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The Great American Pyramid

New home for Pyramid news and details-

2/5/07 - The Pyramids Final Night As An Icon?

The Great American Pyramid - That's what it was called when the idea was first sold to Memphis. A 32 story, 80 acre complex clad in stainless steel. The newest Wonder of the World, a landmark of good times. Time would reveal that The Pyramid was in fact none of those things. The idea was grand - build a "symbol" for Memphis. Like the Golden Gate Bridge or the St. Louis Arch, something that Memphians could be proud of.

But perhaps more than any other Southern city, Memphis government is infested with an almost unbelievable amount of both incompetent politicians and also dishonest politicians. Many, many of the leaders are BOTH incompetent and dishonest.

For many Memphis political leaders of the last decade, the only qualification needed was the correct skin color (which of course is reverse racism). Memphis was led by white leaders until the percentage of registered black voters topped 50%. The leaders have by and large been black ever since. This is not surprising nor unique to Memphis. But in the last decade we have seen what can happen to a city when its direction is charted by those who care more about their political "career" than for their sworn public duty.

If you are in the mood for some interesting reading on this subject, visit this blog.

Over time, Memphis will evolve out of the "elect black for black sake" mentality and perhaps then, when the BEST qualified leaders of any color are elected, the city can move forward to become a great destination city.

Meanwhile, our reputation as a place with a poor track record of both "doing the right thing" and "doing things right" continues to haunt us. It's not fair to blame the Pyramid mess on racism though. All the major players were white. The first Memphis black mayor was elected partly because of and at the end of a twisted and telling story of public/private development gone bad, Memphis style.

Case in point - The Great American Pyramid. Unlike the other two true pyramids in the United States, ours is a bust. The article below from the Memphis Flyer in 2005 tells the story quite well:


by Frank Murtaugh

Has anyone seen the shovel from the Big Dig? Memphis sure could use it right now to help dig the Great American Pyramid out of its debt and its no-compete clause

The Pyramid was a great idea, poorly implemented. Since it could not be done right, it should have been shelved. Political (and many other) compromises conspired to make John Tigrett’s vision for a river-city symbol abjectly fail at every turn. Memphis needed a symbolic civic boost after the decades-long pain of the post-MLK assassination, the depressed economy of the ‘70s, and the poorly thought-out public projects like the Main Street mall and Mud Island.

Things did not go smoothly from jump. Perhaps this negativity was a harbinger of things to come. Rain postponed the festivities of the Big Dig the first night. On opening night, the toilets of the Pyramid overflowed at the Judds’ concert. Sidney Shlenker, the impresario who just months earlier had been crowned “Memphian of the Year” by Memphis Magazine declared bankruptcy (not personally, just for his Rakapolis development companies) and sent the Pyramid into amenity limbo for eternity.

The following is a list of promised attractions and amenities that never arrived in the Pyramid: a glass inclinator leading to an observation deck; Dick Clark’s American Music Awards Hall of Fame; a Stax Recording studio reproduction; the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame; the College Football Hall of Fame (with a statue of Red Grange as focal point!); Rakapolis Egyptian theme park on Mud Island; a Hard Rock Café; Omnimax Theater; Island Earth Ecopark; and a shortwave radio station broadcasting Memphis music internationally 24/7. These were the ideas publicly promised, not ones bandied about. There was even a fake bomb scare in the Pyramid, pre-911.

What did arrive was a human-unfriendly building with poor parking, inferior sight lines, bad sound, and cramped seating -- with the whole building situated, as Tom Waits would say, “Waaaay down in the Hole.” Volunteers from church groups ran the concessions; the food was as bad as one would expect from such organizations. Although The Pyramid was ostensibly built to host concerts and sporting events, the sound for concerts was so bad that the city sued the contractor for faulty acoustical design. Workers retroactively added padded strips to absorb the sound. Even Isaac Tigrett’s mysterious crystal skull time capsule was retrieved within a year of the Pyramid’s opening, creating both an ownership controversy and ruining the marketing surprise he had planned. [Editor's note: The crystal fixture was revealed in an article by the Flyer's John Branston and subsequently removed.]

Despite having numerous better locations for a proud city’s coming-out statement than under a bridge in a hole by a concrete company, The Pyramid’s powers-that-be chose the worst of four locations. (The best would have been up on the South Bluffs, adding immensely to the Memphis skyline. Ironically, one of the other four locations discussed was the current FedEx Forum location). One result of the poor implementation may have been that a decent political career by former Mayor Dick Hackett ended prematurely. The much ballyhooed Pinch District redevelopment never occurred. In fact, the first signs of growth in fifteen years in the Pinch District came with the abandonment of The Pyramid’s tenants.

