February 23, 2013
Push is on to save radio room
By Wayne Risher
A campaign is under way to preserve the Memphis radio booth that introduced Elvis Presley to the world nearly 60 years ago.
It’s the long-abandoned but remarkably undisturbed room where legendary disc jockey Dewey Phillips achieved two Elvis firsts: airing the newly minted “That’s All Right, Mama” and interviewing the nervous teen a few hours later.
As part of the historic Hotel Chisca’s conversion to apartments, developers reached out to the Memphis music community, former WHBQ Radio employees and museum operators about how to best preserve the scene of Phillips’ famous “Red, Hot and Blue” program of the mid-1950s. The hit musical “Memphis” is based on Phillips’ story.
Purists want the booth and surroundings restored and preserved in the exact same spot on the Chisca’s mezzanine level, but that appears unlikely unless a deep-pocketed individual or organization steps forward.
More likely, the booth would be taken apart and put back together in a more publicly accessible street-level space, perhaps as part of a restaurant.
In a new YouTube video, “Red, Hot & Rescue,” Memphis filmmaker Michael McCarthy leads a dimly lit tour of the time warp that is the Chisca’s mezzanine. He shows viewers the booth where the magic happened and describes how it would be relocated to the first floor, with a little help from friends of Memphis music.
McCarthy, whose film credits reflect a lifelong interest in Elvis, has teamed up with promoter Rachel Hurley at Kangaroo, a friend at MTV and the music-themed fundraising site PledgeMusic.com to generate public support and $50,000 for the cause.
Whatever the solution, time is short. Developers are up against a May deadline to start structural repairs and environmental cleanup on the extremely dilapidated hotel, which they bought last year from the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ.
Terry Lynch, partner in the development group, said architectural plans call for apartment units in a 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot suite that has sat vacant since WHBQ left around 1963. Developers put together the deal to save the Chisca on the thinnest of margins, leveraging $17 million to $21 million in private investment with $3 million in public incentives to eliminate one of Main Street’s worst eyesores.
“From the lender’s perspective, they’ve underwritten an apartment building. To tell them we’re building a museum, that doesn’t really excite them,” Lynch said. “Our business is to develop it. We’ve got to be respectful as an ownership group to our lender.”
In addition to cutting into project revenues, preserving the booth on the second floor would set up a logistical conflict between apartment use and a museum open to the public, Lynch said.
Recent visitors to the WHBQ suite have included former disc jockeys Jack Parnell, George Klein and Dave Brown, Memphis Music Foundation president Dean Deyo, Memphis Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum executive director John Doyle, Sun Studio president John Schorr and record promoter David Fleischman.
WHBQ owner George Flinn hasn’t taken the tour, but said he’s supportive of efforts to save the booth and is willing to work with organizers on such details as the original equipment, which is in storage.
Flinn bought the station from RKO in the 1980s. “As far as I know, I think we’ve got the original microphone and the turntable,” he said.
Flinn and Parnell fall decidedly into the purist camp, and Flinn likes the idea of WHBQ broadcasting from the Chisca again.
“Personally, I think it is not wise to move it,” Flinn said.
However, if economics don’t allow it, “I’d be happy to work with them either way they want to do it.”
Parnell, a longtime voice-over artist who worked with Dewey Phillips and eventually succeeded him on the air, said the studios looked much as they did when WHBQ moved out 50 years ago. “It was a time capsule we were seeing.”
Source: © 2013 Memphis Commercial Appeal