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VOL. 126 | NO. 181 | Friday, September 16, 2011

Lease on Former Three Alarm Studio in Foreclosure Again

By Bill Dries

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The leasehold on a former Downtown Memphis fire station with a checkered 25-year history and a strategic location – 200 Linden Ave. – is facing foreclosure again.

At issue for the city-owned property, which is on the same block as FedExForum, is a leasehold interest held by Merchants & Farmers Bank, which is foreclosing on a defaulted $990,000 loan. That loan was taken out in 2005 by 200 Linden Ave. Properties GP, a company connected to Curtis Wegener.

A first-run foreclosure notice ran in Wednesday, Sept. 14’s Daily News and at The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com. The leasehold is scheduled to be auctioned Oct. 5 at 1 p.m. on the steps of the Shelby County Courthouse.

Wegener was a partner in 310 Beale Street Properties LLC, the now-defunct Pat O’Briens on Beale Street. The restaurant is in the same general area as the former firehouse.

The firehouse represents a landmark and case study about efforts to revive the Memphis music industry.

In 1985, the city of Memphis leased the building and property to legendary Memphis and Nashville music producer Chips Moman for $1. It was a 99-year agreement with an option to purchase that Moman, individually, and through Moman Recording Corp., had after an early-1980s Nashville run that included producing The Highwaymen albums.

Before moving to Nashville, Moman ran – and was part-owner of – the old American Recording Studio on Chelsea Avenue at Danny Thomas Boulevard. Under Moman’s direction, the studio became a hit factory from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. He produced hit records by Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, The Box Tops, Dusty Springfield, B.J. Thomas, Dionne Warwick and dozens of other artists from the studio.

Former Memphis Mayor Dick Hackett’s administration sought to recapture the success with the lease for the nominal amount of city property at 200 Linden, which Moman renovated as a recording studio called Three Alarm Studio.

The sentiment at the time among other studio owners in town was a quiet reaction, but one with questions about why Moman got help from the city and they didn’t.

As the firehouse was being outfitted for life as a recording studio, Moman recorded an album that was a reunion of Sun Records legends Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison called “Class of ’55: Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming.”

Moman even returned to American Recording Studio to record some of the songs, including tunes featuring such guests as John Fogerty, The Judds, Ricky Nelson and Dave Edmunds.

Moman’s first project in the firehouse painted purple was an album by Ringo Starr. Like the “Class of ‘55” project, the recording sessions came with lots of attendant publicity – planned and otherwise.

Moman and Starr threw a party on a riverboat and took guests for a cruise as both played in a band on board. When Rheta Grimsley Johnson, then a columnist for The Commercial Appeal, wrote that Starr might not have been the most popular Beatle, Moman and the studio band picketed The Commercial Appeal offices.

Starr later sued, successfully, to prevent the release of the album, saying it was recorded while he was drinking heavily. He also got the master tapes of what some audiophile websites refer to as “The Lost Ringo Album.”

Moman recorded an album by Bobby Womack at Three Alarm Studio, but shortly after that moved back to the Nashville area and took some of the studio equipment with him. When the studio’s next owner filed suit in Shelby County Chancery Court over the equipment removal, Moman was held in contempt of court and appeared before Chancellor D.J Alissandratos in handcuffs.

In 1992, First Tennessee Bank NA bought the leasehold interest in foreclosure for $383,000.

The nearby Beale Street Entertainment District was a year away from its 10th anniversary, The Pyramid had just opened, and the parcel of land on which FedExForum would be built starting in 2002 was still an open field with the exception of the firehouse.

The Memphis Housing Authority in 2001 quitclaimed the property and 11 other parcels that are now FedExForum to the city of Memphis. Meanwhile, the firehouse went through several incarnations as nightclubs. One was called Danceplex; a later one was called The Skybox.

The December 2005 leasehold loan from Merchants and Farmers Bank came in the first full year of operation of the neighboring arena.

PROPERTY SALES 56 289 2,908
MORTGAGES 55 226 2,009
BUILDING PERMITS 108 1,002 6,703
BANKRUPTCIES 42 248 1,225