The Overton Park Shell
Aerial view of the Shell in Overton Park - 1953
Photo courtesy Save Our Shell, Inc. via FECC/e-cat
Overton Park is one of the first of several large parks in Memphis
designed by landscape architect George Kessler that featured a
picturesque landscape design, largely derived from the design traditions
of New York City's Central Park. The planning began in 1901 and
the design was completed in early 1902, and initial development of the
drives, open areas, lakes, and pavilions were completed by August.1
Today the park includes the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Memphis
Zoo, a 9-hole golf course, and the Memphis College of Art.
Overton Park Shell - 2002
In 1933 and 1934
Ralph Dunbar produced two summer seasons of light opera and theater on a
dirt stage at the foot of a natural bowl shaped slope in the Park and
then advocated the construction of a permanent amphitheater
on the site. In 1936 the Overton Park Orchestra Shell is constructed for $11,935 by the Work
Progress Administration (WPA) and the City of Memphis. The facility has
enough wooden benches for 4,000 people and is dominated by the
reinforced concrete orchestra shell patterned after the acoustical
designs of similar shells in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis. Dedication ceremonies
on September 13 are attended by 6,000 as the newly formed Memphis
Symphony Orchestra performs. The dedication program calls the Shell "A
pledge to the future of music in Memphis".2
Flyers courtesy Save Our Shell, Inc. via FECC/e-cat
The following year the Memphis Open Air Theatre (MOAT) produces the
first of fourteen seasons of light opera and musicals and in 1947 the Memphis Federation of Musicians inaugurates its "Music Under the
Stars Program" series which will provide six to eight events a year over
the next thirty
Scotty and Bill with the Starlite Wranglers at a special show at the VA
Shortly after recording their first record and Elvis
signed a contract with Scotty as his manager, Elvis appeared as a
special guest with the Starlite Wranglers
on July 17th at their gig at the Bon Air club on Summer Ave., a bar on
the outer rim of the city limits in eastern Memphis. When they
performed the two songs they had recorded, all of the Wranglers had to
leave the stage except Scotty and Bill since they were the only ones on
the recording. Their performance was not received well and did not sit
well with the rest of the band since the crowd was a hard drinking
traditional Country and Western crowd and they didn't care for Elvis'
look or music. After that night the they knew the Starlite Wranglers were finished as
a group and Scotty and Bill gave their full attention to Elvis and the
Blue Moon Boys. Sam Phillips then asked WMPS Memphis disc jockey Bob Neal to book
Elvis on his Country Music Jamboree at the Overton Shell that featured
Slim Whitman and Billy Walker as the headliners. It would be their
first professional public performance as a band.3
The ad in the Memphis Press Scimitar misspelled Elvis's name "Ellis"
though the small article got his name
July 30, 1954 advertisement in the Memphis Press Scimitar
Ad Scans courtesy Long Lonely Highway by Ger Rijff
as a Hillbilly Hoedown, appearing in addition to Slim Whitman and Billy
Walker were "Sugarfoot Collins, "Sonny" Harvelle, Tinker Fry and "Curly
Harris. The show began at 8:00 on the night of July, 30, 1954,
and they started with "That's Alright Mama". Elvis was so nervous
he stood up on the balls of his feet and shook his leg in time with the
music, a move he sometimes used in the studio. To his shock and horror
the young girls in the audience went crazy, yelling and applauding.
Scotty said, "We didn't know what was going on when all those people
started screaming and hollering." Next they did "Blue Moon of
Kentucky" and when Elvis got offstage he asked why people were yelling
at him. Someone told him it was because he was shaking his leg,
which with the baggy pleated pants created a wild gyrating effect in
time with the music. Later in the show they returned and did the
same two numbers along with "I'll never let you go (Little Darlin)", a
new song they had been working on.3
Elvis backstage at Overton Park Shell - July 30, 1954
Photo © Bill
The following year they returned to the Shell for the
second and last time for Bob Neal's eighth annual Country Music
Jamboree. The show also included Webb Pierce, Sonny James, Johnny Cash,
and some 22 other country music and comedy performers. They drew a crowd of over 4000.
