The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Turns 25
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland turns 25 years old today. The museum opened with a star-studded concert in 1995 and has evolved in the quarter-century since. WKSU's Kabir Bhatia reported on its first 20 years in this story from 2015.
In its first 20 years, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame welcomed more than 10 million visitors. About 85 percent of them were not from Northeast Ohio.
Dawson Gates is a senior in high school and made a pilgrimage from Chesapeake, Va., on the Hall’s 20th birthday.
“It's monumental. This is rock and what it can be and what it should still be today,” he said.
Competition with the Big Apple and Motown
When the first inductions took place, in 1986, few would have thought the actual building would end up on the North Coast. Author Mike Olszewski was with WMMS radio at the time, which was one of the most influential stations in the country. He remembers the campaign to bring the Hall here instead of cities like New York, Detroit, or Memphis.
“We had a pretty good idea about the history of rock and roll. For a long time, Cleveland bought more records per capita than any other place in the country. And of course, Alan Freed’s legacy was here,” Olszewski said.
A legacy and a campaign
DJ Alan Freed -- purported to be the one who coined the phrase “rock and roll” -- hosted popular radio and TV shows here before heading to New York City. He also put together what’s billed as the first rock concert, the Moondog Coronation Ball in 1952.
“When we finally got the campaign going – and it took about two years – it practically overwhelmed New York," Olszewski said. "We had petition drives. We had concerts. No one showed the kind of enthusiasm and the kind of financial package that Cleveland could to try to get the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame here.”
The Higbee Building, now site of the Horseshoe Casino, was one possibility, but eventually ground was broken in 1993 next to what was then Cleveland Municipal Stadium. On Sept. 2, 1995, the stadium hosted an all-star concert to officially open the doors on the house that rock built. Olszewski was there to hear dozens of Rock Hall inductees and future inductees kicked off by Chuck Berry.
“It was such an exciting moment; the whole city went Rock and Roll crazy. In New York, there was a mention of it. In Cleveland, it became the whole day,” Olszewski said.
A dip and recovery
After that, the Rock Hall’s attendance dipped in the early 2000s but has rebounded in recent years. In 2015, then-Rock Hall VP of Marketing Todd Mesek said the increase is due to more interactivity in the exhibits, something which will mark the next two decades of the museum’s outreach to the public.
“People love their icons. They love seeing those artifacts, whether it’s John Lennon’s guitar or the handwritten lyrics to ‘Purple Haze,’" Mesek said. "But what’s most important is to tell the story around that and put that in a cultural context, in a political context, in a personal context.”
Mesek cited a 2015 exhibit on Paul Simon as a good example of the direction future exhibits will take.
“Our curator sat down for hours and hours with Paul Simon and got his story. So you don’t just see that guitar, but you understand in Paul’s words why that’s significant, what songs he wrote on it. So it’s like walking through the exhibit with him as the narrator,” he said.
In 2015, Olszewski, an author, predicted that the Rock Hall would continue to diversify in the future.
“We are going to see this evolve into more of a pop culture or pop music Hall of Fame. You can't really call it a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when you have such a wide variety of music to choose from," he said. "Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga -- all of them are going to find their way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Would they fit the original concept of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from years ago? I don't know. You could probably name off a dozen acts that are not in there.”
Every spring, the Rock Hall inducts about a half-dozen artists, all of whom have been recording for at least 25 years, in a ceremony that rotates among L.A., New York and Cleveland. Outside of the Rock Hall on its 20th birthday in 2015, visitors reflected on who they’d like to see get in next:
-Mike O'Neal, Dallas: Peter Frampton
-Steve Pawley, Detroit: Inxs, Chicago, Kansas, Styx, Foreigner, Journey
-Linden Ibele, Anchorage, AK: Michael Stanley Band
-Clyde Brown, Sulphur, L.A.: I don't know?
-Sherry & Burl Morris, Indiana: Harold Melvin and The Dramatics
-Nicole LoBuglio, Buffalo, N.Y.: Pearl Jam, The Moody Blues
-Tom & Cole Corey, Detroit: Nine Inch Nails, Bobby Vee
-Travis and Dawson Gates, Chesapeake, Va.: Foo Fighters, Tool
Since then, Chicago, Journey, Pearl Jam, The Moody Blues, and Nine Inch Nails have all been inducted.
The city is still working to capitalize on the presence of the museum designed by I.M. Pei.
When the Rock Hall opened, Jacob’s Field, which is now Progressive Field, was only a year old, Cleveland Municipal Stadium was on its last legs, and Tower City was stealing much of the glass-enclosed Galleria’s thunder. In 2015, then-Plain Dealer Architecture Critic Steve Litt said that while the museum makes a great postcard, Cleveland may want to better capitalize on its lakefront icon.
“That has taken a very, very long time because it’s a difficult thing to do. There’s a huge swath of buildings and railroads between downtown proper and the lakefront. And the Rock Hall is on the far side of that. The question for the city is, ‘Are we making enough out of it and building around it?’” Litt said.
The Rock Hall was closed earlier this year due to the coronavirus pandemic but offered educational programming online. The building reopened this summer and is now hosting its largest exhibit ever, "It’s Been Said All Along: Voices of Rage, Hope & Empowerment."
Watch the entire 1995 opening concert here: