A monumental controversy may be at an end : Memphis is settling in with its $65-million auditorium pyramid.
You can’t call it the Great American Pyramid any more. Now it’s just The Pyramid.
This city’s new steel blue, 32-story sports arena beside the Mississippi River is shaped like a colossal Pharaoh’s tomb, but as it opened for business last month, even its original name lay shrouded in controversy.
“It’s been the focal point of this city for three years now,” said Pyramid marketing manager Larry Enis as he recalled the communal euphoria--and letdown--that accompanied construction of the six-acre, 20,000-seat pleasure-tetrahedron.
Peering down at Enis as he spoke was an authentically noseless replica statue of Ramses II, adorning The Pyramid’s entry ramp. “It’s had its ups and downs,” Enis said of the $65-million Pyramid. “But now it’s up.”
The Pyramid thus has become another fixture in the Egyptian theme that has beguiled this city since 1819, when it was named in memory of an ancient Egyptian city on the River Nile and cast itself as the jewel of the “American Nile.” There are hieroglyph motifs at the zoo and an ancient mummy at Memphis State University. So in the mid-1980s when MSU needed a new basketball arena, a recurrent Memphis dream was revived: Why not build a Great Pyramid?
As 15,000 people poured in for The Pyramid’s grand opening to hear the country music group the Judds, and then five days later when MSU won a game beneath the high-tech, million-dollar scoreboard as another large crowd looked on, there was jubilation and muted fatigue. At one time, The Pyramid was going to be much more than the brushed-steel shell that finally emerged.
In September, 1989, more than 100,000 cheering Memphians had lined the bluffs as fireworks illuminated a helicopter that dropped a 600-pound shovel for The Pyramid’s groundbreaking.
This was to have been the birth not just of a new megalith but of a new Memphis, according to The Pyramid’s promoter and manager Sidney Shlenker, who then owned the Denver Nuggets basketball team. Formerly chief executive officer of the Houston Astrodome, Shlenker promised to add other attractions to the Great American Pyramid. There was talk of “an Egyptian boat ride through the underworld of the dead,” a rock music museum, a college football hall of fame and a Hard Rock Cafe.
The intent was to increase tourism to this city-county area of more than 800,000 that is best known as the “Home of the Blues” and as the site of Graceland, the estate of the late rock ‘n’ roll king Elvis Presley.
Instead, Shlenker ran into financial problems--his defenders blamed bad economic times, his critics said expectations had been unrealistic--and filed for bankruptcy. Shelby County Attorney Brian Kuhn said creditors are seeking $15 million in unpaid debts from Shlenker, who left town, taking the name “Great American Pyramid” with him, citing his copyright. Mortified city fathers took over the project, renaming it “The Pyramid.”
But the arena had problems even before Shlenker showed up. Local officials had decided to build the project not high on the river bluffs as admirers of monumental architecture had hoped, but down on a mud flat that was sneered at by many, including City Council member Mary Rose McCormick, as “a hole.” The Pyramid peeks up from 60 feet below street level, hunkered against a web of high freeway ramps where the I-40 leaps the Mississippi.
McCormick says the mud flat site conceals a landfill that may be seismically unstable.
How all of this works out for Memphis remains to be seen. City fathers hope that 85,000 square feet of space within The Pyramid’s skirts--where Shlenker’s attractions were supposed to sit--will fill up once the national economy heats up. Most people at the grand opening said obligingly that they didn’t mind the absence of on-site parking--Shlenker’s Pyramid parking garage was never built--because shuttle buses were sent out across the downtown area. At the Judds’ concert, there was a minor flood when some plumbing burst--but then again, when the Astrodome opened in 1965 there were those who hooted at the Astroturf.
For now, The Pyramid has not brought Memphis the magic solution to its many economic problems, but it does give the city something it really wanted: a new recreational arena--a place for musicians to rock ‘n’ roll and round ballers to give-and-go under Ramses’ watchful eye.