Elvis and Texas Bill Strength at the Shell
Photo by Robert Dye © EPE
The Memphis Press Scimitar on August 6 reported that the
Shell was jammed with an overflow audience for the show and that several
hundred were turned away. Local amateur photographer
Robert Dye who photographed Elvis at the Shell on August 5th recalled one performer loaning him his guitar after Elvis couldn't find
his in time to go on and was pretty agitated after Elvis returned it
with two strings broken.
Elvis backstage at Overton Park Shell Aug 5,
Photo by Robert Dye © EPE
Homes on the west and east side of Overton Park were
leveled in the 1960s to make way for the construction of Interstate 40,
but instead of going through, the interstate abruptly stopped before
reaching the area after numerous lawsuits succeeded in halting
construction. The shell would eventually host several large name
rock acts that included the Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead and Neil
Diamond. In 1974 the fence was removed and the Shell resumed a schedule of free
performances, thus ending the controversy over rock concerts.
Fenced in arena - 1972
Photo © W. Bearden - Overton Park / Images of America
Last rock concert where admission was charged - 1974
Photo © W. Bearden - Overton Park / Images of America
In 1982 at the request of the National Council of Christians and Jews, the Shell
was renamed the Raoul Wallenberg Shell after Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat responsible for
saving thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps.
In 1985, the stage of the Shell remained dark for the first season since its construction. Many
Memphians thought the dormant and somewhat dilapidated amphitheater was
doomed to be displaced by a parking lot.
From the wings - 2002
Late in 1985, volunteers began
repairs to the facility at no cost to the city. A petition drive
was begun, weekly meetings were held and the "Save Our Shell" committee
Save Our Shell Inc. provided entertainment there through 2003 with 54 performances for 63,000 people
in 2002 and 63
performances for 75,000 people in 2003.2
mural at Overton Park shell
Years later a Christian and Jewish themed mural was
painted on one of the rear outside side walls at the shell that depicted Elvis
and subjects from the lyrics of one of the gospel songs he recorded,
"Peace in the Valley". One or more organizations apparently
protested about the religious aspects of the mural and most of it was
In October of 2004 the city once again closed the 68
year old shell citing code violations and liability concerns. An
engineering study found that the shell needed about $550,000.00 worth of
repairs and improvements. It said this historic venue has decayed to
the point that it is now a liability for the city.
In January of 2007 it was announced that the city had
partnered with the Mortimer Levitt Foundation and a
group of Memphians
to revive the Shell. The Foundation, created in 1963 to support the arts
across the U.S., has a history of helping restore amphitheaters, such as
the Gold Shell in Memorial Park in the city of Pasadena, CA. That venue,
built in 1930 and restored with a $250,000 grant from the foundation is
now called the
Pavilion for the Performing Arts.
Aerial view of the Shell in Overton Park - 2007
In February The Memphis Business journal reported that
renovations will cost approximately $1 million and construction is
scheduled to begin in June with the first performances in Spring 2008.
The Memphis City Council approved capital funding of $500,000 to be
matched by the Mortimer Levitt Foundation and the Friends for the Levitt
Pavilion Memphis. The Friends will raise an additional $1.75 million to
operate the Shell for the first five years and intend to produce 50 free
concerts there a year.
Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects will design
the renovation and is looking to make it environmentally friendly and
sustainable, according to a release. "The renovations include replacing
the two wings on each side of the stage and replacing the old benches
with lawn seating and a few new benches for the elderly and
handicapped," Lee Askew said.4
A computer-generated REVIT image
shows the design of the renovated Levitt Shell
The picture of Elvis at his first appearance at the
shell on July 30th with the little boy , Charlie Torian Jr., was taken when he was brought
backstage to meet "an entertainer" by his father, a Lieutenant with the
Memphis Fire Dept. When Elvis died on August 16, 1977, that little boy,
by then a Sergeant with the Memphis Police, was assigned to Graceland to
guard Elvis' body.5
page added November 24, 2007
Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.
