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After a million-dollar renovation, the Levitt Shell prepares for its close-up.



Dormant since 2004 and in disrepair for many years before that, the once-proud Overton Park Shell makes a comeback this week. Rechristened the Levitt Shell — after the nonprofit, Los Angeles-based Mortimer-Levitt Foundation, which has helped finance the venue's renovation as part of a bid to rehab classic band shells across the country — the venue that hosted Elvis Presley's first paid concert, classic hippie-era blues and folk festivals, and other memorable events is being reborn as a family-oriented venue.

The Levitt Shell debuts on Thursday, September 4th, when Amy LaVere performs to kick off a five-week, 25-concert fall season.

The $1.3 million renovation (funding by the Levitt Foundation and matching city funds) includes a new, all-white backdrop, new green rooms, and new wings on each side of the stage that will house speakers and include garage-door-size screens with rear projection. The wooden benches in the seating area have been removed and sod installed for open lawn seating (with new benches for elderly or disabled patrons). The bathrooms also have been renovated.

At the core of the Shell's new programming strategy will be two annual concert seasons, one starting next week and running through early October, the other scheduled for May. All concerts are free and open to the public.

"We want to attract a diversity of the public in Memphis," says Levitt Shell executive director Anne Pitts, a former Oxford, Mississippi-based entertainment attorney who came aboard in early August after the departure of the initial director, Chip Pankey.

"We're making it open and free because we want to get people involved with their community. We want to attract all of the city's representative communities. We have a mission to provide programming that speaks to everyone," Pitts says. "There's a real drive in the community to offer more things in the park, more family-friendly, more walking-friendly. We think this does that."

The fall and spring concert seasons are set to feature five concerts each week in five different spheres: Americana, R&B/gospel, kids' music, Latin, and "world rhythms."

Pitts hopes bookings will be roughly "50-50" between area artists and touring acts.

Outside of the two concert seasons, Pitts says the shell will book some larger, one-off concerts as ticketed events to raise money. The bulk of other programming will likely come from renting the facility or from partnering with other organizations for joint programming. Pitts mentions film screenings, live theater, and kid-specific events as the kinds of nonmusical programming that will be sought.

In addition to renovation costs, the Levitt Foundation also has agreed to provide some operational funding for the first five years to ease the local, nonprofit Friends of the Levitt Shell into full financial independence while the organization builds its local fund-raising. Pitts says local grants (including assistance from the Plough and Assisi foundations), private donations, and sponsorships are going well and that the organization will be looking to hire a development director.

"We're really focused on pulling all of the pieces together and having a successful opening season, so we can present that to future sponsors," Pitts says.

The lineup for the Shell's opening week:

Amy LaVere and Justin Townes Earle (September 4th, 7 p.m.): Still going strong on the strength of her 2007 sophomore album, Anchors & Anvils, LaVere is a versatile, charismatic roots performer who has been much in demand lately. Over the past few months, she and her band (Paul Taylor on drums, Steve Selvidge on guitar) have made separate tours to the U.K. and Scandinavia in conjunction with overseas releases of Anchors & Anvils. Before and after the trip to Norway and Sweden, LaVere filmed scenes for Craig Brewer's web series, $5 Cover. "I basically have not had a day off," LaVere sighed last week, packing for a trip to a Pennsylvania folk festival. LaVere says she plans on taking off the month of January to focus on recording her follow-up to Anchors & Anvils. Earles, the son of roots-rock icon Steve Earle, will open.

Kirk Whalum (September 5th, 7 p.m.): The heralded, Memphis-bred jazz saxophonist will be joined by the choir from Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, where his brother, Kenneth, presides.

Teatro de la Rosa (September 6th, 5 p.m.): A Hispanic theater troupe that provides bilingual entertainment geared toward kids.

Melina Almodovar (September 6th, 7:30 p.m.): This Miami-based salsa singer is a former Memphian who got her start at the beginning of this decade as the frontperson for the local ensemble Orquestra Caliente.

Watoto de Afrika (September 7th, 7 p.m.): A local troupe that introduces African-American kids to African music and dance styles.

The rest of the fall concert series will feature artists such as saxophonist Bill Evans, Stax stalwart William Bell with the Bo-Keys, and Texas polka-rock band Brave Combo. Local caterer Another Roadside Attraction will provide concessions at tents located at the back of the lawn, with a third concession site reserved for rotating local vendors.

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