The Overton Park Shell was built in 1936 by the City of Memphis and depression-era WPA (Works Progress Administration) for $11,935. The Shell was designed by architect Max Furbringer, who modeled it after similar band shells in Chicago, New York and St. Louis. The WPA built 27 band shells and the Levitt Shell is one of only a handful that are still standing.
The Shell’s history has special meaning for a town that takes its music seriously. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Shell was the site of the memorable Memphis Open Air Theater (MOAT) orchestra performances, light opera and musicals. In 1947 the Memphis Federation of Musicians launched its Music under the Stars series, free to the public.
On July 30, 1954 Elvis Presley took the stage before headliner Slim Whitman. Elvis stole the show in what music historians call the first-ever rock and roll show. And it happened at the Shell in Overton Park.
Over the years, there have been numerous efforts, some to revitalize the Shell, and some to destroy it.
In the 1960s, the City turned the Shell over to the Memphis Arts Center, Inc., which planned to raze the Shell and build $2 million theater. But Noel Gilbert, beloved long-time conductor of the Memphis Concert Orchestra, organized a petition, gathering 6,000 signatures to save the Shell.
In 1972, the Shell was almost demolished to make room for a parking garage.
In 1982, the NCCJ (National Conference of Christians and Jews) proposed raising funds for restoration and were able to rename the Shell in honor of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish humanitarian and diplomat who bravely and creatively saved the lives of more than 15,000 Jews by issuing them Swedish “protective passes” and building 30 “Swedish houses”, on which he hung Swedish flags and declared Swedish territory to provide protection.
Unfortunately, the NCCJ campaign never provided the requisite funds. By 1984, the parking lot plan began to move forward – until Mayor Dick Hacket pledged, following an Arts in the Park concert at the Shell, to fund the Shell’s renovation if a private group would spearhead an arts program.
Despite the gallant efforts of John Hanrahan, a private citizen who almost single-handedly led the fight to keep the Shell alive, no progress was made. In the summer of 1985, the Shell lay dormant for the first time in its history. When Hanrahan died in 1986, his friends and family formed Save Our Shell, Inc. and the Shell enjoyed a rebirth. Over the past 20 years, Save Our Shell presented hundreds of free concerts in the Overton Park before having to end its programs.
In 2005, the Shell partnered with the City of Memphis and the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation to renovate the Shell and present 50 free concerts every year. It was renamed Levitt Shell at Overton Park and renovation was begun in 2007. It opened again with free music for all on September 4, 2008.
The Levitt Shell presents 50 free concerts every year, with performances by nationally and internationally touring musicians from all over the world. Using free concerts as a catalyst for bringing people together, the Levitt Shell is building a stronger community through music, finding common ground for a diverse audience. The Shell’s rich musical heritage, prime location, thoughtfully renovated facility, and multi-cultural musical programming make it the ideal setting to bring the Memphis community together.