewn on the inside of the collar. Metal helmets. Slide down a pole. Sprint to the truck. Sirens. Ricky couldn’t go back to sleep after his father left. He was the only one left in the station.
No fire was visible at the three-story building at 1417 Commerce, just smoke percolating out of its basement, up past the yellow awning in front. The night and the dark billows obscured but did not hide the Dallas Blueprint Company on the two floors above the restaurant and the Melody Shop store next door. Light wind, about 28 degrees.
Scant minutes after the first alarm, Battalion Chief Lloyd C. Briscoe led nine, maybe 10 firemen under the awning and through the front door. “It had been a four-star restaurant, but I saw that now it was just a cafeteria,” recalls Bob Bailley, then a lieutenant in the fire department. Some of the men had masks on their faces and SCBAs on their backs—the high-pressure air tanks of the Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus held a 15- to 30-minute supply of oxygen, depending on how hard the wearer breathed. For what they called “an initial knockdown,” they carried three hoses gushing water, with two men on each, one at the business end and the other behind him, pulling the thing along. The 200-foot, 1.5-inch diameter hoses—“spaghetti” in the fireman’s argot—stiffened under 200 pounds of pressure. Smoke from an elevator shaft poured into the room. Someone found a little hole in the floor and had a look. Jesus! The basement was a sea of flames.
Now what? Briscoe and Bailley conferred. They decided to enlarge the hole and snake a Bresnan Distributor through it—the Bresnan being a hose attachment that rotated rapidly and sprayed water in hard-to-reach places. As the men walked back toward the front door, suddenly everything changed. It was like an earthquake. Unseen glasses crashed to the floor. The lights went out. The floor collapsed, and four men fell 12 feet into hell.
Bailley and Briscoe barely escaped. “Where are your guys!” someone shouted. “Back there!” replied Bailley. “They’re in there!” The laconic, tough-as-nails Briscoe, the last one out, had to run uphill on the falling floor.
With the sudden onrush of fuel, the fire spiked so high that no one could get near it. “Frustrating,” Deputy Chief T.E. Allen told a Dallas Times Herald reporter at the scene. “Nothing we [can] do.”
But when fireman Michael Jones, then 20, arrived at the scene at about 3 am, he heard stories of Briscoe wading into the flames several times to attempt a rescue.
More and more trucks and men arrived. Every on-duty firefighter in the city was summoned, and then every off-duty man as well—a Signal One-Seven, in fireman lingo. There have been only two in the city’s history.
The fall did not kill Gresham, Henderson, Bigham, and Manley. Two of the three hoses they’d brought in the building melted, but the heat didn’t kill them either. They would have been stunned, hurt, hot, and hyperventilating. They would have looked around for a way out. They crawled together toward a wall and formed a kind of pyramid. They put their hands on the floor and their faces on their hands, searching for a breath.
Then the first floor of the blueprint company—the restaurant’s ceiling—gave way. Then the second floor. The flaming basement filled with a chaos of rushing air and giant rolls of paper and tinder dry joists and studs, as well as a number of ozalid-process blueprint machines, which looked vaguely like tanning beds and weighed about 500 pounds each.
“We formed a line to shovel or carry the debris out,” recalls Jones. “We knew. We could look at the building and know that no one survived.”
“I was called in from off-duty,” says Charles Pitman, then the captain of Station 44 in South Dallas. “By the time I got there, the fire was out. We dug all night long, taking debris out hand-to-hand. I called down to the station for our heavy-duty wrecker, which we used to pull out those presses.”
Seven hundred and fifty fighters fought the Golden Pheasant fire. It took them until 6:03 am—over three hours—to extinguish it. Men wet with sweat and quivering with emotion cut twisted rebar with torches, drained four feet of water from the basement, and carried away tons of detritus. A crowd of about 1,000 watched, among them Bigham’s father and younger brother. Shortly after noon, they brought the bodies out and up. In order: Gresham, Henderson, Bigham, Manley. They died of smoke inhalation. The yellow awning remained standing.
