Main Street Journal
Elvis Presley’s first paid gig was performed at The Shell, an amphitheater in Overton Park, nestled between the The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Memphis College of Art and The Memphis Zoo. The beautiful property is one of the city’s most cherished recreation areas and features a golf course and a veteran’s memorial; it’s also not too far from Sun Studio, where Elvis cut his first record.
In 2004, the 68-year-old Shell was ordered closed by the Parks Department, which cited code violations and liability concerns and estimated the needed repairs at $500,000.
The rebuilding effort provides a stark contrast to another project being contemplated down the street. Unlike Mayor Willie Herenton’s Liberty Bowl proposal, the Shell’s restoration is necessary, relatively inexpensive, and strongly supported by the community. For nearly two decades, the Shell was maintained by volunteers with no city investment, and the capital funding recently approved by the City Council will be matched dollar-for-dollar by the Mortimer Levitt Foundation.
Unfortunately, there are some similarities. First, the city has appropriated half a million dollars, almost exactly the full amount originally estimated. Why the cost of repairs doubled in the span of two years is unclear. You might think the city could use materials left over from the Ford parking garage at FedEx Forum or salvaged from one of several buildings targeted for destruction, but the Shell plan doesn’t appear to require much infrastructure. In fact, most of the benches will actually be removed to allow for a grassy knoll and lawn seating.
Further, the Shell was built in 1936 for less than $12,000, which would be only $170,000 today adjusting for inflation. The total spent this year will be more than five times that amount.
Second, the city has granted naming rights to the foundation, meaning the Shell will reopen as The Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts at The Overton Park Shell, quite the mouthful. Somewhere along the way, planners dropped mention of the man it was named for in 1982 –Raoul Wallenberg, a diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps.
Finally, you can’t get around the fact that the officials in charge of this project are the same ones who have failed us time and time again, leaving empty stadiums, massive debt and federal investigations in their wake. Given that record, it’s questionable whether they can be trusted even with renovating an open-air theater. The public relations firm chosen by the private-public partnership was the Carter Malone Group, owned by Shelby County Commissioner Deidre Malone, who was last found in violation of open meetings laws. Memphians have reason to wonder if any back-room deals have been made.
All that aside, a revitalized Shell will make the city proud and will restore the cultural promise made many years ago when it was first dedicated as, “a pledge to the future of music in Memphis.” Perhaps it will be home to another Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley. And “That’s all right for you.”