As Anne Pitts looks back on the first season of the Levitt Shell in September 2008, she recalls a few opening-night jitters. "I worried that hardly anybody would show up, or that parking would be crazy, and that car alarms would go off all over the place," says the Shell's executive director. "But it was amazing. I looked out at the crowd and thought, this is exactly what we wanted to accomplish."
As the spring season opens on May 28th — featuring Cowboy Jack Clements, the singer, songwriter, and Sun Records producer who worked with the likes of Elvis and Johnny Cash — the open-air venue moves into the first full year of a revival that started when the Mortimer Levitt Foundation gave it a half-million-dollar shot in the arm. The city matched the amount and other foundations and individuals ponied up funds to renovate the struggling relic that's been close to the hearts of music-lovers for nearly 75 years.
Constructed as the Overton Park Shell in 1936 by the federal Works Progress Administration, and dedicated by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra as "a pledge to the future of music in Memphis," the Shell gave the city decades of concerts. These ranged from light opera and "Music Under the Stars," to a rock-and-roll show that featured Elvis in July 1954, and more rock and country performers through the 1970s.
In 1982, the venue's name was changed to the Raoul Wallenberg Shell in Overton Park, to memorialize a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. That same decade saw the establishment of Save Our Shell, a group that preserved the aging amphitheater and kept the music playing for another 17 years.
But in 2004 in a budget-slashing mood, the City of Memphis announced it would shutter the Shell. Help came from a New Yorker named Mortimer Levitt, who grew up listening to Sunday afternoon concerts on village greens and beachside parks. At age 90, he sold his retail interests and devoted his time and money to building Levitt Pavilions around the nation. His foundation continues to support band-shell concerts.
"It's an interesting story how the Levitts learned about ours," says Pitts. She credits former Memphian and versatile musician David Troy Francis for telling the Shell's story. "David was playing at a Levitt Pavilion in California when he met Mortimer Levitt's daughter, Elizabeth Hirsch," says Pitts. "He said, 'You've got to see the Shell in Memphis." Hirsch came to town, had lunch with Shell supporters at the Brooks Museum, then strolled with them over to see the amphitheater on its gently sloping hill. Pitts says, "Liz felt an instant connection," and the deal was sealed.
Renovations involved adding storage wings and a backstage area, making the facility handicap accessible, installing thousands of LED lights for more dramatic illumination, and adding a partition to screen musicians before they emerge on stage. "Except for that, the stage is exactly the same," says Pitts, who adds that sound bounces off the Shell's curve and projects outwards. "Our sound system captures that and projects it." On the greenspace, most benches were removed so that people could interact on the open lawn of what is now officially The Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts at the Raoul Wallenburg Shell.
In addition to renovations, the foundation also provides operating capital for the next five years. That includes scheduling musicians for 50 annual concerts. "I'm so excited about this season I can't even describe it," says Pitts. Fans can expect David Troy Francis with New York vocalist Betty Hunt Strain, world music artist Corey Harris, and folk-rocker Todd Snider, to name just a few. For a complete listing go to www.levittshell.org.
Last fall, when performances averaged 2,000 attendees, Pitts witnessed the realization of Mortimer Levitt's goal. "Using music to bring people together — it was amazing to look out at the crowd and see that," she smiles. "And we've heard that people make Shell friends and they get together every time they come. They really form bonds."