COMMENTARY: HOLDING ON TO AN ASSET 

COMMENTARY: HOLDING ON TO AN ASSET

An Irish wake saved the Shell in 1985. It will take much more than that today. Friends of longtime Overton Park Shell activist John Hanrahan, who died in 1985, spontaneously formed a grassroots group at his wake, and the day after began cleaning up and “saving” the mid-town Overton Park Shell from certain death by demolition. The loss of Hanrahan was the Shell’s gain.

Since 1985 the Shell has been run by a very cost-effective, dedicated non-profit group who has kept the Shell running with little financial support from the city of Memphis. In fact, the city has given no financial support to the Shell since 1987.

Last month, Bob Fouche, the Memphis Parks Department Director, on the basis of an engineering report submitted to the Parks Department in March, 2004, ordered the Shell shut down until further notice. Fouche cited stated liability concerns as the reason for closure. The report detailed code violations that estimated $511,600 for repairs or $60,000 to tear the Shell down.

David Leonard, a Shell board member and the organziation's founding president, believes that as a member of the National Historic Register, the Shell receives a grandfathered exemption for many of the code violations. He also believes that the Shell organization can get many of the materials and much of the labor donated for repairs that are needed, greatly reducing the city’s estimates. .

What Leonard is most excited about is the long-term prospects for the Shell. “I am excited the city is interested in working with us. We see the zoo model as what we need: a management agreement with the city. People don’t want to donate to the city, but they will to a non-profit group. We’ve been operating that deal (the Shell) for 18 years without any written agreement. Maybe we finally can.”

Leonard sees Fouche as the first city employee to offer the Shell time to create a long-range plan that can be taken to the city to permanently fix the Shell and make all parties happy. Leonard is confident that there are family foundations and contractors as well as Shell fans and supporters who will come to the table when the non-profit presents a proper long-range plan. He cites online Elvis fan clubs as one group (of many) who have already begun raising money for the effort. (Fouche did not return phone inquiries about the Parks Departments commitment to the Shell). .

Why is the Shell so important to Memphis? The Shell is a gem of an amphitheater that sits on a beautiful piece of property in Overton Park surrounded by the first class Memphis College of Art; the incredible secret of the Memphis Brooks Museum; a beautiful public golf course; the top-shelf Overton Park Zoo, which has had an incredible renaissance in the last 15 years as a public cause celebre, a party palace for the smart set, and a vehicle for regional tourism; as well as the mating fields of the Overton Park forest.

None of these Memphis institutions would be here were it not for the 1960s fight against the federal government, a lawsuit which ended with the citizens of Memphis winning thereby preventing Interstate 40 from running through Overton Park. Score one for the people. .

The Overton Park Shell hosted Elvis’ first public concert once he recorded for Sun Records. The footage of Elvis shaking his hips in 1954 that has been ubiquitous of late was shot at that concert. Other music superstars have followed in Elvis’ footsteps at the Shell: Johnny Cash, Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White, Trapeze, ZZ Top, Edgar & Johnny Winter, the Allman Bros., Deep Purple, Alex Chilton, Marguerite PiazzaÉ..

The former hippies of mid-town (and the suburbs beyond) have an appropriate nostalgia for the late 1960s and early 1970s at the Shell as well. The Shell’s history is incredibly noteworthy, but what makes reviving the Shell so important is the present and future of Memphis music.

The Shell remains one of the few entry points for live performances for current Memphis musicians. In the last 15 years, there are few Memphis bands that have not played at the Shell at some formative point in their career. The Shell is a great place for young performers to cut their teeth in a forgiving, laid-back atmosphere that has the cache of hosting the King of Rock ‘N Roll at a similar early point in his career. If Memphis is to continue its legacy in the world of popular music, Memphis must create an atmosphere that already exists at the Shell. .

Those who wish to get involved with the latest imbroglio involving the Overton Park Shell may donate by calling (901)274-6046 or visiting www.overtonparkshell.com .


Another Overton Park landmark: Plaque in honor of the late Jeff Buckley, music great and, in 1997, when he succumbed to a Mississippi River tide while swimming, a zoo enthusiast.

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