New York philanthropist Mrs. Mimi Levitt visited The Orpheum Theatre on Wednesday. She and late husband Mortimer established the Mortimer Levitt Foundation in 1966 to provide assistance to performing arts venues that build communities and support diversity. Mrs. Levitt funded the 2007 renovation effort of the Overton Park Shell that preceded its re-opening in fall of last year as the Levitt Shell at Overton Park. Her contributions to the Levitt Shell amount to over 1 million dollars over the past five years. She is not only a noted Arts benefactress, but also an avid fan of opera and historic preservation, which led her to The Orpheum, the first building in Memphis to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Orpheum Building Manager Richard Reniach led Mrs. Levitt on a tour of the South's Finest Theatre. Representatives from Opera Memphis,the Levitt Shell, and the New Ballet Ensemble were present as the Viennese octogenarian learned about the 1928 construction, the 1984 and 1998 renovations, the Wurlitzer organ, the near flawless theatre acoustics, and, of course, Mary the Ghost.
Mrs. Levitt was impressed with the restoration, particularly the detailed gold leaf. Reinach said the cost of painting the interior during the 1998 renovation was over $500,000! It won't be too much longer until the work needs to be redone. There is only one company that the few remaining historic theatres in the U.S. trust for this kind of work, and they're located in New Berlin, Wisconsin, of all places.
There are currently five Levitt Pavillions across the United States - Los Angeles, Pasadena,CA; Arlington, TX; and the original Levitt in Westport,CT. They are all characterized by a grassy open-air setting, professional sound, musical diversity, and family friendliness. However, they all reflect the uniqueness of their community. Oh, and the concerts are all free!!!
Just as an aside-- When I first learned of the new name and was completely uninformed on the project, I remember thinking that attaching Levitt to The Shell was a bad idea. On a trip, I'd seen information on a concert that was at the Levitt Pavilion in LA. I made the assumption, wrongly, that Levitt was some sort of national corporate conglomerate that buys these venues across the country, sometimes renovates them, and makes a substantial profit under the guise of growing arts in the community. Corporations are always looking to attach their name to any arena, stadium, or other place people flock. Other than demolition, what could be worse for our Shell? The Shell that is an indelible part of Memphis history, where Elvis played one of his first concerts in 1954. (Some call it the first rock 'n roll concert ever.) The Shell that's located in the heart of Memphis's cultural hotbed. If I had one day to make someone truly feel what it is to be a Memphian, apart from our great tourist attrations, a concert in Overton Park at The Levitt Shell wouldn't be a bad place to start.
The truth about the rechristening as the Levitt Shell is the complete opposite. The Levitts have been dedicated to preserving these venues and ensuring that they remain a community treasure. When Mortimer Levitt sold his custom shirt clothing empire that catered to celebs and businessmen in 1997, all of the proceeds were transferred directly to the Arts Foundation he and his wife set up three decades earlier.
Most of these Shells and other outdoor pavilions built during the Great Depression are no longer standing. Our own Shell was scheduled to be razed in the early 1960s, 1972, and 1984, but was saved by citizen organization and effort.
In addition to increased exposure to the Arts for all Memphians, the re-opening of the Levitt Shell seems to have strengthened ties between what some might think would be competing arts groups. And for most everyone else, the 2008 opening has been a source of civic pride.
Thank you Mrs. Levitt!
FREE Music in Memphis at the Levitt Shell
Every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday
May 28 - Jun 28, 2009