Remembering the Marketplace of the Midsouth

The last pyramid show a rock and roll farewell

It might not have been the arena of our dreams, but it did provide some great nights

By David Williams

February 4, 2007

It has fascinated and frustrated us, astounded and confounded us, The Pyramid.

No matter how many times we see it, still the urge is to crane our necks, scratch our heads and wonder: What in the name of Ramesses possessed us to build a pyramid, anyway?

But build it we did. We skimped and scrimped -- A tomb with no leg room? An observation deck with no inclinator? -- and still managed to create a sleek, gleaming icon that has, for most of its 15 years, kept us entertained.

So it did again on Saturday night with a farewell concert by Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band.

Under Construction in 1990

Nancy Covington, 49, of Olive Branch was there and said she's seen Travis Tritt, Elton John and even Janet Jackson at The Pyramid.

"It's like a Memphis landmark ," she said. "The FedFexForum doesn't look half as good as The Pyramid."

A 40-something East Memphis resident, Scott Garmon, called the closing a real shame.

"This is a landmark for Memphis. And even though it hasn't been around a long time, when you look up and see that in the skyline, you know you are in Memphis."

A rock and roll finale was fitting, especially by a singer whose songs include, "Turn the Page."

The book on The Pyramid -- a saga of grand visions, squandered opportunity and some matchless nights -- isn't so much closed as it is awaiting a new chapter.

Will it become a giant outdoors store, with a hotel, aquarium and cypress swamp? Or will Bass Pro Shops decide it's a 32-story stretch to bring its bass boats, crossbows and hunting lodge motif to a stainless steel-skinned pyramid.

But those are questions for another day. Today, we look back on a building that's held 1,309 events drawing some 10,119,000 people, a building that's been host to Michael Jordan, Mike Tyson, Leonardo da Vinci's "tousle-haired lady," the Lipizzaner Stallions, the Rolling Stones, Prince, Mankind and the Rock, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, monster trucks, and the Bolshoi Ballet.

New lights in 2002

After that last act brought high culture to our $65 million gymnasium, this newspaper's critic sniffed, "The Pyramid did what it could to accommodate a theatrical event ... But it still felt like watching fine art in a sports arena, particularly when some folks clomped up past me with their snacks and drinks."

The Pyramid, of course, was good for more than one-night stands. It was the home of our first major league franchise (the NBA's Grizzlies), our beloved college heroes (the University of Memphis Tigers) and, for a while, an indoor football team (the Pharaohs, who may have played fake football but trod out real camels, Tut and Cleo, by name).

"I'm filled with memories of The Pyramid," said fashion designer Pat Kerr Tigrett, whose late husband, entrepreneur and financier John Tigrett, championed the city-county project and was considered its father. "It gave John such incredible joy and me such incredible joy. It's always been a pleasure and a treasure."

And suddenly she's off reminiscing, about Tiger basketball, concerts, her own Blues Ball extravaganza, and palling around with artist LeRoy Neiman when the Tyson-Lennox Lewis heavyweight championship fight hit town in 2002.

Ah, the fight. "The Slaughter on the Water," to recall a catchphrase that somehow didn't catch on. "The Bloody on the Muddy," to quote another. It may have been the building's finest moment, a too-hot-for-Vegas bout that had the world craning to look in on li'l ol' Memphis and its Pyramid. Denzel Washington showed up to watch. So did Samuel L. Jackson, LL Cool J, Wesley Snipes, Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio.

"It's funny," then-General Manager, Alan Freeman, said when the fight was announced. "Slightly more than a year ago we were trying to secure an East Coast Hockey League franchise."

"Now, we've got an NBA team here in the Grizzlies, and today we got arguably one of the top five sporting events of the year."

The Grizzlies held court for three seasons in The Pyramid, a shacking-up, as it were, while grander digs were being built over by Beale Street. But some fans may look back fondly: Where else in the NBA could you buy a lower-bowl ticket for $25? "And," as Tigrett said, "certainly the Grizzlies would not have come to town if it wasn't for The Pyramid."

True enough. It took the promise of a new arena (the tricked-out but mundanely shaped FedExForum) to land the Grizzlies in 2001, but they wouldn't have relocated without a suitable temporary home.

Good, but not good enough -- maybe that's the legacy of The Pyramid.

But once upon a time, you know, it was going to be great -- the Great American Pyramid, as imagined by the late Sidney Shlenker.

"It's going to be a monument like the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, a signature for the city," he said in a 1989 New York Times story headlined, "Era of Great Pyramid Is Just Dawning in Memphis."

"The difference is," he continued, "this will have something to do inside it."

Ah, Sidney Shlenker. The Chicago Tribune described him that same year as a "burly, bright-eyed, gap-toothed millionaire" who "swashbuckled into town with dreams of turning Memphis into the South's biggest tourist Mecca since Mickey Mouse migrated to an Orlando swamp." Alas, Shlenker couldn't deliver and was ousted.

"You know, it never hurts to dream big," said the building's former office manager and booking coordinator Terri Knight, who watched The Pyramid come out of the ground and zealously protects its image in a way a mother might admire and even Mike Tyson might not cross. "But look at what we got. I'm pretty pleased with what we got."

But there would be no Hard Rock Cafe, no inclinator to the observation deck, no simulator ride "through the Egyptian Netherworld."

