30 in 30

Thirty moments that defined the city 1976-2006



As Memphis has steadily evolved since its founding in 1976, so has the city. In fact, the argument could be made that Memphis has seen more dramatic changes in the past three decades than during any other 30-year period in its history.

To make the point, the staff put its heads together, and after several meetings that became animated, to say the least, we selected the 30 most influential moments of the past 30 years. These are the events, we felt, that shaped our city, for better or worse. Plenty of other moments could have made the list -- school desegregation, the passage of liquor-by-the-drink, the election of Harold Ford Sr. as U.S. Congressman, and the Supreme Court ruling that stopped I-40 from going through Overton Park, all of which occurred in the early '70s. Since it is our 30th anniversary, we drew the line at the '76 start date, as well as at 30 events, presented below.

January 25, 1976 -- The Dixon Gallery and Gardens opened to the public. Hugo and Margaret Dixon, who spent more than 20 years transforming 17 acres of scruffy woodlands into one of the South's premier gardens, bequeathed their Park Avenue property to the city before their deaths in 1974. When the home first opened, visitors could admire the Dixon's collection of 26 French Impressionist paintings. Since then, thanks to talented and well-connected directors, the collection has grown and Dixon has showcased world-class exhibitions, featuring the works of Auguste Rodin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, among many others. It now rivals the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art as one of the area's top cultural attractions.

April 30, 1976 -- Memphis in May put on its first truly "international" festival, honoring the country of Japan, the world's number-one cotton buyer. Court Square was converted into a Japanese garden, Japanese classes were held in the public schools, and Japanese art went on display at local galleries and museums. The event actually got its start back in 1970, when a group -- led principally by businessmen Lyman Aldrich, Rodney Baber, and Tiff Bingham -- formed a festival based on the Edinburgh International Festival. For the first few years, all the events and activities were purely local. But the ball got rolling in 1976, and the following year the group honored Canada, and honored countries ever since have included the Ivory Coast, Great Britain, The Netherlands, France, Italy, Russia, and more. Two events that came later -- the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (which got its start with families grilling in the Orpheum parking lot) and the Sunset Symphony -- are among the most popular events on Memphis' calendar.

August 16, 1977 -- Elvis Presley died in the early morning hours at his Graceland estate. Snide jokesters called it a "good career move," since his record sales had been flagging in the 1970s, but his death -- attributed to an irregular heartbeat -- triggered an overwhelming interest in the life and music of the King of Rock-and-Roll. How much interest? More than 1 billion records sold -- making Elvis the top-selling artist in musical history. As a result, the Presley family decided to open Graceland to the public in 1982.

September 1, 1981 -- After years of neglect and threats of demolition, The Peabody reopened downtown. Built in 1925, this block-sized building quickly gained a reputation as "The South's Grand Hotel," but changing ownerships (at one time in the 1970s it was operated as a Sheraton), and the near-death of downtown following the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. caused it to decline. The Belz family purchased the hotel, spent millions refurbishing it, and once again the famed Peabody ducks waddle along the red carpet to spend the day splashing in the magnificent lobby fountain. But the "new" Peabody was more than just a rejuvenated hotel. It sparked the first wave of a downtown revolution that included not only commercial redevelopment but groundbreaking residential sites, such as Harbor Town and South Bluffs.

June 7, 1982 -- Elvis had left the building. The house he bought in 1957 and where he died 20 years later was closed and pledged as security for a loan taken out shortly before his death. Income from the King of Rock-and-Roll's estate had dwindled to a mere $342,000 and little was left for Lisa Marie, the entertainer's daughter. Then, thanks to Presley's former wife, Priscilla, and a Kansas City investment counselor named Jack Soden, Elvis not only evolved into a multimillion-dollar conglomerate but his home, Graceland (actually named after a previous owner), opened to the public and today is one of the city's -- and the country's -- top tourist draws.