In March, after Jack Ruby was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, attorney Belli hastened back to California to work on his book, titled, with heavy irony, Dallas Justice. He railed at the Waspy homogeneity of the jury pool, at the “defensively self-conscious” city’s absolute need to find a scapegoat, and, most of all, at the power of the DA’s office.
“I was told defense criminal lawyers didn’t have a chance in Dallas,” Belli wrote. “ ‘What can we do about it, we live here?’ was the resigned answer that shocked me.”
That sounds about right, says attorney Lisa Blue, who worked in the DA’s office in the final years of Wade’s reign. “If you stood up and didn’t fall over, you won about 90 percent of the time.”
The state charged Bryant with murder initially, but the statute said something about premeditation, which really didn’t fit in this case, so the DA reduced the charge to arson and asked for 40 years.
Arson is notoriously tough to prove—the evidence burns up, obviously—and the tools of the investigator’s trade in ’64 would put no one in mind of CSI. Samples were gathered with an ax and a shovel, placed in empty metal paint cans, and dropped off at a lab. Yet the case against Bryant seemed solid. A cook he had employed would testify that, a month before the fire, Bryant had offered him $1,000 to ignite his place in the middle of the night, using the bread warmer and some well-placed dishrags. There was the fire—apparently started in just that way—the night before the tragedy. Joe Guyton, another cook, would testify that he called Bryant after dousing the fire, and that Bryant had said, “Are you still there? I thought the place would be gone.” Bryant’s bookkeeper would quote his employer saying, pre-fire, “Well, old Charlie’s had it. I’m too far in debt to pull out.” An insurance agent would testify that Bryant held six policies that would pay him $70,000 if the restaurant and its fixtures were destroyed. Witnesses would confirm that Bryant had fallen behind on payments to vendors and to the taxman. Bryant, furthermore, was an unsympathetic defendant, with an infuriatingly blase attitude and a long, colorful record.
He didn’t have a chance. But he had Charles Tessmer.
Tessmer, SMU Law, ’49, was a grand man, a drinks-for-the-house guy when he won, which was often. A flamboyant, ingratiating defense attorney from Central Casting, Tessmer’s trademarks were big hair, a loud suit, a photographic memory of case law, and a nearly hypnotic rhetorical style. He provided his clients a beautifully organized defense and some tricks when they needed them. When he identified a juror he knew he did not want, he’d sometimes begin his voir dire interview by greeting the man by his first name, and inquire about his wife Martha, and how’s your boy Timmy? The DA’s team would then use one of its challenges to dismiss the juror, who was obviously a friend of the clever Tessmer.
“Only attorney I know who would put a deaf man on the stand to testify that he had heard nothing,” wrote Judge W.A. Morrison in his foreword to his friend’s book Criminal Trial Strategy (1968).
=pq=“He was by far the best I ever went up against, such a great lawyer,” says a former assistant Dallas DA who did not want his name used. “I attended that trial to see the new judge [John Mead] and to watch Tessmer.”
The trial began in early June. After three of Wade’s assistants laid out their case, the maestro impugned, challenged, and impeached. You say my client offered you $1,000 to burn his restaurant? But isn’t it true that you and Mr. Bryant had an argument about unemployment compensation, and you lost, and you would say anything to get even? You’ve testified that my client has $70,000 worth of insurance. But Mr. Bryant had many thousands of dollars of paid-for and uninsured property in his restaurant. So the net to him from insurers would be far less, wouldn’t it—perhaps half that $70,000?
On behalf of the defense, retired Houston Fire Marshal Press W. Clooney testified that a fire so hot would have fused the food warmer’s plug into the wall. It didn’t. So we don’t even know if this food warmer was plugged in, do we sir? Couldn’t the fire have been started by faulty wiring, or by rats gnawing on paper matches, or by flammable gas escaping from an air-conditioning compressor?
Bryant took the stand on the fourth day, and, give the devil his due, he was a cool cucumber up there. As instructed by Tessmer, he gave the jury plenty of eye contact and he did not lose his temper. “He’s lying,” he said of this accuser. And when the prosecution connected the dots between his financial crisis and the insurance money, he was ready. “That’s nothing new to me,” said Bryant calmly. “If you’ll check back, I think you’ll find I’ve been in debt plenty of times.” His masterstroke: Bryant said he’d been thinking about expanding the restaurant with an oyster bar. He certainly didn’t want to burn it down!
