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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame turns 20
Cleveland fought a tough battle to bring the museum here, and officials are looking ahead to the next two decades

Kabir Bhatia
Brothers Travis (left) and Dawson Gates from Chesapeake, VA loved seeing The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and more in the Rock Hall, but they'd also like to see The Foo Fighters and Tool inducted once eligible
Courtesy of Kabir Bhatia
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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland turns 20 years old today. The museum opened with a star-studded concert in 1995, and as WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia reports, the Hall has evolved in the two decades since.
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Since it opened, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has welcomed more than 10 million visitors. About 85 percent of them are not from Northeast Ohio.

Dawson Gates
is a senior in high school and made a pilgrimage from Chesapeake, Va., today, the rock hall’s 20th birthday.

“It's monumental. This is rock and what it can be and what it should still be today.”

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 back then, one of the most influential stations in the country. He remembers the campaign to bring the Hall here instead of cities like Memphis, Detroit and even The Big Apple.

“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.”

A legacy and a campaign
DJ Alan Freed – purported to be the one who placed the term “rock and roll” into the lexicon – 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. 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 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.”

A dip and recovery
After that, the Rock Hall’s attendance dipped in the early 2000s but has rebounded in recent years. Rock Hall VP of Marketing Todd Mesek says that’s thanks to more interactivity in the exhibits, something that 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.’ 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 cites the current 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 hot 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.”

The Paul Simon exhibit closes this weekend, but the 20th birthday festivities at the Rock Hall will include 2-for-$20 tickets and 20 percent off memberships for Northeast Ohioans who want to learn more about everyone from Chuck Berry to Green Day. The diversity in the Rock Hall will only continue to grow, says author Mike Olszewski.

“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. 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 today, on its 20th birthday, 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, LA: I don't know?
-Sherry & Burl Morris, Indiana: Harold Melvin and The Dramatics
-Nicole LoBuglio, Buffalo: Pearl Jam, Moody Blues
-Tom & Cole Corey, Detroit: Nine Inch Nails, Bobby Vee
-Travis and Dawson Gates, Chesapeake, VA: Foo Fighters, Tool

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 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. Plain Dealer Architecture Critic Steve Litt says the museum makes a great postcard, but 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 says the new pedestrian bridge project -- connecting the lakefront to downtown – is a good start. The bridge is currently slated for completion in 2017, with $25 million in public money pledged so far.
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