Overton Park prepares to debut ‘Shell on Wheels’

Published: Apr. 5, 2023 at 10:35 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - What do you get when you marry a white-hot passion for Memphis musical history, Tom Edwards’ design brilliance, Jeff Phelps’ welding torch, 2,880 floor screws, 4,500 pounds of Brazilian Apitong stage flooring, a mini mountain of steel, a powerful generator, LED lighting, world-class amplifiers and a big rig truck trailer with all the hydraulics you need?

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the 100% ready-to-rock plug-in and play Overton Park Shell on Wheels!

“It’s like birthing a baby,” said Natalie Wilson, executive director of the Overton Park Shell, the 1936 Works Progress Administration Depression-era bandshell that has survived all these years in the heart of the 342-acre Memphis park.

Overton Park Shell
Overton Park Shell(Action News 5)

During the pandemic, Wilson says the historic stage was dark as people couldn’t gather safely.

The Shell Board began soul-searching about whether the venue was being faithful to its mission of building community through the performing arts.

“We realized there were so many people who can’t get there,” Wilson said of the iconic park location that boasts a magnificent stage, lighting, and a natural amphitheater but lacks a parking lot in a city with serious public transportation challenges.

So, in the darkness of COVID-19, Wilson recalls how the board unanimously wondered together, “What if we were visionary and entrepreneurs and built a complete mobile replica called the Mobile Shell?”

The Overton Park Shell Board reached out to Tom Edwards—a designer who has helped transform Sears Crosstown into the award-winning vertical village known as Crosstown Concourse.

“I walked out to the Overton Park Shell and Natalie said this is what we want,” Edwards said of his visit to the park standing in front of the bandshell that helped launch Elvis and hosted thousands of performances over its long life.

The designer went to work and created an image that has many moving parts, able to fit on a tractor-trailer rig yet unfold into a mini version of the Shell.

“It’s half the scale of the Shell, about 50 feet long, 20 feet tall, and the Shell is about twice that big,” Edwards said while noting, “I’m having a blast.”

Memphis designer Tom Edwards
Memphis designer Tom Edwards(Action News 5)

There is a sense of joy around the project, now under its final construction phase inside an old Coca-Cola warehouse on Hollywood Street next door to what we used to call the Liberty Bowl.

“It is my dream, " said Yolanda Kelly, Director of Shell on Wheels Outreach, “that when people think of Memphis, they think about all the good things that we have and I think Shell on Wheels will be able to amplify and support all the good work everybody is doing.”

Kelly moved to Memphis from Starkville, Mississippi, specifically to take the job of booking the rolling Shell and build relationships with Memphis nonprofits and businesses that will lease the mobile stage that can be set up inside or outside to present a performance.

“When you rent the Shell, you’re funding free performing arts here in Memphis,” Kelly said.

“When I found out it was tied to Elvis Presley,” said Jeff Phelps, project manager, lead fabricator and welder, “I saw it and said I’d love to be a part of it.”

Phelps retired from the U.S. Department of Justice in December 2022 and became intrigued by the invitation to help build a rolling stage that might help unite the Memphis community.

“It gives us the ability to bridge the gap between all the communities,” Phelps said of his masterpiece now undergoing some final touches.

When completed, Phelps and Edwards estimate two workers could unfold the mobile Shell and have it ready for performance within two hours.

The "Shell on Wheels" frame
The "Shell on Wheels" frame(Action News 5)

Wilson, smiling and enthusiastic, serves as the driving force who is uniting all the collaborators who are bringing the Shell on Wheels to life.

Wilson says after the Shell Board of Directors, Memphis City Council got the mobile idea rolling with a grant of federal pandemic dollars.

Private donors, including the Hyde Foundation, have contributed the majority of the $200,000 estimated final sticker price on the mobile stage.

The Maddox family generously donated a tractor from its Tri-State Truck Center that will keep the Shell on Wheels rolling. Not only that, but the family will also provide ongoing maintenance of the vehicle that’ll carry the Shell on Wheels everywhere it goes.

Wilson says the Shell on Wheels’ ability to roll into an empty field or parking lot that lacks a power source gives the agile venue the ability to go anywhere, inside or out, and present performances that will help build community among Memphians who may not be able to visit the historic Overton Park Shell.

The Shell’s “mini-me” call roll into in Frayser, Raleigh, Boxtown, Westwood, Parkway Village—you name the neighborhood, and within a couple of hours, it can present a performance.

“That’s what equity is all about. That’s what inclusivity and bringing people together in the lens of where they are. That’s what it’s about, that’s our mission,” Wilson said.

You can learn more about the historic Overton Park Shell, including how to book the Shell on Wheels by clicking here.

It is anticipated the Shell on Wheels will make its debut at the Douglass Park Juneteenth celebration June 17-18, 2023.

It’ll be fun to watch this story and stage unfold.

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