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VOL. 122 | NO. 15 | Thursday, January 25, 2007

To Shell and Back

Overton Park Shell up for renovation

By Andy Meek

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SHELL SHOCK: Closed for the past three years, the Overton Park Shell is due for a comeback if stakeholders have their way. -- Photo By Andy Meek

The outdoor Memphis amphitheater where a young Elvis Presley played his first show in 1954 is a shell of its former self.

Its rows of wooden benches are begging for a fresh coat of paint, metal buildings around the stage have become eyesores and the whole thing long has been in need of structural repairs. Standalone panels that display community notices and events still include a faded program schedule for 2004.

Nevertheless, supporters of the Overton Park Shell take heart: The amphitheater soon will be spruced up in a major way and could be hosting live concert performances again as early as spring 2008.

Play it again, Sam

City officials recently were briefed on details of the renovation, some funding for which already has been approved by the Memphis City Council. Those details include pulling up some or perhaps all of the wooden benches that exist now to allow people to bring their own blankets and chairs to fill what would be a sloping grassy knoll.

Other details that have been discussed include the possibility of signage along Poplar Avenue and possibly in Veterans Plaza within Overton Park promoting the refurbished shell. If those details and more all come to fruition, the shell also would reopen with modern touches that might long ago have seemed unthinkable for the venue, built for less than $12,000 in the 1930s by the City of Memphis and the Works Progress Administration.

A representative of the civic group pushing for the shell's renovation told Memphis City Council members last week that current plans also call for removing the metal buildings that flank the shell and replacing them with smaller wings that feature back-lit screens and some audio equipment.

"The mission of our whole organization is to build community and to do that through the performing arts," said Barry Lichterman, who's been at the forefront of the private end of the public-private renovation project.

"Elvis Presley asked me to sing with him at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis, and I sang 'Cry Cry Cry' and 'Hey Porter.' And from that time on, I was on my way, and I knew it, I felt it and I loved it."
- Late singer Johnny Cash

Shell no, we won't go

Ever since the more than 70-year-old venue was closed by city officials three years ago, citing a fear that the structure was so damaged someone could get hurt, Lichterman has been quietly leading the push to get the shell going again.

Supporters who have signed on for the project include Lee Askew, the founder of Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects in Memphis, who lives in the vicinity of the park.

Last August, a Memphis City Council committee approved a management and renovation agreement with the private group of Overton Park Shell supporters, after previously voting to shell out $500,000 in city funds on the project.

Lichterman told the council's Parks Committee earlier this month that his group anticipates creating a free 50-night concert series once the shell project is up and running. The project also entails, among other things, some decorative touches so the public can enjoy concerts that apparently will be billed as "music under the stars."

"This historic venue has been the epicenter of Memphis entertainment for over seventy years," said local architectural historian Judith Johnson. "And I am sure many citizens of our community share fond memories of this modest outdoor amphitheater with its old-fashioned wooden benches under the blazing sun or starry skies."

Shells 'n' cheeses

Cynthia Buchanan, director of Park Services for the City of Memphis, told council members this month that plans for the shell still have to go before the council for schematic design review before any major steps are taken. And the venue apparently is being renamed to something along the lines of the Levitt Shell for the Performing Arts or even shortened to the Levitt Shell.

That would honor Mortimer Levitt, the late businessman who built an empire of menswear stores around the country. Levitt, who died in 2005, was also an avid patron of the arts, and a New York-based foundation in his name was established in the 1990s to fund arts and other community-related projects.

That group, the Levitt Foundation, also is lending its support to the Overton Shell project.

Meanwhile, there's no question the Midtown concert venue decorated with a brightly colored rainbow still occupies a special place of significance in Memphis music history. Besides Elvis, scores of other nationally recognized acts have played there, from the North Mississippi Allstars to The Allman Brothers.

In 1997, Johnny Cash gave an interview to Terry Gross of National Public Radio in which he recounted playing a date at the shell with Elvis.

"When I started playing concerts, I went out from Memphis to Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee, played the little towns there, and I would go out myself in my car and set up the show or get the show booked in those theaters," said the late singer in the interview.

Soon enough, Cash was invited by Elvis to sing with him at the shell.

 "Elvis Presley asked me to sing with him at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis, and I sang 'Cry Cry Cry' and 'Hey Porter,'" Cash recounted on the NPR program. "And from that time on, I was on my way, and I knew it, I felt it and I loved it."

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