Cleveland rocks with Hall of Fame launch

CLEVELAND Nearly a decade – and $92 million – after a group of mostly New York record and music industry execs conceived a plot to permanently enshrine rock ‘n’ roll, an I.M. Peidesigned temple to rock’s gods and goddesses opened its doors on the banks of Lake Erie over Labor Day weekend.

Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (the founders prefer the more formal “and” to the usual ” ‘n’ “) was expected to draw as many as at least 100,000 visitors during the opening week festivities. A like number of opinions regarding the success or disappointment of this costly venture was virtually guaranteed from the outset, and on that promise the Rock Hall followed through.

Hello Cleveland!

Still, the city that beat out New York, Memphis, San Francisco and Los Angeles by citing both legendary (and local) deejay Alan Freed and a pledge to commit $65 million in public money has rallied behind the project with a single-minded determination that would be hard to imagine in Gotham or Hollywood.

And for good reason. Ohio Gov. George Voinovich, who as the mayor of Cleveland back in ’86 led the drive to get the city taken seriously as home to rock ‘n’ roll, said Aug. 30 that the Rock Hall would bring to the region as many as 1 million visitors – which means as much as $85 million – every year. If that’s true, and others say it may be a tad, but only a tad, optimistic, the city wins big.

The museum and the city certainly couldn’t have asked for a better grand-opening commercial: The Sept. 2 mega-concert, held at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, featured a lineup and cable deal to rival 1985’s Live Aid. Chuck Berry, Bruce Springsteen and James Brown were only a fraction of the more than 30 performers scheduled to appear. HBO broadcast live to its 20 million subscribers, and the stars clearly were a major draw for the 1,300 journalists from around the world who descended on Cleveland last week, many scoffing at the notion of institutionalizing a still-vibrant and evolving art form.

Pei per view

If the Rock Hall won’t entirely beat the odds and win over the naysayers, it won’t be Pei’s fault. His 150,000-squarefoot building is an achievement all its own, an ultra-modern glass-and-white structure that manages to be both sharply geometric and amorphous at once.

After the promise of Pei’s design, entering the main exhibit floor is a letdown. With its scores of video monitors, low-lit spaces and somewhat cavernous feel, the exhibit hall looks more than a bit as though some very hip morning show is about to begin broadcasting.

One bank of terminals on display in the “interactive” area beyond the entrance hall allows users to listen to important songs cross-indexed by year and performer, while another, in keeping with museum curator James Henke’s stated mission of melding education with entertainment, displays still photos and video and aural clips of performers and their major influences. Call up Joni Mitchell and hear her musical similarities to Stevie Wonder, then go figure.

A quick exit through the anti-censorship hallway leads to the central exhibit area holding most of the museum’s 3,000 arti-facts. Scores of other curios, from Alice Cooper’s creepy guillotine prop to the more authentically creepy jagged fragments of Otis Redding’s downed airplane, daunt a quick run-through.

Downtown-fashion designer Stephen Sprouse put together the mannequin displays of authentic costumes, a good if not exhaustive collection that showcases such seminal garb as Presley’s 1968 black leather get-up, Lennon’s Sgt. Pepper uniform, Patti Smith’s punk wear and Madonna’s conical bustier.

Two small (50 seats) theaters continuously screen well-made, fast-paced and clip-heavy histories of rock in a triptych format reminiscent of the “Woodstock” documentary.

Despite the flash of numerous video screens and music-pumping speakers, the museum occasionally fosters a, well, museum-like ambience at odds with rock’s anarchic spirit. That’s not all bad – the museum’s semi-scholarly approach gives appropriate due to the music’s history and diversity. And blemishes: The litany of drug overdoses and suicides are not ignored, glorified or excused.

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