Bob Mehr, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee
In 1936, a concert venue in Overton Park was opened. The Orchestra Shell, as it was then known, was funded through a partnership between the federal Works Progress Administration, the Memphis Park Commission and the City of Memphis.
Coordinated by then-Mayor Watkins Overton and built by Depression-era relief workers, the triple-arched white concrete structure was designed to host “summer opera, concerts and other musical entertainments.”
In 2008, the same venue was reborn as the Levitt Shell — offering a staple of musical entertainment, family concert and events. Next week, the Shell’s twice-yearly Orion Free Music Concert Series will kick off with a performance by Mindi Abair. Another 25 concerts will follow as part of a summer season that will also mark the venue’s 10th anniversary.
“These last 10 years have exceeded our expectations,” says Levitt Shell executive director Anne Pitts, who has headed operations since 2008.
“When we first started this project, we were just hoping we could slowly build an audience. And, really, that audience was there right away,” she says. “It’s incredible to me how much the city of Memphis has embraced the Levitt Shell and supported it. We are completely supported by the people and businesses of the city, and it’s through them that we’ve been able to grow.”
The Shell’s fortunes changed dramatically in 2005 with the involvement of the Mortimer Levitt Foundation. The New York-based family charity was formed to revive band shells throughout the United States and help provide free musical programming to communities. Its stated goal is to provide “opportunity for individuals and families, regardless of their ethnicity, background, culture or economic and social situation, to enjoy a wide selection of great music in a beautiful, close-up, personal and memorable setting.”
In 2016, the Shell celebrated its 80th anniversary — which followed the start of $4 million in further facility redevelopment, including the installation of new light and sound systems, an improved backstage area and loading dock, and an expansion of crowd areas and amenities.
As it continues to evolve and grow, the Shell and its free programming have once again become a civic cornerstone. The summer 2018 lineup of the Orion-sponsored free series is testament to how far the Shell’s booking and reputation have come. Among the performers appearing are notable roots-rock and Americana acts including JD McPherson, Nikki Lane and the McCrary Sisters, along with veteran performers Ray Wylie Hubbard, The Iguanas and The Blind Boys of Alabama.
Highlighting Mid-South acts, the Regional One Memphis Music Series adds another selection of shows from local notables including Harlan T. Bobo, Paul Thorn, the Stax Music Academy, Rev. Sekou, and Mike Farris.
The fundraising shows continue July 13 with a blues double bill featuring Grammy-winner Robert Cray and special guest Cedric Burnside, and wrap up with a performance by Lake Street Dive on Sept. 29. (Tickets for the “Stars at the Shell” shows are $20 to $30 and available at levittshell.org.)
The fall season, which is still being finalized, will include another 28 shows between Sept. 6 and Oct. 21 — with performers including the North Mississippi Allstars.
Even as the Shell looks back on a decade of success, Pitts says the next 10 years will be even more crucial to expanding its reach.
“We’re always looking at what we can do to achieve our ultimate mission — which is building a stronger community in Memphis through diversity and inclusion,” she says. “That’s the essential element in what makes the Levitt Shell. Through our programming partnerships and outreach we’re were doing everything to achieve that. That’s where our focus is going to be the coming years.”
2018 Orion Free Music Concert Series
Where: Levitt Shell at Overton Park
When: All concerts start at 7:30 p.m.
Details: For more information, go to levittshell.org.
May 31: Mindi Abair
June 1: Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear
June 2: Banditos
June 3: Dustbowl Revival
June 7: The War and Treaty
June 8: The Stone Foxes
June 9: Nikki Lane
June 10: Brian Owens & the Deacons of Soul
June 14: The Iguanas
June 15: La Misa Negra
June 16: The McCrary Sisters
June 17: Harlan T Bobo
June 21: The Steelwheels
June 22: Mike Farris & The Roseland Rhythm Revue
June 23: Liz Vice
June 24: Ray Wylie Hubbard
June 28: Patriotic Pops
June 29: Paul Thorn and the Blind Boys of Alabama
June 30: Stax Academy Summer Grand Finale Concert
July 1: No concert (Rain date for Stax)
July 5: Jonny P
July 6: Rev. Sekou
July 7: Seratones
July 8: Yemen Blues Band
July 12: JD McPherson
July 14: Sammy Miller & the Congregation
July 15: Peterson Brothers