July 3, 1982 -- Shortly after Graceland's debut, another attraction was unveiled downtown. Formerly used as farmland, a racetrack, and an airstrip, the narrow island formed by mud and silt was transformed into a 50-acre complex complete with a river museum with full-scale riverboats and gunboats, riverwalk, 5,000-seat amphitheatre, restaurants, and more. While Mud Island River Park has never been the tourist attraction that city leaders hoped for, it offers glorious panoramas -- and boasts the quirkiest name in town.

March 15-22, 1985 -- It had been 12 years since the fabled Memphis State basketball team of Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson reached the finals of the NCAA tournament, only to fall victim to mighty UCLA. These Tigers -- coached by Dana Kirk and led by indomitable All-American Keith Lee -- entered "the big dance" as the fifth-ranked team in the country, with a record of 27-3. Spurred by a supporting cast that included Andre Turner, William Bedford, and Baskerville Holmes, Memphis State knocked off fourth-ranked Oklahoma to reach the program's second Final Four. Alas, the Tigers were declawed by destiny, losing their semifinal game to Villanova, 52-45. The program would later be stripped of its achievement, guilty of NCAA infractions that involved both Kirk and Lee.

February 6, 1986 -- Memphis stood on the verge of losing St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, as Washington University pulled out the stops to lure it to St. Louis. The competition was tough and Memphis' chances looked slim, till one night at dinner a critical question was asked and answered. "What can we do to help keep you here?" then-mayors Dick Hackett and Bill Morris asked St. Jude representative Richard Shadyac, who responded, "Give me a list of the ten most wonderful people in this community and get them to serve on the St. Jude board." That meeting led to liaisons with civic leaders Fred Smith, Jack Belz, Ron Terry, and other movers and shakers, and to a $25 million commitment from the state to improve local research facilities. After eight months of consideration and ten hours of closed-door deliberations, the decision was made public: St. Jude would stay in Memphis. Since that pivotal moment, the hospital Danny Thomas founded in 1962 has not only saved more lives but achieved more fame: In 1996, Dr. Peter Doherty, then-chairman of St. Jude's immunology department, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

April 15, 1987 -- Though it had yet to adopt the name Wonders, "Ramesses the Great" opened a cultural era in Memphis unlike any the city had ever seen. Adding the word "blockbuster" to an exhibition on art, the cultural series drew almost 700,000 visitors to the Cook Convention Center and placed Memphis on the radar for art history buffs who might normally choose New York, Boston, or San Francisco for their horizon-expanding destination. With exhibitions to follow on Catherine the Great (600,000 visitors), Napoleon (400,000), and the Titanic (635,000) among others, Wonders made a self-fulfilling prophecy of its name. Sadly, the series closed its doors in 2005, nearly $3 million in debt after an abysmal showing at the "Art of the Motorcycle" (60,000) exhibition.

September 16, 1990 -- With the drop of a neon-outlined shovel from a helicopter, the "Big Dig" celebrated the groundbreaking for the Great American Pyramid, a bold project that would eventually include a Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame, an Egyptian-themed musical experience called Rakapolis, and speedy inclinator rides up to an observation deck at the very top. At least that was the plan. When promoter Sidney Shlenker fled town in disgrace, the building -- now known simply as The Pyramid -- opened instead as a basketball arena and (despite horrible acoustics) a performing-arts venue. The Pyramid had its moments of glory, however, such as when it hosted the 2003 heavyweight matchup between Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis, billed as one of the biggest events in Memphis sports history. But when FedExForum opened in 2004, the University of Memphis Tigers and the NBA Grizzlies moved to the more spacious arena, and the fate of The Pyramid is now in limbo. As we go to press, the latest news is that the 21-story building may become home to a Bass Pro Shops.

September 23-27, 1990 -- If it wasn't the greatest 11 hours in the history of television, it's in the conversation. And its star was a Memphian. When PBS aired Ken Burns' The Civil War, the standard for American documentary film changed forever, and Shelby Foote -- author of the definitive, three-volume narrative history on the subject -- became the voice of a wise grandfather to his entire viewership. From his detailed description of soldiers like Stonewall Jackson and Nathan Bedford Forrest to his vivid tales and anecdotes (one "expert" of the times forecast the blood spilled during the War Between the States would be wiped up with a single handkerchief), Foote was given a proper podium for his field of expertise. Straight from his home on East Parkway.

