Shell beckons with fall concerts
> Overton Park landmark to host 25 events this season
Special to The Commercial Appeal
Overton Park’s Levitt Shell marks the end of its first full year of operation with the kick-off this week of its fall season of free concerts.
The Shell’s second season officially starts Thursday with a performance by the Jewish rock music group Tear Down the Walls. But Shell activities actually begin Saturday with organizers’ first kick-off party. Then on Wednesday morning, the group the Mystical Arts of Tibet begins an elaborate, five-day spiritual ritual leading up to their performance next Sunday.
In all, the upcoming season will feature 25 concerts running through Oct. 4. Show days are Thursday-Sunday with each night dedicated to a single musical theme: Thursday is Americana night. Friday is R&B, gospel, and blues performers. Saturday features two concerts, an afternoon kids show and a Latina-themed evening performance. Sunday is World Rhythms night, featuring a wide variety of ethnic music traditions. All shows are free.
“I think this is the best season yet,” says Barry Lichterman, president of Friends of the Levitt Shell, the nonprofit group that manages the Shell.
Originally built in 1936, the Shell — the site over the years of many symphony and opera performances, theater productions, and big-name concerts, including Elvis Presley’s first paid gig — was saved from demolition efforts in 2004 by the Mortimer Levitt Foundation, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit devoted to rehabilitating outdoor concert venues around the country and installing free music programs in them.
Last fall, the newly renamed Levitt Shell at Overton Park opened to the public following a $1 million renovation paid for by the foundation and the city. Anne Pitts, the Shell’s executive director who manages the day-to - day operations, says that last fall the venue had an estimated attendance of about 21,000 (it seats about 2,500). For the spring season, that figure jumped to about 35,000.
“One of the things that is happening is that people are not necessarily coming out to see ‘that band,’” says Pitts, who is particularly proud of this season’s world music offerings, which includes the all-star Hawaiian ensemble Ohana Maui on Sept. 13 and Celtic rockers the Prodigals on Sept 27.
“They may not even know who’s playing. They just know that it’s going to be good and their friends are going to be there and it’s going to be a great night of sitting on the lawn listening to music.”
To help ensure more successful seasons to come, Friends of the Levitt Shell is holding its first fundraiser event Saturday, a kick-off party featuring live music by Hill Country Revue, Jimbo Mathus, Blind Mississippi Morris & Brad Webb, and Delta Joe Sanders. Admission is $10. Food and drink vendors — including alcohol, which is prohibited at the shell’s free concerts — cost extra.
Friends of the Levitt Shell manages its mission of providing up to 50 free concerts a year on a budget of roughly $415,000, says Pitts. About $100,000 of that comes from the Mortimer Levitt Foundation, part of a five-year commitment to get the group on its feet. The rest comes from local foundation grants, corporate sponsorships, and individual donations. The kick-off parties, which will be held before the Shell’s spring and fall seasons, are part of an effort to ramp up the nonprofit’s fundraising apparatus.
“One of the things we have committed to doing is having fund-raisers,” says Lichterman. “And we thought what better to do that than to tap into some of our local and regional entertainment and have a good time as well.”
While Saturday’s party looks to the Shell’s future, the other addition to the schedule this season is a deliberate acknowledgment of the venue’s past. The appearance Thursday of Tear Down the Walls, a production designed by best-selling Jewish rock musician Rick Recht to inspire social commitment, is the debut of what organizers say will be an annual Raoul Wallenberg
Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat working in Hungary in World War II, is credited with saving tens of thousands of Jews from the Nazis. The Shell at Overton Park was renamed in his honor in 1982. In his spirit, Lichterman says the annual concert in his name will be dedicated to artists with an uncommon commitment to social causes.
“To me this is extremely important,” says Lichterman. “This gives us an opportunity to celebrate not only our heritage but this wonderful person. … We want to make sure everybody in Memphis celebrates the time it was the Raoul Wallenberg Shell.
That sense of higher purpose also inhabits the other special Shell-related events. Wednesday at 6 p.m., the Mystical Arts of Tibet, a traditional music group made up of 10 Buddhist monks, holds an opening ceremony for the construction of a mandala, a large, intricate diagram of spiritual significance made with colored sand. The monks will work on the mandala daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the grounds of the Memphis College of Arts adjacent to the Shell, and spectators are invited to watch. On Sunday, the day of their performance at the Shell, the monks will destroy the mandala as part of a 1 p.m. ceremony.
“It’s going to be one of those things that we so rarely get to see in Memphis,” says Pitts, who emphasizes the event as a chance to recognize the upcoming visit of the Dali Llama to accept the National Civil Rights Museum’s Freedom Award on Sept. 23. “It’s a great prelude to that and really represent what the Levitt Shell is all about.”
The fall season kick-off party at Overton Park’s Levitt Shell features Hill Country Revue. There is a $10 admission fee since it’s a fundraising event for the Shell.