2 compiled by
John Larkin, Save Our Shell, Inc.
3 excerpted from "That's
Allright Elvis" by Scotty Moore and James Dickerson
Memphis Business Journal.
5 courtesy The
Sun Years by Bill E. Burk, publisher of
Elvis World Magazine
Special thanks to E-Cat of the FECC
for his photo contributions
Levitt Shell's opening crowd amazes
Opening Night at the Levitt Shell - Sept. 4, 2008
Photo © Commercial Appeal
Ecstatic organizers estimate nearly 1,000 attended each night
By Joseph Russell
Special to The Commercial Appeal
Monday, September 8, 2008
As an opener, the four-day inauguration of Overton Park's open-air band shell exceeded all expectations for those who helped make the $1.3 million renovation a reality.
The newly refurbished Levitt
Shell, which had been closed since 2004 following many years of disuse and disrepair in the 1990s, began its premiere concert season Thursday. Performances ranged from a well-received opener by local roots-rock musician Amy LaVere and longtime stalwart producer/performer Jim Dickinson to homegrown jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum and the New Olivet Baptist choir on Friday. Saturday's event included a family-focused show and a Latin-infused evening performance by Melina Almodovar. The local performing arts troupe Watoto De Afrika performed Sunday.
Cloudy weather couldn't keep the crowd away from the dedication of the new Levitt Shell in Overton Park on Thursday.
How did Dickinson put it on Thursday night? "I first played this venue 45 years ago. It was a different Shell and a different world. And this place has seen several miracles since then, and this is one of them."
The free concert series will run Thursday through Sunday for the next five weeks, concluding Oct. 5. The Shell will launch its spring session in May 2009.
With the weather cooling down and free music in the park, the Shell's executive director, Ann Pitts, said a wide variety of people took advantage.
"There was so much diversity out there," said Pitts, who took over management duties in early August. "It was a complete cross-section of the Memphis population, which is exactly what we were trying to get."
Every time she would look out at the crowd over the weekend, Pitts said, she was simply "amazed."
"I was probably expecting 500 or 600 people to come out. It's brand new and it takes a little while to see what's going to happen. It takes a while for word of mouth to spread," she said.
Instead, she estimated about 1,000 people in attendance each night.
"I was expecting something great and it's better than I expected," Pitts said.
Pitts said she saw evidence that the Shell can achieve one of its chief goals -- to inspire a greater sense of community.
"This is about music, but it's also about building the community," Pitts said. "Through music, by bringing everybody together regardless of age or income status, gender, race, ethnicity, regardless of that stuff we can all come together, and through that sharing experience, we form bonds."
Elizabeth Levitt Hirsch, vice president of the Mortimer Levitt Foundation, the New Jersey non-profit that provided the impetus and half the funding for the revitalized Shell, was on hand for Thursday night's dedication.
Started by the late New York clothier Mortimer Levitt in 1963, the foundation is dedicated to promoting free concerts in outdoor venues across the country. The foundation has helped establish a network of Shell pavilions, with locations in Westport, Conn.; Pasadena and Los Angeles, Calif.; and Harrisburg, Pa. A new facility opens later this fall in Arlington, Texas.
"Levitt pavilions are about community, which is what you see up on the stage, which is what you view all around you," Hirsch told the audience. "The thought of making music in Memphis with the Levitt Shell, building community under the stars, is something that makes my heart swell with pride."
Music critic Mark Jordan contributed to this report. To read his full review of Thursday's performance, visit gomemphis.com.
If you go
Concerts at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park are 7 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays. Saturday children's shows are at 5 p.m. In case of inclement weather, call 272-5159 for information.
Visit the Web site, levittshell.org for a complete schedule.
article added September 9, 2008 courtesy Commercialappeal.com