OHIO OR BUST

THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM: GREAT IDEA OR SIGN THAT THE END IS NEAR?

Critical acclaim was no cinch. The nine years or so leading up to the structure's bow had been rough. Cracks had been made about the city, the hall's organizers and the wisdom of offering a scholarly salute to a musical art form that has been at its best when it's made many of the academics and highbrows who support museums profoundly uncomfortable. Even rocker David Bowie looked down on the scheme; he called it "ludicrous" and refused to be inducted into the hall. But Bowie's was a minority opinion; even onetime bad boys such as the Rolling Stones gave the project their blessing. Perhaps the times were a-changin'--and didn't Cleveland deserve a change for the better?

Certainly the Cleveland electronic press felt that way. Newscasts throughout the grand-opening weekend were dominated by Hall of Fame coverage, most of it breathless. One station opened its eleven o'clock broadcast on Thursday with footage of Bruce Springsteen arriving at the airport for an all-star concert to be staged at Cleveland's Memorial Stadium two days later in conjunction with the museum's grand opening. The visuals were accompanied by anchorman Judd Hambrick's exuberant narration: "It's a `Jungleland,' as the man `Born to Run' with a `Hungry Heart' gets set to relive his `Glory Days' on the `Backstreets' of Cleveland..."

Following Hambrick's spiel, the station switched to location sound. As Springsteen moved down a generic corridor surrounded by cameramen and reporters, someone shouted, "What do you think of Cleveland so far?"

The Boss looked bleary-eyed, shell-shocked. "Kinda crowded," he replied.

The Cleveland Convention Center was transformed into a media nexus for the hall's grand opening, and on Friday morning, volunteers appeared to know what they were doing as they directed reporters from one kiosk to another in search of credentials, press releases and the like. But behind the scenes, matters were considerably more confused.

A brand of catch-as-catch-can organization has been the hall's modus operandi since 1983, when a small cadre of music bigwigs, including Ahmet Ertegun, chairman/CEO of Atlantic Records, and Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner, brainstormed the concept of the Hall of Fame. These would-be visionaries subsequently conceived the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, which, according to the group, was "created both to honor the artists (and the nonperformers) who have shaped rock 'n' roll and to document the historical importance of the music itself."

The rub? Beyond these noble words, the hall didn't exist. That began changing in 1985, when K. Michael Benz, a Cleveland businessman, floated the idea of a museum to radio pros in the city. Upon learning about the foundation, he and a team that included then-Ohio governor Richard Celeste and Cleveland mayor (and current Ohio governor) George V. Voinovich flew to New York eager to convince Wenner and company that the hall should be built in Cleveland, the city where, in the 1950s, scandal-plagued disc jockey Alan Freed coined the term "rock and roll." Once word leaked out about the city's efforts, other communities entered the race for the museum. Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans and New York (the original favorite) expressed interest, but Cleveland was far and away the most ardent. More than 600,000 locals signed a petition in favor of the hall, and more than 110,000 voted for Cleveland in a 1986 USA Today poll about museum locations. Memphis, the runner-up, logged one-fifteenth that total.

But while enthusiasm was fine, money was better--and once Cleveland was awarded the hall in 1986, it promised to pony up plenty of it. First estimates predicted that the hall would cost $26 million, but those numbers soon went out the window due to inflation, the grandiosity of the design arrived upon by renowned architect I.M. Pei and the usual bureaucratic wrangling. The Hall of Fame Foundation eventually set a 1989 deadline for the city to either raise $40 million or lose the project entirely; Cleveland succeeded, barely, thanks to $8 million in state grants and $34 million in state-backed bonds. Final figures are tough to come by, but by some estimates, more than $65 million in public funds, plus $20 million from private sources, got the hall on its feet. Even so, it wasn't until after Chuck Berry and Pete Townshend helped break ground on the shore of Lake Erie in 1993 that it finally became clear that the embarrassing spectacle of annual induction ceremonies for a Hall of Fame that wasn't there (held in New York since 1986) would finally come to an end. At last, the damn thing was going to be built.

Still, not everything was running smoothly. After the groundbreaking, K. Michael Benz, who had earlier replaced Larry Thompson as museum director, was himself replaced by Dennis Barrie, former head of Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center. Barrie brought with him impeccable museum credentials, but he wasn't what you'd call a rock buff. Earlier this year, at a press conference intended to hype attendance at the September 2 concert, which boosters were frantic to pack, he told the gathered media that fans wouldn't want to miss the chance to see Aretha Franklin and Melissa Etheridge "heating up the stage together." When the reporters laughed at the image of out-front lesbian Etheridge heating things up with Franklin, Barrie was puzzled. "What?" he asked. "Did I say something funny?"

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