The Memphis Pyramid and the Crystal Skull
When construction workers were on top of the giant pyramid in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, they discovered a small metal box welded to the structure. Inside, they were shocked to find a small crystal skull. The story of how the skull got there has become Memphis Legend. In this episode, we talk about the Crystal Skull of Memphis and then chat with Musician “Danny Moon” Dan Malone.
If you’ve ever visited Memphis Tennessee, you’ll know that just Northwest of downtown, on Wolf River Harbor, there’s a giant glass and metal pyramid. It’s the 10th largest pyramid in the world and the story that goes along with it is wild.
Since the mid 1950s, Memphis was searching for that tourist attraction that would bring people to the city. Sure, they had Beale Street, Blues, Barbecue, and Graceland. But they wanted their version of the Saint Louis Gateway Arch. That symbol of downtown Memphis that would be an icon synonymous with the city. One effort over the years to do this was the development of Mud Island, a park in the middle of the Wolf River Harbor, just off the Mississippi River. It was meant to be a notable destination in Memphis, but never really delivered. On my first visit to Memphis, Mud Island housed the famous B-17 bomber The Memphis Belle, which at the time was in horrible disrepair. City planners in Memphis wanted their Saint Louis Arch, and a small island park didn’t cut it.
Starting in 1954, a Memphis artist, Mark C. Hartz, drew up a plan for a series of pyramids to be constructed downtown. The biggest one would be ⅔ the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. It wasn’t until 30 years later that Mark’s son Jon brought the idea back up. This time, the plan was for a single bronze, glass-glazed pyramid. And a charismatic, if not eccentric entrepreneur helped to make it a reality.
So let’s talk about Isaac Tigrett. He’s most famous for founding the Hard Rock Cafe and House of Blues. Yes both of them. Did you know they both were started by the same guy? He started Hard Rock Cafe with Peter Morton and House of Blues with Dan Akroyd. Some other interesting stuff bout Tigrett. He married Maureen Starkey. And if that name sounds familiar, she was the ex-wife of Ringo Starr. If you’ve ever seen the “Get Back” documentary, or the “Let it Be” rooftop concert, she’s there with Linda McCartney and Yoko Ono. She’s also the one that had an affair with George Harrison, but that’s a whole digression. So Tigrett married her.
Tigrett was instrumental in helping to get the Memphis Pyramid built. Part of that motivation was that the pyramid would be home to one of his Hard Rock Cafe locations. But the main use of the pyramid was as a basketball arena. It was meant to be the home court for the University of Memphis and Memphis Grizzlies basketball teams, and could then also house concerts and large events. The venue would be home to a music museum, a radio station, and would operate in conjunction with a nearby theme park. Tigrett brought Sidney Shlenker to Memphis to manage construction. He was a developer and part-owner of the Denver nuggets.
Construction began on the pyramid in September of 1989 and the total cost to build the place was $65million dollars. Construction was continually delayed because of torrential rains and flooding. Most of the plans for the stores and museums inside of the pyramid fell through after a falling out between Shlenker and Tigrett.
The 321-foot tall Memphis Pyramid opened as an arena-only in November of 1991. The first event to be held was a concert – the country mother and daughter duo, The Judds. But because of all the issues and confusion in construction, the plumbing wasn’t planned appropriately and when all of the concert goers flushed the toilets, the local infrastructure couldn’t handle it. The toilets backed up, throwing sewage into the bathrooms and hallways of the arena. It wasn’t a good start.
In fact, the Memphis Pyramid has been plagued with issues throughout it’s entire existence. Only a few years after being built, the University of Memphis basketball team moved to the new Fed Ex Arena, where the Memphis Grizzlies were now playing. The pyramid didn’t offer these teams the amenities needed for major basketball games and the cost to upgrade it didn’t make sense. It did still host a few basketball tournaments and concerts, like Mary J. Blige, The Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead. But there just wasn’t enough use to keep the place open and they closed it in 2004.
It sat empty for a decade, other than occasional rental use – at one point it was converted to a soundstage for a film. Because of its continual failures and lack of use, it became known as the “Tomb of Doom.”
But could this sequence of unfortunate events be the result of a curse? Isaac Tigrett thinks so. And he blames it all on the removal of a crystal skull.