So where is The Pyramid now? It sits in political limbo and financial chaos carrying a debt service of $30 million with no chance of hosting concert or sporting events because of yet another horrendous deal. The Pyramid continues to haunt political careers. In what surely must be the worst deal ever cut by Memphis politicians, former County Mayor Rout and current Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton handed near-billionaire Michael Heisley a virtual concert monopoly business in one of the top fifty concert markets in the country, on top of his free new stadium and corporate headquarters.

A blue-ribbon committee has been selected to hire out-of-town consultants to assess the future of the Pyramid. The original reasons for the creation of The Pyramid are no longer legally viable nor useful. This week, in a local news report, one of the consultants blithely commented, “I like it better on the outside than on the inside.” No shucks, Sherlock. That has been the problem since it opened. (And you get paid $100,000 for comments like that?)

So what to do now? The city can’t afford the $30 million debt service in the face of mismanaged fiscal crisis after fiscal crisis. Memphis has turned lemons into lemonade before, with the Lorraine Motel and the Stax Museum. Let’s call “Uncle” on this once grand project. Throw in the towel. Time for Mayor Herenton to show some real leadership and pick up the phone. Call Gary Loveman at Harrah’s. Beg him to take it off our hands for free. Let Harrah’s do what they do best: make money. This Tomb of Doom would become the Gold Mine that all would have hoped for back in 1990. Take the normal gambling tax cut and kill two birds with one stone. While we’re at it, why not make it the biggest and best sports book in the South? Think big for once, Memphis. That is the kind of shooting for the stars that got the Pyramid’s finest sporting event, the Mike Tyson fight.

Obviously casino gaming and sports betting are currently illegal in Memphis. The same oligarchic corporate forces that got the Pyramid built in the first place could muster up gaming legislation if it really wanted. This cabal would have the support of the East Memphis developers who are so opposed to Mayor Wharton’s proposed real estate taxes. The anti-gaming moralists (who obviously don’t get out much since gaming is across the river, across the state line, at the Tiger Mart, as well as online, and has become one of the fastest growth industries in the country) might change their tune as they open their new property tax assessments (These are some of the same county residents writing to the papers to decry their outrageous property taxes). And get John Ford behind the legislation too; he could use some p.r. in Memphis and from what I understand, when he is financially motivated, his legislation gets passed.

The Memphis Pyramid - Empty As A Tomb

So, with our trusty politicians and civic leaders working hard for us, we didn't build the Pyramid we were promised. We didn't get the attractions, the features, the Pyramid of our dreams. We also didn't place the Pyramid high on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River vistas, it was located in a bit of a hole, right next to the entrance ramps of the Hernando-Desoto bridge.

Nice. Fully 30% of the third largest pyramid in the world is hidden in a hole, beneath street level and bridge access and next to to a concrete plant. In all fairness, the plant does have a neon welcome sign! Yes, our massive symbol of the city and it's future - yet another Memphis boondoggle.

The story of what happened and how we got to where we are today is quite interesting..... if you really want to know.... Pyramid Dreams Pyramid Schemes

Alternative uses for the Pyramid - There have been a few suggested....Alternative Pyramid Uses

Single, Empty Landmark Seeks...a purpose

The Pyramid was supposed to be glass with a golden tint....Golden Pyramid

Give The Pyramid Away?...Bill Dance Speaks

Study suggests Memphis make Pyramid a theme park over demolition

Rather than demolish it, or make it into a jail, Memphis should consider making it a theme park? Like with a ride to the top and stuff??? Wow, shades of Sidney Shlenker.....Pyramid Theme Park

Leadership - Vision

Look at enough pages here on this site and you may notice a theme...Memphis desperately needs more government and business leaders to step up to the plate with VISION and the LEADERSHIP to take us there. How hard is it for SOMEONE in these communities to just say look around us, note that gambling is ALL around us taking Memphis dollars to Mississippi and Arkansas or even to Tennessee's own lottery and say "Gee....maybe it would be a good casino! Seems to have worked for Las Vegas - and their pyramid."

Lease it to one of the casino companies for 50 years, provide some incentive like for every dollar they spend in upgrading the Pyramid, they can take a dollar off their taxes. Then let them run! We'd have a world class casino, we'd be a "destination" and it would pump MILLIONS of dollars back into government coffers.

