Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Beale Street Gets Branded

By Jim Hanas

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  Searchlights swept the skies over Beale Street for the second time in less than a week Sunday night. The first time was last Wednesday, when the lights heralded the long-awaited opening of Phantom of the Opera at the newly retooled Orpheum. Sunday, the occasion was the opening of the equally long-awaited grand opening of the Hard Rock Cafe at the newly retooled site of Pee Wee’s Saloon.

Thousands crowded onto the east end of Beale in unseasonably cold weather to catch the free concert by the Wallflowers as the V.I.P. grand opening party inside the club featured a night of performances presentations, proclamations, and an all around mood of self-congratulation.

“There’s no place in this world that deserves to have a Hard Rock Cafe more than Memphis, Tennessee,” Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout told the assembled crowd from under the statue of W.C. Handy.

Mayor Herenton’s comment was more to the point, however. “It’s about time,” he said.

Considering that the Hard Rock was founded over twenty-five years ago by Peter Morton and Isaac Tigrett, the son of one of this city’s wealthiest citizens, John Tigrett, it is indeed amazing that Memphis could go so long without being blessed by the presence of the famed “eatertainment” chain. Tigrett – whose recent break with the House of Blues proves he is to theme restaurants what Steve Jobs is to Macintosh – got out in 1988, and Morton followed suit in mid-1996. Since then, Hard Rock Cafe International has been a wholly owned subsidiary of the publicly-traded U.K.-based Rank Group, PLC, which has been aggressive in expanding the chain into new markets, averaging an opening a month – a pace it hopes to continue through the year 2000.

“To have a Hard Rock Cafe puts us in another category, which I think is important,” says John Elkington, CEO of Performa Entertainment Real Estate, Inc., which manages Beale Street. “Not every city has a Hard Rock.”

Not yet, anyway. There are now 84 Hard Rock’s in 30 countries, with 33 of them in United States, which – just for comparison – is three more than there are NFL franchises but significantly less than the number of, say, Red Lobsters. And with plans in the works to add 12 to 15 new locations worldwide each year, the sense of uniqueness Memphis can glean from having one can be expected to drop.

Philadelphia, Denver, Cleveland, Edinborough. Hard Rock International CEO Jim Berk can really rattle off the locations that will open in the coming year. Amsterdam, Dublin, Rome, Ankara, Kuwait.

Yes, Kuwait.

The Hard Rock will have its benefits, of course, such as boosting tourism and bringing more visitors to the east end of Beale. “Ever since the Hard Rock came, we’ve had people come in that didn’t know we were here,” says Judy Peiser of the Center for Southern Folklore, which sits across newly-renamed Rufus Thomas Boulevard from the Cafe. “On a day to day basis, we’re going to get more people coming in.”

Rufus Thomas waves off the paparazzi.
photo by Roy Cajero
Furthermore, Elkington – who says he wooed Hard Rock to Memphis with hundreds of phone calls, 70 packages, and over a hundred faxes – hopes the new addition to Beale will lead the way to closing deals on a Pat O’Brien’s and a namesake club for Buddy Guy.

“It is important in the fact that it tells people this is a serious place to relocate,” says Elkington. “This is the McDonald’s in a strip center.”

There were ironies to be noted at the opening of the McDonald’s of Beale Street. That the latest attraction took the place of a recording studio in a city that recording studios made famous, for example, gives one pause; as does the guest that hollered “Get’em another drink” as Sam Phillips rambled at length about the “spirit” of Beale Street. You know something is awry when the man that has a good a claim as anyone to putting Memphis on the map in the first place gets heckled at the opening of a restaurant chain operated by a multi-national. Likewise when Jim Dickinson, perhaps the most outspoken critic of the Disney-fication of Beale, performed at the celebration with the North Mississippi All-Stars.

“We were playing outside,” said Dickinson when asked about his apparent support for what he has long opposed. “I liked Beale Street when it was empty . . . destroyed. That’s just the way I am. I’m into decomposition. This could be anywhere.”

While Dickinson’s appetite for decomposition might be idiosyncratically his own, his observation that from inside the Hard Rock you could be anywhere in the world isn’t.

Enthusiastic murmurs of “I don’t even feel like I’m in Memphis” could occasionally be heard among the more impressed guests at the grand opening, which says a lot about what Memphians want from the Hard Rock . . . or the NFL . . . or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame . . . or Phantom: affirmation and assurance that our city’s worst self-loathing fears aren’t true; outside confirmation that we have indeed reached the “next level” and become “first-rate” and “world-class.”

The distinctive Hard Rock logo, then, is like a stamp of approval, a voucher from what Elkington calls “the brand name in the theme restaurant business.”

Everything at the grand opening sought to cast the arrival of “the Brand” as an emblem of Memphis’ musical history: from appearances by Rufus Thomas and Sam Moore to the observation of W.C. Handy’s birthday to Elkington’s pained likening of Hard Rock’s mission – “Love All. Serve All.” – to the mission of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Of course, Hard Rock’s mission – to sell T-shirts and burgers – doesn’t have much to do with Dr. King’s, and it remains to be seen what impact the Cafe will have on Beale and what effect Beale will have on the rest of downtown’s development. Elvis Presley’s Memphis opened with much fanfare and heavy-hitting headliners earlier this year and – except for an apperance by Carl Perkins – has yet to live up to its press. The Hard Rock opening was much grander, and one hopes that its follow-up will be too.

Regardless, the lip-service paid to Memphis’ musical heritage at Sunday’s opening made it clear that what Memphis already has is better than any brand name, and it’s a shame that it takes a logo to make it seem worthwhile.

Imagine this: an opening where enthusiastic guests can be overheard saying, “This feels just like Memphis.” Now that sounds like the next level.

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