In 1991 – the year that the Memphis Pyramid was officially opened, construction workers found a small metal box welded to the very top of the pyramid. It wasn’t in the construction plans and they had no idea what it was. Concerned, they consulted with officials and decided to remove the box and open it. Inside, they were overcome with the smell of incense and were absolutely shocked to find a blue velvet box containing a small crystal skull.
They didn’t know what the heck it was or why it was there. Furthermore, they didn’t know who had placed it there. It wasn’t long before they found out. The answer was Isaac Tigrett. When Tigrett heard they removed it, he said, “You don’t have any idea what you have done.”
This is where I learned a new word this week. The skull was an apotropaic object. That’s an object that is meant to have the power to avert or ward off evil influences or energies. And Tigrett had put the skull there on the advice of Sathya Sai Baba.
Sai Baba was one of India’s famous “Godmen.” He was a Hindi Guru, or Swami and was seen by his followers as a god incarnate. His followers were extremely devout and his fame rose to the point where he had incredible power. Political power, power over his followers and power in India. This guru had been claiming special powers since the age of 14 and as an older man, small and frail with a large afro style hairdo, he would draw thousands when he made an appearance. One of the things that he would use to prove his powers was the materialization of objects – holy ashes, small eggs, jewelry and gold. These things are called Lingams and they’re supposedly proof that he is a divine being or at least an avatar of a divine being.
I’ve seen video of this and I can tell you – it was all done through magicians’ tricks. He was palming a ball of ash between his thumb and hand and just crushed it when he needed ashes. For the egg, it was in the cloth he used to wipe his mouth beforehand. Sai Baba was a charlatan. Nonetheless, people believed that he had divine powers. So when Isaac Tigrett saw him use his magic powers to materialize a crystal skull, he believed him.
The story of how Tigrett came to know Sai Baba is a weird one. As a young man, Tigrett struggled with drugs and alcohol. He was in California and driving drunk – going 90 miles an hour in his Porsche, and he drove his car over a cliff. The car was completely totaled, but Tigrett described a figure materializing to him and holding him as the car landed. The figure vanished into thin air and Isaac walked away unscathed. Years later, he saw a photo of Sathya Sai Baba and said, “That’s the man. That’s the man who appeared to me and saved me.” He flew to India and tried to get a meeting with Sai Baba, but didn’t meet him until 14 years later. He had been requesting an audience with Sai Baba, but the guru apparently took offense to the fact that Tigrett owned these restaurants that served animal meat and served alcohol. It wasn’t until after he divested himself of those restaurants that Sai Baba agreed to meet with him in person. He was a devoted follower for the rest of his life until Sai Baba died in 2011. Now there’s a lot more to the story – including the fact that Sai Baba was a scumbag who molested kids and Tigrett didn’t care and followed him anyway, but that’s not the point of this story.
Tigrett once donated a huge sum of money to Sai Baba in order to help build a hospital. And one of the times they met in person, the guru pretended to materialize this small crystal skull about the size of a fist. He gave it to Tigrett and, as Tigrett had told Sai Baba about his plans for the pyramid, he was instructed to place the crystal skull there, along with instructions about exactly how it should be placed, which direction it should face – all the details. Sai Baba said if the skull were disturbed, it would result in catastrophic consequences, financial ruin, heartache, etc.
So now we return back to 1991 when the skull was removed. Obviously Tigrett was angry when he found out. He claims that even though the skull was removed, there are several other hidden mystical artifacts in the pyramid that have never been found. At that point in development when the skull was uncovered, he was no longer involved with the project, but fought them to get the skull back into his possession. But the bigger problem was this curse! Removing the skull was supposed to unleash a curse. Did that happen? It’s tough to say. They don’t call it the Tomb of Doom for nothing. The pyramid has had nothing but problems since it opened. In addition to financial problems, there have been a couple deaths associated with the location. One of them was a stage hand that fell to his death. Another was someone who was shot and found in the parking lot. And if none of that is proof enough – this one is the nail in the coffin – or sarcophagus I guess. This pyramid – this location that was meant to be a state of the art tourist destination with professional sports and shops – this place that was meant to be the new icon of the city of Memphis…is now currently a Bass Pro Shops.
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