Over the past 86 years, The Levitt Shell has provided a space for musicians and music lovers to thrive—and they’ll continue doing so while returning to their OG roots as the Overton Park Shell.
While widely known as the Levitt Shell since 2005, the outdoor venue was originally built in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and was initially called the Memphis Open Air Theatre, also known as The Overton Park Shell.
Operating as one of only a handful of active, original WPA bandshells, our Shell has been home to some of Memphis music’s most historic and pivotal moments, such as, Elvis’ first paid performance—what historians regard as the first-ever rock n’ roll show—the seminal Country Blues Festival of the 1960s, and countless concerts featuring local legends like Booker T. & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, Johnny Cash, Mavis Staples, Sid Selvidge and many more.
Many Memphians may know what the Shell has done to become the world-class performing arts venue that it is.
But let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at the historical role The Levitt Shell has played in building community through the performing arts and finding common ground in a diverse audience.
Throughout the early era of the Overton Park Shell, the outdoor venue was the site of the memorable Memphis Open Air Theater (MOAT) orchestra performances, light operas, musicals.
In 1947, the Memphis Federation of Musicians launched Music Under the Stars Series which launched the Levitt Shell’s legacy of providing free music programming.
In 1954, the Shell hosted the first-ever public performance of a young Elvis Presley, who opened for headliner Slim Whitman and instantly stole the show. It was also home to the 1955 County Music Jamboree with Elvis, Wanda Jackson, Johnny Cash, and Sonny James performances. During this era, the Shell was a place for people to come together, celebrate local music heritage, and inspire as the years transcended.
Although the 1950s-1960s were a significant period in Shell history, the space wasn’t always bustling with music buzz. At times, the Overton Park Shell grew quiet—and it neared demolition in the 60s as the Memphis Arts Center planned to raze the Shell and build a $2-million theater. Conductor Noel Gilbert was instrumental in keeping the heartbeat of the Shell alive by collecting over 6,000 petition signatures. With the successful protection of the Shell, The Country Blues Festival continued with historic acts like The Bar-Kays, the Allman Brothers Band, Isaac Hayes, Black Sabbath, Seals & Crofts, and more!
In 1984, The Shell faced more attempts for demolition. There were plans for a parking garage to be built, which would silence the voice of many musicians past and future. These plans were underway until local environmentalist John Hanrahan led the fight to keep The Shell alive.
After the death of John Hanrahan in 1986, The Shell lay dormant for the first time in history. His friends and family rallied to form Save Our Shell, Inc. in his honor and brought life back to the stage. The community rallied to preserve The Shell once again, and thus, the Shell was reborn with hundreds of free concerts which would set the foundation for stewards of this cherished stage.
Year 2005 brought about the modern era of the Shell as the organization partnered with the City of Memphis, the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation to renovate The Shell and present 50 free concerts every year, as it still continues to do today.
Over 14 years, The Levitt Shell has presented over 500 free concerts.
Despite its many shifts and setbacks, one thing throughout The Shell’s history remains certain—this is a stage meant for Memphians and Memphis’ musical heritage.
On March 3rd at 10AM, The Overton Park Shell turns the page to a new chapter in music history; leaving the Levitt Foundation behind as they forge forward—or rather backwards in time—to resurface its imitable identity.
You’re invited to join them in celebrating a lifetime of music and witness the announcement to Memphis and the nation of this exciting end and beginning.