If a public building’s value is in the memories it helps create, the Pyramid — in its original incarnation — did Memphis well.
The Pyramid and I go way back. At least as far back as one can go with a 24-year-old arena. Shortly after arriving in Memphis in June 1991, I took a job in a real-estate office on Harbor Town. Outside the east windows of that office you could gaze at Sidney Shlenker’s grand vision, a four-sided, slanted, silver monstrosity that somehow seemed to fit alongside the Mississippi River just as those iconic — quite ancient — tombs have attracted the curious to Egypt since the first pharaoh was interred (roughly 2600 B.C.). The difference between the original pyramids and ours, of course, was the need for revenue-generating action inside the walls of that steel structure.
I missed the arena’s grand opening (a Judds concert on November 9, 1991) and I’m glad I did. Plumbing issues caused the arena floor to begin flooding, making that stop memorable for Naomi and Wynonna as they checked another show off on their Farewell Tour.
I was there for the Pyramid’s first rock show, Van Halen (with Sammy Hagar) on December 2, 1991. The sound quality was miserable, Eddie’s guitar heroics fairly clanging off the slanted rafters, not yet equipped with the padded barriers that properly retain the massive volume of such a concert. (Saw the same band there again four years later, drummer Alex Van Halen performing in a neck brace. Astonishing thing to witness.)
If a public building’s value is in the memories it helps create, the Pyramid — in its original incarnation — did Memphis well. The most breathtaking basketball player this city has ever produced — Penny Hardaway — played two seasons for the Memphis State Tigers under that pointed roof. If basketball wasn’t your game in the Nineties, you may well have seen camels march across a miniaturized football field during the Pyramid’s two-year stint as home to the Arena Football League’s Memphis Pharaohs.
Personally, the sight of Gene Simmons and the original members of KISS on their reunion tour (July 10, 1996) is an image I’ll never shake, having missed rock’s masked marvels during their Seventies heyday (I was too young, and Mom and Dad were too opposed). And that show was merely my second favorite Pyramid event of the year, as my wife graduated from the University of Memphis — on her birthday — a month later. A diploma presented where a guitar had, just weeks earlier, gone up in smoke. That’s a multipurpose facility.
In 2002, the arena hosted arguably its biggest event, the last heavyweight boxing match that mattered, but Lennox Lewis hammered a washed-up Mike Tyson. For most Memphians, though, the Pyramid’s peak had already occurred on November 1, 2001, when the Memphis Grizzlies hosted the Detroit Pistons in this city’s first regular-season NBA game. After decades of various minor-league operations (camels on a football field?!), the Bluff City was finally Big League. And it happened in the Pyramid. The irony, of course, is that the NBA’s arrival necessitated the construction of an arena that could actually, you know, meet NBA standards. The Grizzlies hosted their last game at the Pyramid on April 14, 2004, four months before I saw KISS one more time (alas, minus two of its original members).
Bass Pro’s arrival will redefine “multipurpose” for the Pyramid. But with live alligators, a bowling alley, observatory, hotel, and more equipment than the most avid outdoorsman could house in anything smaller, the arena will likely see more action than, yes, even a KISS concert. The hope is that the new venture is so grand, so distinctive, so unlike anything else on the planet, that the snickering and fisherman jokes (you’ve heard them if you haven’t told them) are soon viewed, metaphorically, as merely a loud, shallow creek running its course. Memphis deserves something deeper, something better. So does the Pyramid.