Strengthening our Roots
By Sandi Butler Hughes
Photography by Craig Thompson
Spring is that magical time of year when azaleas burst into bloom, the days get longer, and Memphians pack their coolers and their chairs-in-a-bag and stake out a spot at the Overton Park Shell. Since 1936, this piece of living history has gathered together people from across the city to enjoy an array of live performances.
Since opening, there is one thing every performer who takes the stage at the Shell has in common: from opera singers to modern dancers, from Elvis to Emmy Lou, they all have experienced the Shell backstage, and now you have that opportunity too with the Backstage Experience. This is an immersive tour and explores almost a century of music history at Overton Park Shell. The Connie Abston Archive & History Exhibition is located backstage in the wings and green rooms, and the exhibit honors Connie’s long history with the Shell. Her association dates back to her childhood in the 1940s when the Shell was known as the Memphis Open Air Theater.
The 4Memphis team was welcomed backstage and treated like rock stars when we spent a glorious Spring afternoon shooting our fashion spread for this issue. We were treated to a little preview of the Backstage Experience Tour, and it was so fun and enlightening to hear the stories of all the performers, from Black Sabbath to Bonnie Raitt, who have played the Shell.
The Shell’s history is entwined with Memphis music history, and fashion for both women and men has also been a part of that rich history. When Elvis first played the Shell in 1954, he took the stage wearing baggy fuschia trousers he bought at Lansky’s. The renowned opera singer Marguerite Piazza was a regular performer at the Shell beginning in 1950 into the 1990s, and she was frequently mentioned in newspaper columns about designer fashions in Memphis and often was included in Memphis’ Best Dressed List. A Memphis pianist and singer who performed in the early days of the Shell was Barbara Jo Walker Hummel. She was crowned Miss America in 1947, and became the last pageant winner to pose in a swimsuit.
The Shell is about the stories almost as much as it is the performances. In 1936 Mayor Watkins Overton said the Shell was “a pledge to the future of music in Memphis.” That pledge and legacy continues today with the signature Orion Free Concert Series, Shell on Wheels, the Backstage Experience Tour, and all of the offerings in the heart of Overton Park. overtonparkshell.org.
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