Cleveland music Valhalla turns 10, heads to college to spread its wings

It takes a performer 25 years of work to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the stuff that’s pulling in nearly half a million people per year is not only leather pants from the ’70s, hippie detritus from the ’60s and dusty vinyl from the 1950s. It’s Britney Spears. TLC. Obscure Seattle acts. Hank Williams.

“The goal is to get a broad panorama,” says Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum prexy and CEO Terry Stewart. “We need to have stuff that represents the people on the charts. We have to have entry points, so that means having things from Britney Spears. They might not want to admit it, but every person who walks in here probably didn’t like Led Zeppelin when they were 12. They liked another act they’re embarrassed to mention now.”

The physical building turns 10 this month, and in its decade on the banks of Lake Erie, its 5 million visitors have spent $1.1 billion in the city of Cleveland, according to Team NEO, a regional economic development organization in northeast Ohio. To move the org into its next decade, it is establishing a Library and Archives at the Cuyahoga Community College campus in downtown Cleveland for students and scholars conducting serious research on rock and roll. The 18,000-square-foot library will be housed within the college’s new Center for American Music and Recording Arts, slated to open in December 2007.

Already pledging to donate collections (personal papers, contracts, manuscripts, memoirs, and correspondence with artists, record label executives and the media) are label founder Seymour Stein, Mo Ostin and Clive Davis, scribe Ben Fong-Torres, scribe/producer Jerry Wexler, the estates of Alan Freed and Curtis Mayfield and others.

“This closes a loop on our scholarly run,” notes Stewart, who has run the show for seven years and had previously held top level jobs at Marvel Comics, including vice chairman.

Yet while it moves forward with the new building, it hasn’t solved all the issues with its current building, which opened its doors Sept. 1, 1995.

Visitors — 95% of whom are not locals — often miss a crucial ramp that goes from the third to the fourth floor. Missing it means not seeing the autographs of every hall inductee, getting a sense of rock’s history and the celebrations that have been afforded those artists.

“We have done every variation of a sign possible, and it seems like that’s the one area people don’t see,” says Stewart, who gets a bit exasperated every time he hears about another person failing to notice a key part of the hall.

By missing the ramp, anyone unfamiliar with the history of the hall gets no sense of who’s in and who has yet to make the cut. The last class inducted comprised Buddy Guy, the O’Jays, Pretenders, Percy Sledge and U2; Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Randy Newman and the J. Geils Band made the final ballot but didn’t get in, joining Black Sabbath and Patti Smith among deserving acts on the outside looking in. The hall will send out ballots later this month to decide who makes the class of ’06, with Smith, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Cat Stevens expected to lead the way.

But getting in, doesn’t mean being on display. Part of that owes to the hall relying on donations. It has no budget for acquisitions, so putting together a display is pretty much a crapshoot.

“We don’t have the space for every inductee,” Stewart says.

On top of that, the museum rotates through artists — it recently reinstalled a collection of correspondence from a young Jim Morrison — and gathering enough items from collectors can take considerable time. “It’s really a judgment call (when) we hit critical mass.”

This summer, the hall had a thorough collection of Ramones memorabilia that Stewart says came together only early this year; displays dedicated to Neil Young and the Southern California country-rock scene were lacking in substantial, intriguing material. This summer, the hall had a thorough examination of the Who’s “Tommy,” from concept album to stage show.

Stewart says the museum has been designed without a model to follow and as it progresses, it will improve the storytelling, do more with iconic figures and do more chronological layouts.

“We’re very careful in staying true to artifacts,” Stewart says. “We don’t do a lot of gold records. We want items that (display) the essence of where this music came from.”

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