July 4, 1991 -- For years, it had remained standing as a dark symbol of Memphis' past -- the old Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated on the afternoon of April 4, 1968. Finally, city leaders decided to turn the site -- including the Mulberry Street portion of the old motel -- into a tribute to King and what he stood for. After years of construction and renovation, on the Fourth of July 1991, actors Cybill Shepherd and Morgan Freeman took part in a celebrity-studded grand opening of the National Civil Rights Museum. The $9.25 million facility itself would not fully open for several more months, but when it did, visitors experienced the dramatic history of the civil rights movement, through interactive "you are there" displays that duplicate what it was like to sit at a whites-only lunch counter, or ride a public bus in the days before integration. The experience concludes with a visit to the very room where King stayed, exactly as he left it before he stepped out onto the balcony where he met his fate.

October 3, 1991 -- By a slim margin of just 172 votes, former city schools superintendent W.W. Herenton -- he will later prefer the more casual Willie, though nothing about his tenure can be described as "casual" -- defeated incumbent Richard C. Hackett to become the first African-American mayor of Memphis. Despite a range of controversies that include siring a child out of wedlock, public spats with members of the Memphis City Council, and appointing cronies to high positions at Memphis Light, Gas and Water, Herenton has been re-elected four times.

November 9, 1992 -- As movie-making goes, it was a simple scene: Actor Tom Cruise walked up to the front door of a nice house, jingled some keys in front of his co-star, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and the director yelled, "Cut! Print!" Only this was no ordinary movie, and no ordinary set. The house was a real residence on Tuckahoe in East Memphis, and this was the first scene filmed of The Firm -- the blockbuster film based on the best-selling novel by John Grisham, and the first big-budget motion picture to be filmed in Memphis. (Jim Jarmusch's 1988 Mystery Train, while a cult classic, never gained the commercial popularity of the films listed here.) Other filmmakers apparently liked what they saw on screen, for others soon followed, including The Client in 1993 (also based on a Grisham novel), The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996), 21 Grams (2003), and most recently, Hustle & Flow, Walk the Line, and Black Snake Moan.

April 17, 1993 -- With the opening of Cat Country, the already beloved Memphis Zoo began giving some love back. Having been confined to a literal concrete jungle for decades, the lions, tigers, and cheetahs found themselves in an open-air, landscaped new home, with moats and waterfalls adding a serenity these gorgeous felines may have all but forgotten. The apes were given similar treatment in 1995 with Primate Canyon and by 2003 -- with the addition of CHINA -- Memphis was home to one of four zoos in the United States with giant pandas. New in 2006: Northwest Passage for the sea lions and polar bears.

June 27, 1995 -- Champagne flowed. The orchestra played. Reporters and cameramen perched on the roof. The place was Memphis International Airport and the celebration -- launched by local party-giver par excellence, Pat Kerr Tigrett -- honored KLM/Northwest's first nonstop flight from Memphis to Amsterdam, making our city a hub for international travelers. After Elvis I, the inaugural plane, unloaded its Dutch dignitaries, speeches were made, gifts exchanged, and more champagne and Dutch beer consumed. Then, as revelers clapped and cameras rolled, a delegation of Memphians lifted off toward Amsterdam for parties, tours, and meetings at The Hague. And the flights have continued ever since.

October 31, 1995 -- With the snip of a red ribbon, AutoZone opened its new headquarters on Front Street, bringing with it some 1,000 AutoZoners, conspicuous in their red and black "uniforms" worn at least one day a week (the practice has since been discontinued). Downtown Memphis had made a dramatic comeback in recent decades, ever since the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shuttered businesses in the area. But there was still an urge by many to move east, and the decision by Union Planters Bank, especially, to relocate to a brand-new building at Poplar and Ridgeway was seen as a bad sign for downtown development. But AutoZone's move signaled a fresh start for the area, which has continued to expand ever since. As evidence: the more than 5,000 condominiums open or under construction along the river in recent years.

