Innovator: The Levitt Shell
Innovation: Fifty free concerts held in an outdoor venue of historic and cultural importance to the city bringing the community together from disparate neighborhoods and with an eye to diversity of race and socioeconomic conditions. The renovation and programming of the venue was a catalyst to nearby economic development as well.
by Richard J. Alley
In 2003, when the next phase of the Overton Park Shell was just a glimmer of hope, the subject of a conversation at a nearby restaurant, Broad Avenue was still a dead-end street, the Sears distribution center in Crosstown was the largest blight on the cityscape, and Overton Square was a ghost town of mostly boarded-up storefronts.
That lunchtime conversation at the Brushmark Restaurant at the Brooks Museum of Art among Katie Smythe, Barry Lichterman, and Elizabeth Levitt Hirsch of Levitt Pavilions, was carried on the wind, just over the hill to a crumbling, neglected, yet important piece of Memphis cultural history.
The Levitt Shell (as it’s now known) opened in September 2008 with its first free concert and is a lot of things today. It is first and foremost a gathering place for the community. It is a venue for free concerts with the ability to showcase many diverse genres of music. It is a historical stage once graced by the likes of Elvis Presley who performed what many consider the first rock-and-roll show in 1954. But it is also an economic engine.
“All of our performers get paid and get paid a very fair wage,” says Lichterman, president emeritus of the Friends of the Levitt Pavilion Memphis Inc. “One of the things we had to convince people of [in the beginning], was that it’s safe to go into this area of town. Overton Square was boarded up and the current owners have come over and told us this is one of the reasons they realized this was still a very viable area of town to do business in, because they can see the success of the Levitt Shell.”
The Shell is the hub, and the development of those areas at its spokes — Broad Avenue, Overton Square, and the Concourse at Crosstown — is testament to the innovative nature of being first.
The mission of the national nonprofit Levitt Pavilions is “to strengthen the social fabric of America” and to “transform neglected outdoor spaces into welcoming destinations where the power of free, live music brings people together and invigorates community life.” There were only two such venues in 2004 when the process of saving the Shell began in earnest.
Today there are eight pavilions (the name “Shell” was retained due to its iconic stature in the city), but Memphis is unique mainly because Memphis needs such a site more than any of the other cities. Pasadena doesn’t have the history of economic and racial tensions of Memphis. Nor does Denver; or Westport, Connecticut; or Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It is what executive director Anne Pitts describes as “that one Memphis experience” when she looks out from the stage on any given night of the run of 50 free concerts during the spring and fall season. “It’s the kids in front of the stage, that is the most powerful example of what we’re all about and what we do. Kids are so much easier to lose their inhibitions, so you see kids of every race, every neighborhood playing together, and they just gravitate to each other in front of that stage. But you’re seeing that in the audience as well, seeing people sitting side by side and knowing that they come from different backgrounds, they have a completely different set of experiences, and all of that is just falling away, and here is one group of people representing one connected, united city.”
This coming together is by design. Pitts was hired just four weeks before the kickoff of the first season and spent that time, and time since, going into every possible zip code in the city to share the gospel of free music. That work has paid off, the people have heard, and crowds today average 2,800, up from the 1,100 average seven years ago.
The opportunity for community-building was a vision seen by almost everyone involved from the beginning. Lichterman, the cause’s torchbearer since the beginning, saw an immediate buy-in from the city council, the parks department, the other Overton Park stakeholders, and from the big-name donors he’d need to get the funding not provided by Levitt Pavilions.
Renovation of the Shell ran $1.2 million with the city putting in half, Levitt Pavilions providing 25 percent, and the rest raised from private donations. To continue to operate, the organization relies on another unique model of having no gate, seeking corporate sponsorships and individual donations, and with only one major fundraiser each year. And, of course, passing the hat — or, in this case, the bucket — which sees upwards of $65,000 per year collected on the lawn.
The Shell is owned by the city, the Friends acting as conservators with a 25-year lease and an option for the same length. Where other such pavilions around the country rent the space from their cities, holding concerts, then handing the venue back over when finished, Memphis’ Shell is maintained year-round by the Friends.
The Shell celebrates its 80th birthday next year and with that celebration comes a capital campaign to makes sure it will endure another 80. With the success of the past years of concerts, the buy-in from the community is surely a given.
“The concept of what we were asking people to invest in,” says Pitts, “was a brand new idea and that was ‘We’re going to turn this community around. First invest in us and we’re going to take that investment and we’re going to invest it in the community, we’re going to bring the community out here, we’re going to show them that they belong, that this is all for them, that we can be a connected city.’”
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