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 Historic open-air stage is reborn as Levitt Shell at Overton Park

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PostSubject: Historic open-air stage is reborn as Levitt Shell at Overton Park   Wed Jul 02, 2008 7:20 am

June 29, 2008

By Bob Mehr (Contact), Memphis Commercial Appeal
It's hosted world-famous big bands and legends from Elvis Presley to cult-rock favorites Big Star, and now, Overton Park's Shell will again be a home for live music.

Newly refurbished and renamed the Levitt Shell at Overton Park, the venue's free inaugural five-week season kicks off Sept. 4 with a performance by local roots singer-songwriter Amy LaVere. The music will continue each Thursday through Sunday (with two shows on Saturdays, including an early evening children's concert) through Oct.5. The Shell will launch its second session in May 2009, with another five-week, 25-concert season.

Bringing live music back to the Shell has been a long, arduous process since the facility, which opened in 1936, fell into disrepair and disuse in the mid-'90s. Although there were numerous attempts over the past decade to relaunch

the city-owned facility -- including the "Save Our Shell" campaign -- they all fell short.

"I don't think anybody was able to put together a clean enough package to get the city to sign on the dotted line for a lease," says Chip Pankey, executive director of Friends of the Levitt Shell and the man responsible for the operation of the new facility. "Save Our Shell was an incredible organization, but they couldn't get the major funding."

The Shell's fortunes changed in 2005 with the involvement of the Mortimer Levitt Foundation. The Los Angeles-based family charity has dedicated itself to reviving band shells throughout the United States. Its stated goal is to provide the "opportunity for individuals and families, regardless of their ethnicity, background, culture or economic and social situation, to enjoy a wide selection of great music in a beautiful, close-up, personal and memorable setting." So far the Levitt Foundation has launched shells in Los Angeles, Westport, Conn., and Pasadena, Calif.

Elizabeth Levitt Hirsch, the foundation's vice president, got a tip about Memphis as a potential site for expansion and came to the South to investigate.

"Memphis, for me, was a cold call," says Hirsch. "But when I saw that Shell, my heart skipped a beat. It was perfect for what we do. We knew we had to be part of it. ... We saw the Shell as a beauty that had been ignored. It needed a lot of love, and we wanted to provide that love."

Supported by the foundation, Friends of the Levitt Shell was formed. Under terms of a contract with the city of Memphis, the foundation provides financing to help renovate and program the Shell for five years. The city is to match renovation costs up to $500,000, while offering a 25-year lease with a 25-year option to the Friends of the Levitt Shell.

Additional funding was secured through philanthropic groups including the Assisi Foundation, the Plough Foundation and the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis as well as several individual donations and the help of the Memphis College of Art. Roughly $1million will be spent on cosmetic repairs and equipment purchases as part of the Shell's re-launch.

In January, Chip Pankey -- a native Memphian with a background in arts and cultural affairs and most recently head of his own commercial photography studio -- was hired to head Friends of the Levitt Shell, handling day-to-day operations and booking.

Pankey's vision for the Shell stresses the local component.

"We want to be a community venue as opposed to a tourist venue," says Pankey.

"We've had to navigate that issue of Memphis music. We're not here just to promote Stax or Elvis -- though that's a part of our legacy and history. But really we want to focus on contemporary music and the diversity of that music."

Pankey has put together a music calendar that encompasses five general categories: R&B/soul/gospel, Americana (which includes folk, bluegrass and jazz), children's concerts, musica Latina and world rhythms.

"In a given 50-concert season, 25 of our acts will be local, another 25 will be national," says Pankey.

Among the confirmed performers are well-regarded acts like Chicago's folk troupe Sonos De Mexico, French gypsy combo Samarabalouf, Latin orchestra Grupo Fantasma, and Grammy-winning polka band Brave Combo. Additionally, Memphis notables such as LaVere, folk artist Sid Selvidge and soul legend William Bell are slated to appear. This diverse group of performers will be playing a facility, which, according to Pankey, can comfortably accommodate 2,500, "blanket to blanket."

With just 10 weeks out of the year committed, Pankey says, outside concert and event promoters will be able to fill the calendar and the organization's coffers with money from rentals.

"We're talking loosely with some people who would love to do a film festival, or do Shakespeare in the park, as well as weddings, private functions, all kinds of things," says Pankey.

Pankey says the venue won't allow any performances that aren't "family friendly," or that might unsettle the Shell's residential neighbors. "Being a good neighbor is the first and foremost priority, so we're not just going to rent it out to anybody," says Pankey.

The Shell hopes to develop an individual donor program and enlist further sponsorships from local businesses and corporations. "We're a long-distance runner. We've got to look at five years out, 10 years out," says Pankey, "and how can we slowly, but surely, build the program and build the trust within the community."

Coming attractions

The Levitt Shell concert season starts Sept. 4. The free shows will take place each week, Thursday through Sunday, until Oct. 5. Performances start at 7p.m., except for children's concerts, which begin at 5 p.m. Saturdays.

Here are some highlights:

Sept. 4: Roots songstress Amy LaVere

Sept. 5: Jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum and New Olivet Baptist Church Choir

Sept. 11: Grammy winner Bill Evans' Soulgrass, a mix of jazz, bluegrass and funk

Sept. 18: Memphis folk-bluesman Sid Selvidge

Sept. 20: Progressive Latin orchestra Grupo Fantasma

Sept. 27: New Ballet Ensemble and Memphis Youth Symphony present "Peter and the Wolf"

Sept. 28: French gypsy swing trio Samarabalouf

Oct. 3: Local R&B group The Bo-Keys with soul legend William Bell

Oct. 5: Grammy-winning polka outfit Brave Combo

http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2008/jun/29/strike-up-the-band
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