February 26, 1997 -- Wolfchase Galleria, the largest mall in Shelby County, opened at what was just a few years before a crossroads of two-lane highways. The developers, an out-of-state group called Urban Retail Properties, pointed out the bucolic features of the mall's design, such as railings designed to resemble blowing stalks of wheat. But nothing destroys the tranquility of the countryside quite like a 162-acre mega-mall, and the Galleria almost immediately became a magnet for other businesses that soon turned Germantown Parkway into one of the most traveled -- and congested -- roads in Shelby County, and served as the impetus for a building boom in that area that continues to this day. It didn't take long for the effects to be felt in other parts of the city; the Mall of Memphis -- in its day the shining glory for local retailers -- closed and was eventually demolished.

April 1, 2000 -- "The finest ballpark below the major leagues," was promised by Dean and Kristi Jernigan. How could we know that AutoZone Park would turn out even better -- albeit on a Triple-A scale -- than many of the existing big-league parks? When our hometown Redbirds hosted their parent club, the St. Louis Cardinals, for an exhibition game, Third and Union officially became the crown jewel in the renaissance of downtown Memphis. The minor-leaguers added to the dream state by whipping the big boys, 10-6, then going on to win the 2000 Pacific Coast League championship on a home run by someone named Albert Pujols.

November 1, 2001 -- Isaac Hayes sang "God Bless America." Justin Timberlake sang the national anthem. But on this night in The Pyramid, Memphis music ceded the stage to another Bluff City passion: basketball. And best of all, for a city that had seen the WFL, ABA, MISL, USFL, even the XFL, Memphis had the three letters that finally made it big-league: NBA. Inspired in part by the success of AutoZone Park, Vancouver Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley packed up his six-year-old franchise and moved to Memphis, with the likes of Shane Battier, Pau Gasol (the 2002 Rookie of the Year), and executive legend Jerry West soon to follow. When, on November 3, 2004, FedExForum hosted the Grizzlies' opener just south of Beale Street, a new entertainment era -- in a city that knows how to entertain -- was born.

November 12, 2001 -- A gleaming glass-and-steel structure more than twice the size of its predecessor, the new Central Library opened with great fanfare at 3030 Poplar, The $65 million monument to learning replaced the 49-year-old facility at Peabody and McLean (now the site of upscale housing) and boasts more of everything -- from books, CDs, and subject areas to computers and parking places -- as well as public art, including the provocative exterior display (controversial only because it contained a quote from Karl Marx) and the colorful children's area with its forest motif. Planning for the new facility began in 1989 and was firmed up in '92, when the city agreed to buy the former AutoZone headquarters and build on its site a state-of-the-art, 325,000-square-foot library.

January 25, 2003 -- With a "Winter Fantasia" gala that included more than 150 ice sculptures, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra kicked off a performance to officially open its new home -- the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. The gleaming new facility, praised for beautiful design and near-perfect acoustics, had a long and rather difficult birth. For years, the symphony and other performing-arts groups had used the old Ellis Auditorium. Built in 1924, the landmark building at the corner of Poplar and Front was beginning to show its age, and a 1995 feasibility study finally convinced the symphony's board to finance a new building -- aided by a very generous grant from local businessman Bob Cannon and his wife, Kitty. While Ellis was being demolished, the musicians performed at area churches, which hurt their attendance and membership, so it was a relief when the new Cannon Center opened to rave reviews, then and now.

May 2, 2003 -- In 1963, one of the hottest music labels in America was found in a modest south Memphis neighborhood. Stax, a Capitol Theater turned recording studio, cranked out numerous hits during the Sixties and Seventies by creating funky beats and sweet, soulful melodies. With personalities like Booker T. and the MGs, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Al Green, and Sam & Dave, the Stax sound packed venues, sold millions, and most importantly, crossed racial boundaries during the tumultuous civil rights era. The Stax studio closed its doors in 1975, but the music remains an important piece of American history.

Forty years later, Southern soul again found a home in Memphis -- this time with the long-awaited Soulsville: Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Opening its doors on the studio's original site, the museum celebrates not only the impact of Stax on music history, but honors the pioneers who influenced the soul sound in its earliest days.

