Of the 27 public bandshells built across the U.S. under President Roosevelt’s Depression-era WPA program, the Overton Park Shell in Memphis, Tennessee, is one of a handful still standing. It probably didn’t hurt that it happens to be the site of Elvis Presley’s first concert.
The open-air amphitheater—built for a humble $12,000 in 1936—primarily hosted operas, musicals, and orchestras in its early years. It began hosting big bands in the 1940s while making all shows free admission. Then, on July 30th, 1954, a nineteen-year old singer from Tupelo, Mississippi, with a couple talent show wins under his belt opened for Slim Whitman. “We were all scared to death. He was kind of jiggling,” said guitarist Scotty Moore of a young Elvis Presley. After missing his cue, Presley began nervously shaking his legs, inducing a frenzy among the 5,000-strong mostly teenage crowd and cementing a trademark stage-move for the nascent star. “With those old loose britches that we wore, you shook your leg and it made it look like all hell was going on under there,” said Moore.
The Shell was also the site of a bold festival series held in the thick of the Civil Rights era. In June of 1966, 400 KKK members burned a cross in the Shell’s parking lot. The inaugural Memphis Country Blues Festival took place just a week later. Black musicians like Bukka White, Nathan Beauregard, and Furry Lewis—blues acts that had fallen into obscurity by the late 60s, but to whom rock and rollers nonetheless owed a massive cultural debt—played for a massive integrated audience in a city marred by racial tensions and violence.
Despite its rich history, the Shell faced down demolition regularly over the years. It was nearly razed in the 1960s to make room for a $2 million theater; again in 1972 to create a parking garage; and again in 1984 in a second attempt at the same parking garage. Through it all, the Shell was spared by one charitable foundation or another.
Today, the stage typically hosts 50 shows a year including orchestras, ballets, rock shows, and blues acts, but also rappers, health classes, and TED talks as well. Most shows are still free admission, with the exception of a ticketed fundraising concert series called “Shell Yeah!”