(formerly Levitt Shell Memphis)
2008 – 2021
The WPA-era bandshell in Overton Park was built in 1936 to be a glorious “pledge to the future of music in Memphis.” For five decades, the Shell showcased the city’s rich musical sounds, including where Elvis Presley performed what some historians call the first “rock n roll” concert in 1954, and where countless other legends graced the stage, including Johnny Cash, Wanda Jackson, Webb Pierce, Carla Thomas, Booker T. Jones, Bonnie Raitt and even the Grateful Dead. Yet by the late 20th century, the iconic landmark became dilapidated and was nearly demolished due to disinvestment and neglect. Local preservation campaigns like “Save the Shell” struggled to raise sufficient funds to ensure its viability. Recognizing the potential community impact of revitalizing the venue, in 2005 the Levitt Foundation, led by Liz Levitt Hirsch, partnered with community and city leaders to bring the Shell back to life, saving the bandshell from demolition and launching the most notable moment of renaissance in the Shell’s history: The Levitt Era.
The Levitt Foundation provided catalytic seed funding for a transformative, state-of-the-art renovation and continued with significant annual support throughout the partnership to bring consistent, free programming and multicultural performances to the Shell. In September 2008, the Shell re-opened as the Levitt Shell, continuing the tradition of bringing Memphians together. The local Friends of Levitt nonprofit managed, programmed and fundraised for the Levitt program of presenting 50+ free concerts annually. During its time with the national Levitt network, the Levitt Shell presented more than 550 free concerts to over 1 million Memphians in an inclusive and joyous setting where people of all ages and backgrounds celebrated their shared humanity through music.
Over the years, the Levitt Shell flourished to become a citywide cultural gem known for its accessible programming reflective of the community, ranging from popular local talent to Memphis legends to a long roster of audience favorites and celebrated musicians such as Mavis Staples, Gary Clark, Jr. and North Mississippi Allstars, Yola, and Cedric Burnside.
Beyond the free shows, the Levitt Shell became a treasured hub of local pride where Memphians came together for festivals, weddings, charity events, school performances, sunrise services and other community celebrations and private events. The popular performing arts venue also fostered local engagement through collaborations with the National Civil Rights Museum, Stax Music Academy and Memphis Public Libraries’ Five Fridays of Jazz, among others.
Following its 17-year partnership with the Levitt Foundation, the Levitt Shell reached a significant milestone of becoming fully self-sustaining having built a generous community of local supporters, and in 2022 was renamed The Overton Park Shell, a nod back to its roots. The Levitt Foundation is incredibly proud to be part of The Shell’s legacy—supporting its rebirth as a cherished gathering place for the entire community. As music is the soul of Memphis and lies at the heart of Levitt’s mission, the Levitt Era set the stage for a bright future of free music under the stars at the Shell.