July 22, 2003 -- Straight-line winds of more than 100 miles per hour tore across Shelby County in the early-morning hours. The gusts lasted only a few minutes, but the damage was devastating. Memphians who somehow slept through the storm woke up to find ancient trees uprooted and broken in half, chimneys knocked over, rooftops blown away, signs and awnings smashed, and utility poles snapped like twigs. The result: more than $100 million in damage, making "Hurricane Elvis," as the freak storm is dubbed, the most expensive natural disaster in Memphis history. The storm brought death, too, when seven people were killed in their homes by falling trees or felled by carbon dioxide from poorly vented generators. Tempers ran high as Memphis Light, Gas and Water struggled to restore power to almost two-thirds of the city, and some parts of Memphis were without electricity for weeks. Even today, traces of the storm are evident, as neighborhoods in Midtown and Chickasaw Gardens are now open to the sky, and broken-off stubs of mighty trees dot the local landscape.

July 5, 2004 -- Isaac Hayes, Justin Timberlake, and Sam Samudio (better known as "Sam the Sham") gathered at Sun Studio to celebrate the 5oth anniversary of rock-and-roll with a special "moment in time" -- Elvis' pivotal recording of "That's All Right," played simultaneously by radio stations nationwide. Three days earlier, Sirius Satellite Radio originated broadcasting from Graceland, sending Elvis' music around the clock to listeners around the globe.

January 29, 2005 -- The applause was in Utah, but the kudos came right home to Memphis when local filmmakers Craig Brewer (who previously gained fame for his award-winning Hustle & Flow) and Ira Sachs (equally acclaimed for his Forty Shades of Blue), won the highest honors at the Sundance Film Festival. Brewer's latest project: Black Snake Moan, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci, was filmed in Memphis last year.

February 3, 2005 -- Workers with cutting torches removed the giant Goldsmith's sign from the southeast corner of Oak Court Mall, ending the chain's final chapter as a Memphis retail landmark opened by Jacob and Isaac Goldsmith downtown in 1870. The stores now operate as Macy's. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the Memphis connection is gone, and Goldsmith's joins a long list of "lost" locally owned department stores, including Julius Lewis, Lowenstein's, Gerber's, and Bry's.

May 26, 2005 -- For Tennessee politics, it was a "where were you when" moment, when news broke that seven high-profile Tennessee political figures, including four current and former Memphis lawmakers, were arrested and indicted in an undercover federal sting subtly named "Operation Tennessee Waltz." The feds, using a phony recycling business as their storefront, gave legislators John Ford, Katherine Bowers, Ward Crutchfield, Chris Newton, and former state Senator Roscoe Dixon cash in exchange for favorable legislation.

The scandal reverberated throughout the state, ultimately sparking a series of bizarre events including a special legislative session on ethics reform and a contested election to replace John Ford. With illegal post-mortem ballots and cries of "Jim Crow" ringing through the senate's chamber, the bribery sting and mishandled election cast an even deeper shadow on the already murky water of Tennessee politics. And the band plays on.

November 6, 2005 -- With a rumble of dynamite, demolition crews brought down the old Baptist Hospital, at one time the largest private hospital in the nation. To fans of the King of Rock-and-Roll, the building had special significance. Elvis Presley had a private refuge on the 17th floor, complete with gold-plated faucet handles and other fixtures, where he would often stay while being treated for what was euphemistically called "exhaustion," and it was where his body was brought after his death on August 16, 1977. Baptist officials, however, decided facilities in East Memphis and Collierville could better serve its patients (though folks living downtown and Midtown might disagree) and closed the hospital in 2000. The site along Union Avenue, currently being cleared of tons of rubble, will eventually house the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, a 1.3-million-square-foot medical and biotechnical research facility.

November 15, 2005 -- The Reverend Adrian Rogers died of pneumonia, ending 32 years as the charismatic leader of Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova. During his tenure, Bellevue -- with more than 29,000 members -- grew into one of the largest churches in the country. Rogers' influence, which included an extensive Christian broadcast ministry, exemplified the reemergence of religious conservatism throughout America.

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