I caught up this week with our friend Hal Hardin, lawyer and hero of the Coup, and we got to reminiscing about the old Nashville Gridiron Show.
Best I can recall, the Gridiron happened each year from the middle Sixties until well into the Nineties, always sponsored by Sigma Delta Chi, the professional journalism society. It was a lot of fun for a lot of people (and we raised literally thousands of dollars for high-school kids wanting to go to journalism school). But also, from our perspective now, it was a marker for how Tennessee worked on a politico-social level back in the In-Between Time.
Our Gridiron, unlike the posh dinner affair by the same name in Washington, was essentially an amateur musical roast of state politicians. In its heyday, the show was presented at the National Guard Armory on Sidco Drive. The Swine Ball in its day had a similar vibe over on the lower eastside.
The all-volunteer Gridiron cast included many local journalists (some with excellent singing voices) though the show was produced with technical guidance of accomplished pros like Directors Frank and Carol Crowell; the writer Tom Flake from the Nashville Banner, Hank Dye who quarterbacked the ticket sales, and many others. All good sports, and for a good cause.
But here’s the thing: Prominent in the audience always were elected officials, major and minor, high and low – governors, judges, congressmen, mayors, the High Sheriff Fate Thomas, and a sprinkling of Metro Council members.
In the Gridiron audience, I remember spotting Republican Howard Baker and Democrat Jane Eskind; the congressmen Bob Clement and Ed Bryant, Harold Ford Sr. and Van Hilleary, and the governors Winfield Dunn, Ray Blanton, Lamar Alexander, Ned McWherter, Don Sundquist and Phil Bredesen.
All these sat in the audience in good humor – even as most of them were individually lampooned, and sometimes harshly. I remember only one governor who took the sharp barbs and acidic mockery much too personally. (When he departed that night, he vowed never to return.) Mostly, for this one festive evening at least, they came together - Democrats and Republicans together.
“It was unifying!” is how Hardin, a Democrat, remembers the Gridiron and its bipartisan atmosphere. (During these years, Hal was a judge and, later on, the United States Attorney for Middle Tennessee, appointed by President Jimmy Carter.) Hal sat there as the barbs flew, laughing right along with his Republican peers. “It was fun, light-hearted, unique. And we all left feeling better. I always looked forward to it.”
Today the Gridiron is gone, and with it much of the unifying good humor that characterized that time - so missing now in our exhausting and too-angry public sphere.
To be sure, that was a different time in Tennessee, when the holders of public office were not nearly so humorless and colorless as now.