It was enough. Bryant was acquitted. Perhaps Tessmer went to his favorite joint afterward, the Kings Club at the Adolphus. Perhaps the band played “My Way,” his favorite song.
Ten years later, in March 1974, Jim Bigham’s father’s phone rang in the middle of the night. “It’s done,” a voice said. His uncle got the same call. Charlie Bryant had taken two in the head while sitting in his white late-model Cadillac in the 5600 block of Parkdale, a lonely East Dallas dead-end next to a railroad track. Dallas Fire Department arson investigator Don Howard posed a hypothetical to a homicide detective. If someone walked in and admitted right now that he fired those shots, what would you do? “I’d let him go on home,” the detective said.
More than one fireman thought that Battalion Chief Lloyd Briscoe might have avenged the deaths of his men. But the police asked Briscoe a few questions, and he was back on his bar stool at Willie’s Lounge, a fireman’s hangout at Beacon and Grand, before his beer got warm.
“Bryant’s death didn’t make me feel any better, and it didn’t make me feel any worse,” says Bailley, the second-to-last man out of the Golden Pheasant that night. “It took a long time before I could go to sleep at night. ‘Why didn’t I fall in?’ We did what we were trained to do, but you keep thinking of what you’re guilty of.”
The widows moved away and remarried, except for Neely Manley, who did neither. She lives by herself at the old place on Lapanto, in East Dallas, and maintains it herself, except for a bit of help with the yard. “I was 25 when Ron died,” she says. “I had a job with an insurance company. The house was only a year and a half old. I had a baby [Mark], and a girl in second grade [Victoria]. Good neighbors, a good babysitter. There wasn’t anyplace else I wanted to live.
“I didn’t date that much. Didn’t have time, with a job and a house and two kids.
“I’ve often wondered how it would have been if Ron had lived. I think he would have gone pretty far in the fire department. After he died, I got a letter that he’d passed his test to get promoted [from second driver to driver].”
Ten kids lost their dads in the Golden Pheasant fire. One says, “I didn’t get to say goodbye,” and breaks down. Two of the daughters say the absence of a father
figure has made relationships unsatisfactory and marriages problematic. They want a man in their lives, they say, but who can measure up?
It was cold the morning they told Victoria Manley the sad news, but she wouldn’t come in off the porch. When her father came home, they were going to go to the zoo. She couldn’t believe he was gone; she still can’t. For many years, she had the same dream: her father knocking on her door and saying with a smile, “You don’t remember me?” A couple of times during a crisis in her life, his picture has fallen off the wall. He is both with her in spirit and irrevocably gone.
Then there is Rick Bigham.
Bob Bailley gave the teenager a ride home from the station that Sunday morning half a century ago, stopping short of their house at 7319 Wallace to explain that there had been an accident. “I didn’t believe it,” says Rick, who lives near Grants Pass in southern Oregon. “I kept thinking he was off on some secret mission and would come back, and everything would be like before.” The Bighams moved to California, where his mom had some family, and Rick finished high school there. He worked as a boat mechanic and ran an electrical power plant, the latter job requiring him to take some fire training at a local college.
“My father’s death was devastating,” Rick says. “It took a while to move on. Something you never get over, if you think about it. It’s tough to talk about it even now.”
Still, some good came out of that awful fire. Bryant had to sue his insurers to get paid, and he lost. The statute was changed so that Bryant could have more easily been charged with murder. The pensions for the families of fallen firefighters were increased. Dallas Fire-Rescue chaplain Elaine Maddox arranged a reunion for the six Hendersons and men who had worked with their father; some healing took place. And Karen Bigham, for one example, found a new life in California with a husband and kids she would never have had back in Texas.
They were the faces of bravery and responsibility in a gloomy time in Dallas: Gresham, Henderson, Bigham, and Manley. Good names to remember.