Photograph by Justin Fox Burks
Built in 1936 as the Overton Park Shell, the popular venue now known as the Levitt Shell struggled in recent decades until the late Mortimer Levitt, a New Yorker who supported open-air concerts around the country, came to its rescue in 2005 with an infusion of funds.
Today its executive director, Anne Pitts, 39, talks about the Shell’s rebirth, a moment that gave her goosebumps, how it’s possible to host 50 free concerts and not charge a dime — as well as family, books, movies, and Elvis.
You’re a graduate of the University of Mississippi law school. How’d you make the leap from law to running a historic local landmark?
I practiced entertainment law and intellectual property law in Oxford for about 10 years.
And this entire region is a hotbed of music and artistic activity and I knew a lot of people in the community. I was fortunate enough that when the Levitt Shell was looking for an executive director, my name got thrown into the hat and they gave me a call.
Did you know much about its history and significance?
I did. I knew about the Levitt Pavilions in Los Angeles and Sacramento. I knew about the concerts here in the Seventies and Eighties and was excited that people were trying to save it. But never in a million years did I dream I’d end up being a part of it.
Your favorite moment since the Shell reopened?
That first night, September 4, 2008. The Friends of the Levitt [Shell] had been negotiating with the city for three years to make sure it would remain standing. It had been empty for a number of years and people were unconvinced. But we had a vision — one where the community could come together and picnic and children could play, all with great music coming from the stage. And all of it free. Folks wondered, how can we do that? So many people had worked on the renovation, and then came the moment when thousands of little LED lights came on. You could hear this gasp through the audience. I still get goosebumps thinking about it.
How do you present 50 free concerts?
That’s a really good question. First, we receive $150,000 annually from the Levitt Foundation for core operating support. We also have foundation, corporate, and individual sponsorships and donations. And this year we have our first title sponsor, Orion Credit Union, which provides $70,000 a year. Orion has made an incredible difference in our sustainability.
Big shows in July?
We’ll have Lucero, a hometown favorite, on the 17th, and the Old 97’s on the 20th. And a special show is on July 5th. That date in 1954 is what everyone looks to as the anniversary of rock-and-roll, when Elvis recorded “That’s All Right, Mama” at Sun Studio. Then on July 30th, he was put on the bill to open for Slim Whitman at the Shell. But when he came out, he took the crowd away.
So on the 5th we’re celebrating Elvis with a house band and local performers.
Your favorite groups?
That’s like trying to choose your favorite children . . . but I’ll say Amy LaVere, the Memphis Dawls, North Mississippi Allstars, Dead Soldiers.
Talk about your family.
Most of my family live in Oxford. [In 2010] my husband, Jimmy Pitts, passed away suddenly from a heart attack. He was a poet and musician, just 42. My sister is also a widow; her husband died unexpectedly in 2006, so we were really able to lean on each other. She remarried and has a daughter, my niece. I’m very close to her.
What do you do just for Anne? Books, movies, dining out?
I love biographies. Just finished Walter Isaacson’s Einstein, and am now diving into the Autobiography of Mark Twain. Huge! And oh, a good movie — Dallas Buyers Club with Matthew McConaughey. Blew me away. And restaurants — I recently moved downtown, lots of good places. My favorite is probably Rizzo’s. And Dejavu and [South of Beale]. So I’m exploring my new neighborhood and hanging out with friends. I love that. And music. If I’m not listening to it here, I’m listening at home.