But wait, Mr. - that's illegal here in Memphis. Yeah? Well change the law, put it to a vote - let the citizens decide. Shove it through! We're friggen surrounded by legalized gambling anyway. DUH.

What kind of moronic thought process did someone have to DEMOLISH THE PYRAMID? MAKE IT A CASINO....NOW. Steve Cohen wants to make it a museaum, and thats nice and in a more cultured place, it might be the better choice. Here, a casino is a GUARANTEED SUCCESS.....

The End - The Great American Pyramid To Close Doors.

It's not paid for, it's not in use much. It's hard to get to. It held SO MUCH potential for Memphis, had it been done right-had it been up on the bluffs - had it been our signature icon.

Sadly, it IS our signature icon. It says a lot about Memphis and her leadership. But it's not the message we hoped for. Is future is uncertain. The best, brightest hope for it?

Conversion to a Bass Pro Super Store.

Really. No kidding.

Or how about conversion to a Bass Pro Super Store AND a Pyramid Theme Park?.

Three true pyramids in the United of America's most unusual buildings....

The Pyramid Farewell

The Great American Pyramid has one more date with destiny. It will host a Bob Seger concert in early 2007. The Pyramid will rock with the sounds of a classic American rocker. Then all will go silent. When and if it reopens, what will it be?

Various information from the Pyramid web site.

Sticking It to Us

Memphis Magazine April 2009

We hate to speak ill of the dead, but gosh what are we to say about developer and super-promoter Sidney Shlenker? The former owner of the Denver Nuggets swept into town in the mid-1980s, charmed anybody and everybody with his gap-toothed smile and bear-paw handshake, and somehow managed to get even the most skeptical Memphians to believe that what this city needed more than anything else on earth was a pyramid.

And not just any pyramid-shaped building, either. No, what Sidney had in mind would be called The Great American Pyramid, and it would serve as a national symbol for Memphis, much like the Arch in St. Louis or the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Sure, it would be expensive, but it would be worth it, he said. And we believed him. After all, the Pyramid would not only host concerts and sporting events and Wonders exhibits, but futuristic "inclinators" riding in slots on two corners of the structure would whisk visitors to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the very peak of the building. Or maybe it was the Grammy Hall of Fame. We were never really sure, and it didn't matter, because ole Sid promised it would happen. And we followed him like sheep because the guy was just so darned likeable. In 1989 the readers of this magazine even voted Shlenker "Memphian of the Year." It's true.

And he was just getting started with his bold schemes. Sidney unveiled plans for a truly unique entertainment complex that he dubbed Rakapolis (pronounced "rock"), that would combine Memphis' Egyptian heritage (huh?) with our musical roots. Visitors would board Egyptian-style reed boats — modeled like those used on the Nile — on Mud Island, somehow travel underground through a magical process that was never fully explained, and find themselves in a museum tracing the history of American music. Still in those weird boats, they would enter the mouth of a giant trumpet and float past dioramas depicting famous musicians and key events in musical history. At one point, it seems, they would stop in front of "the world's largest jukebox," and press a button and hear the top songs from years past.

Okay, this was just too much. City and county commissioners began to wonder just where, exactly, the money would come from to pay for all this, and quite a few people began to wonder if any of it really made sense. To carry a million visitors a year (just one number bandied about) to the museum at the top of the Pyramid would require those inclinators to race up and down the sides of the structure at 60 mph, fully loaded, 24 hours a day. The whole concept of Rakapolis just seemed, well, bizarre. While Sidney promised that the Pyramid would make Memphis famous, a survey of magazine editors we conducted just before the building opened in 1991 revealed that most journalists across the country had never heard of it, and the few who had thought it was surely a joke. An Egyptian pyramid? On the Mississippi River?

Sidney's house of cards eventually came tumbling down. Funding fell through, he had to revamp his plans, and he finally left Memphis — and left us holding the bag for the construction costs of a building that no longer carried the name "Great" or even "American." It was now just "The Pyramid." Concertgoers immediately realized that the sloping steel sides created horrible acoustics, and sports fans figured out that the shape prevented any expansion of the building on the off chance that we landed an NBA team.

Shlenker died of injuries from a car crash in 2003. The building on Front Street now stands empty. Just two years after naming him "Memphian of the Year," Memphis magazine put Shlenker on the cover — this time as Humpty-Dumpty tumbling off the top of the building he created, with the title "Pyramid Follies and Other Civic Silliness." As we put it, "Sidney Shlenker had a great fall . . ."

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References and Contributors

Deborah Duncan