We may have been taken for a ride, but to a less grandiose end: The Pyramid -- so striking outside, so spare inside -- opened Nov. 9, 1991.

The Judds sang. Restrooms flooded.

"Pyramid visitors gush; so do drains," read the next day's headline.

Fifteen years and a couple of months later, our view of The Pyramid seems, as ever, mixed.

-- David Williams: 529-2310

Reporter Trey Heath contributed to this story.


A selective history of the $65 million arena:

1989: City celebrates groundbreaking with "The Big Dig," complete with lasers and fireworks.

1991: Building opens as the Judds perform and restrooms flood.

1994: Southeastern Conference basketball tournament packs 'em in: 195,942 fans for 11 games, at the time the second-largest attendance in league history. The tournament returns in 1997.

2001: NBA's Grizzlies arrive for the first of three seasons in their temporary home while FedExForum is constructed.

2002: In perhaps the biggest sporting event ever staged in Memphis, heavyweight boxing champ Lennox Lewis whips Mike Tyson.

2004: Grizzlies and University of Memphis basketball, and other arena events, depart as FedExForum opens. Pyramid redevelopment process begins.

2006: Bass Pro Shops announces plans to redevelop building as an outdoors mega-store.

2007: Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band perform in what's billed as the building's farewell concert.

Bass Pro not yet reeled in

City chief financial officer Robert Lipscomb said he has an agreement in principle and is "real close" to a binding contract with Bass Pro Shops to redevelop The Pyramid.

The company announced plans for an outdoors mega-store nearly a year ago, but progress toward a development agreement has been slow.

The company has said little about its plans since the announcement, but company president Jim Hagale was expected to attend Saturday night's Bob Seger concert in Mayor Willie Herenton's Pyramid suite.

Bass Pro's recent plans have included spending more than $100 million and constructing a 150,000-square-foot store, three restaurants, a multi-level aquarium and museum, and seven-story hotel.

"Personally, I'm looking forward to it and hope it happens," said Pierre Landaiche, general manager of the nearby Cook Convention Center. "When Bass Pro comes to a city, within a short period of time, it becomes one of the top tourist attractions in the state."


Commercial Appeal

Seger gives The Pyramid a lasting one-more-time

Maybe that now-empty hall echoes still with ballads like 'Mainstreet' By Bob Mehr

February 5, 2007

Concert Review

Bob Seger's Saturday night concert at The Pyramid was a lesson in the art of mass appeal.


The Detroit-based singer has often said that he's the world's most unlikely rock star -- and the statement is more than simple self-effacement. Seger didn't look or dance any better than the 14,000-plus who packed the arena to see him perform, but removing the distance between the artist and the audience has always been his greatest talent.

It's that everyman quality that has accounted for Seger's enduring popularity over a five-decade career.

Clad in jeans and a T-shirt, the 61-year-old Seger made no concession to current trends or to his age -- save for taking a very brief intermission between a pair of lengthy sets.

Looking considerably grayer and a bit more paunchy than the last time he toured 11 years ago, Seger strode onstage as Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town" blared over the P.A., then proceeded to stomp and sweat his way through a 2 1/2 hour performance delivered with both a workmanlike dedication and genuine sense of enthusiasm.

Backed by a version of the Silver Bullet Band that numbered as many as 13 pieces -- including a horn section and troupe of backing vocalists -- Seger acknowledged The Pyramid's impending closure several times from the stage, but the show was less a memorial than a celebratory sendoff. A cleverly plotted set list helped, with the crowd reacting early and wildly to the familiar opening riffs of "Mainstreet" and "Old Time Rock & Roll."

Although a generally well-paced show, there were a few missteps along the way: A cover of Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" played more like karaoke while the highly anticipated return of "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" -- which Seger noted hadn't been played live in 26 years -- failed to match the rhythmic punch of the original.

But for every small miscue, there were several triumphs. The seamless segue between "Travelin' Man" and "Beautiful Loser" highlighted the melodic power of both songs, while a surprisingly evocative take on "We've Got Tonight" brought lighters and cell phones out en masse.

Although studded with most, if not quite all, of the expected hits, the set list also drew heavily from Seger's most recent album Face the Promise. Easily his most satisfying work since The Distance came out a quarter-century ago, the record distills the essence of Seger's signature blend of brawny R&B and windswept balladry.

The concert was highlighted by a forceful rendition of the album's title track (which draws thematic inspiration from Chuck Berry's "The Promised Land"), while the lush mid-tempo number "Wait For Me" fit nicely alongside similarly styled catalog classics "Roll Me Away" and "Against the Wind."

Seger's voice has weathered to a fine husk over the years, adding further gravitas to his nostalgic narratives. Yet, at other times, it was evident that he'd also lost some of his top range, as he was unable to deliver the dramatic vocal peaks in numbers like "Turn the Page" and "Fire Down Below."

Still, it's hard to be churlish when considering Seger's performance. As it is, his music's place in popular culture -- from Tom Cruise's famous lip synch in the film "Risky Business" to the pervasive Chevy Truck ads -- has obscured his greater work as a songwriter.

The depth of those achievements was made clear when he finally got around to set-capping renditions of songs like "Night Moves," "Hollywood Nights" and "Rock and Roll Never Forgets" that had the audience pumping its fists in perfect unison with Seger.




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