Maybe the truth is that The Pyramid is just cursed.
No, we’re serious.
From native American warnings to Isaac Tigrett’s crystal skull to former Shelby County Commissioner Vasco Smith’s foreboding feelings about the site that he called “evil,” The Pyramid has been a reliable tomb of doom for any big ideas for its use.
The only thing more consistent than failure is the hyperbole that characterizes each of them. We thought of this when a leading Memphis businessman and promoter of the Bass Pro Shop told The Commercial Appeal:
“We know that Bass Pro will draw 3 to 4 million tourists (annually) to Memphis."
Shoppers As Tourists
Of course, we know no such thing. And the continued description of its shoppers as “tourists” is misleading and unsupportable. We’ve not heard anything about a definitive, impartial market study for Bass Pro Shop, and we suspect that the generous projection of “tourists” actually comes from the company itself. Next, Bass Pro Shop backers will be referring to the store’s yearly “attendance.”
All this sounds so familiar. Accompanying every half-baked plan for The Pyramid has been a different batch of indefensible numbers justifying their claim to the city’s most prominent building. Ironically, the grand plans of Sidney Shlenker and John Tigrett also projected three million visitors to The Great American Pyramid – a prediction that now seems as ludicrous as the claim that $39 million would get Memphis a “state of the art” arena.
If Bass Pro supporters are going to bandy about claims of 3 to 4 million shoppers (oh, sorry, tourists), they need to reassure an anxious city. That can be done by releasing the data to back up such an extravagant claim, by determining how many come from our market, and how much is “new net money” and not just money moved from other retailers to Bass Pro Shop.
But back to the curse. The most ominous warning was given by Isaac Tigrett following the removal of the crystal skull that he had secretly riveted to the steel superstructure of The Pyramid apex. The small black box was spotted by a maintenance man about a year after the arena had opened.
Pried from its secret place, the box was opened with great ceremony in a conference room in the bottom of The Pyramid, and inside the velvet-lined box and covered with gauze dusted with a fragrant powder was a small crystal skull. There was little question who had put it there, because of Isaac Tigrett’s interest in Eastern mysticism.
Although the skull seemed to have more in common with those found in Mayan archaeological sites, city and county officials were told that the skull had materialized in the hands of Mr. Tigrett’s guru, Sathya Sai Baba, during a conversation. The founder of Hard Rock Café and House of Blues had a special debt to the Indian mystic, who protected him during a devastating car wreck in California. Hurtling off the road in his sports car, Mr. Tigrett said that Sai Baba appeared in his car, put his arms around him and protected him from harm. The car was destroyed.
In other words, the crystal skull’s connection to the religious leader and guru gave it special power, which was amplified by the additional force of the pyramid itself, according to Isaac Tigrett.
“You don’t have any idea what you have done,” he said upon being told that the crystal skull had been removed. He added somberly that the cosmic balance of the earth could be disturbed as well.
By that time, suggestions that removal of the skull could curse The Pyramid were laughable. After all, with the crystal skull in place, little had gone right.
If Memphis had been interpreting signs, perhaps there wasn’t one delivered more forcefully than the thunder storm that postponed the “Big Dig” extravaganza to kick off construction. A native American telephoned city and county officials with a warning - the Pyramid site was sacred and that the rain was an omen of worse things to come.
Officials joked about the warning for days. Two years later, no one was laughing. Construction had been delayed, the price had increased, and the shape-shifting Shlenker/Tigrett development was no closer to coming into focus.
The Great American Pyramid plan was essentially dead. So was the Hard Rock Café; the glass inclinator to the apex; the perverse mutation of of Egyptology and rock music into Rakapolis; Dick Clark’s American Music Awards Hall of Fame; a re-creation of the Cavern, ground zero for Beatles fans, and priceless Stax Records artifacts; an Omnimax theater; a light and music spectacle in the arena on non-event days; a radio station on the top of the building beaming shortwave Memphis music; and what became called the “scheme du jour,” ideas that often became inoperable before the end of the business day.
Flush And Flood
The private partnership finally cratered and the public sector scampered to get The Pyramid opened in time for Memphis State University basketball. But first, there was the grand opening. Once touted by Mr. Shlenker as Luciano Pavarotti in Aida, complete with elephants and grandeur, the opening instead starred the Judds, who came all the way from Nashville.
Although arena officials had been referring to opening night as their “baptism by fire,” because of the rushed opening, it was a more traditional baptism – by water. When the packed house stormed the restrooms and flushed the toilets at the same time, it was too much for the city sewer transfer station, which flooded the arena floor with water of varying degrees of sanitation, giving birth to the so-called Pyramid test now conducted in all new arenas.
From the beginning, it was clear that the seats were too narrow (required when the arena capacity was increased by 2,000 seats to get the deciding vote from County Commissioner Pete Sisson), the angle of the upstairs seats was too severe (a pregnant woman fell down the darkened, unlit aisles), the track seating adjacent to the floor seats wasn’t used in arenas any more and conjured up images of rodeo seating; the private suites were on the public concourse which devalued their exclusivity, and the sound was in a word, atrocious.
The gallows humor at The Pyramid was that a concert ticket was a bargain, because you got to hear two concerts for the price of one – the actual concert and the one that bounced off the ceiling about 15 seconds later. A lawsuit and millions of dollars later, the acoustics were improved, but not before some promoters decided that there was a hex on the building.
Death By Pyramid
A door at ground level was cut into the south side of the building for disabled guests. Technically, the ramps into the building met building code, but after a Pyramid manager was unable to move up the ramp on a wheelchair, the new entrance was added and handicapped parking was redesigned.
In addition to basic acoustics, the sound system and lighting for basketball games had to be upgraded. More than once, it was muttered that the building was cursed, particularly after someone fell to his death from the rigging and a gunman holed up in the ground floor.
But the dream of a Pyramid attraction doesn’t die easy. Island Earth was killed off by politically connected Herenton supporters who didn’t like the idea of a eco-attraction (which now seems to have been ahead of its time) and other pleas for development plans to major theme park operators and developers only drew shrugs. As a result, the Wonders exhibit seemed like a godsend when it moved to the north wide of The Pyramid from the convention center. Within a few years, it shut its doors with a debt of more than $1 million.
Now, about 20 years after The Great American Pyramid was first proposed, the curse seems as active as ever, bringing Bass Pro Shop as our latest, greatest magic answer to making the building the 365 day a year attraction that was always envisioned.
If there is anything that should be clear by now, it is that some things just aren’t meant to be.