When the Charlotte Merchandise Mart opened in 1961 as a brand-new exhibition venue, Robert Zimmerman and his wife and business partner, Joan, relocated here.
“They moved to Charlotte, really, because of that building,” says the Zimmermans’ son, David.
“And (they) started producing.”
Together, they created the consumer-show series Southern Shows, Inc. Joan handled the business side, while Robert Zimmerman came up with the ideas.
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As the pioneering series evolved to celebrate gardening, the Christmas season, home decor and more, it gave thousands of visitors a reason to come to Charlotte, years before the city was considered a destination area.
Zimmerman, 84, died Monday night at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte. His wife, Joan, survives him, as do David and another son, Robert Jr.
The cause of death was congestive heart failure, according to David Zimmerman.
“When my parents started doing this, there weren’t many people around doing it,” says David Zimmerman, president of Southern Shows Inc.
His parents held their first Charlotte show in 1963. From there, the series has grown to 18 shows a year in 12 cities, with the Southern Christmas Show in Charlotte becoming the largest holiday show in the country, attracting more than 100,000 visitors. Their business has 33 full-time employees.
Other shows in the series with Charlotte stops include the Southern Ideal Home Show, the Southern Women’s Show and Southern Spring Home & Garden Show.
“Part of the reason for that is really his vision and his ability to kind of make something out of nothing, if you will,” says David Zimmerman.
Robert Zimmerman is described by family and friends as mild-mannered and wildly creative, with hobbies that included landscaping. A Greensboro native, Zimmerman was serving in the U.S. Army in Germany when he met “the love of his life,” Joan, who was working in a civilian job there.
After relocating to his hometown, Robert Zimmerman worked in his father’s business, selling electric fences for farms. Joan worked for public relations agent John Harden.
As David tells it, his mother was eavesdropping on a conversation between Harden and Dr. J.S. Dorton, general manager of the North Carolina State Fair, who was suggesting putting on a flower show at the new Dorton Arena. The thinking was that a show might keep women closer to home, instead of traveling to Philadelphia and New York for similar events.
Joan Zimmerman immediately volunteered her husband to put on the event. He teamed with Joan and Harden to put on a flower show in the Dorton Arena in 1961.
That was the year Charlotte’s merchandise mart – now known as The Park Expo & Conference Center – opened. They saw the space as a canvas where they could draw visitors through various exhibitions that showcased local talent and entrepreneurs.
With shows designed to highlight vendors and draw in shoppers, Charlotte’s small-business community prospered from the exposure, according to Bob Morgan, Charlotte Chamber president and CEO.
“Long before Charlotte became the destination it is today, Southern Shows gave people from throughout this region reasons to visit Charlotte and spend money here,” Morgan said via email. “The events have become an annual pilgrimage for many.”
Through the Southern Spring Home & Garden Show, Robert Zimmerman was credited with introducing residential landscape design to the region, his son said. In 2009, Robert Zimmerman won the Citizen’s Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects.
As Southern Shows grew, so did the Zimmermans’ charitable giving. One of their many efforts was sponsoring a benefit preview night of their shows, with money going to charity.
Charlotte clothier Paul Simon, who met the Zimmermans through philanthropic circles, describes their home as a reflection of their community ties, filled with work by artisans they supported.
Robert Zimmerman’s creations were there, too. He was a talented woodworker, with a workshop in his house, according to Simon.
“He was a very unique guy,” says Simon. “Very, very special.”
Researcher Maria David contributed.