A Pyramid Over the Delta: The Story Behind the Memphis Bass Pro Shop

Ducks Unlimited museum, Beretta section among many attractions for hunters

Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017

By Bill Izard

(Editor's note: Bill is editor of our sister site, The Voice of the South, where this piece originally ran.)

Pyramids are awesome. They look like manmade mountains. A pyramid is a work of art, a monument, a building, a cool geometric figure, and an architectural wonder all rolled into one. If you’re among the lucky few who have traveled to see the Egyptian originals (or those in Central America), that’s great. But for most of us Southerners, we’ll just have to settle on visiting the tallest and largest pyramid in America, on the Mississippi and not the Nile, in a Memphis home to more recent Kings (like B.B. and Elvis, you know).

At first dubbed the Great American Pyramid, it is now known, colloquially at least, as “the Pyramid.” Completed in 1991, the Pyramid towers at 321 feet (28 stories) and boasts a 535,000 square-foot footprint (big enough for over half a dozen football fields). It may not be as “great” as the Great Pyramid in Giza, but that’s pretty darn big in my book. It’s all glass and steel, too, which makes it look like a giant priceless jewel set down in the middle of the Mississippi Delta.

Built in part by Isaac Tigrett, co-founder of Hard Rock Café and House of Blues, the Memphis Pyramid was originally designed and used as a sports arena and concert venue. Everybody from Michael Jackson and Bob Seger to Mike Tyson and the Final Four played the Pyramid over a period of about fifteen years — until Memphis-based Federal Express built its FedExForum and took the Pyramid’s place as the primary crowd-gatherer in the city. Still lovely from the outside, the pretty Pyramid was closed to business.

The Pyramid in Memphis is now the largest Bass Pro Shop in the world. (Exothermic)

Some said the structure was “cursed,” or “evil,” that it was tied to Masonic conspiracies to take over the world. Tigrett, who is among other things a somewhat fanatical devotee of esoteric eastern mysticism, apparently deposited a “crystal skull” in the apex at construction (it’s gone now), and the public knowledge of this eerie weirdness only encouraged such theories. Whatever the case, in 2007 the Great Memphis Pyramid, just like all the ones in Egypt, went dark.

But not for thousands of years — only about five or six — while the city of Memphis and the outdoor-sporting-goods giant Bass Pro Shops of Springfield, Missouri, worked out a deal to transform the behemoth into the largest Bass Pro retail shop in the world. When renovations to the Pyramid were completed in 2013, the structure’s insides were just about as awesome as the armor plain to view from miles around.

If you hunt, fish, boat, or do just about anything recreational out in the big outdoors, you have either been to a Bass Pro Shop or you’ve dreamed about it. I’m not sure anyone could ever dream up this Bass Pro Pyramid thing, though.

As part of the “curse,” no doubt, the Pyramid had flooded early on in its history, causing quite a bit of concern for concert-goers at the time. The Bass Pro people apparently decided to go with this original theme and built a cypress swamp that very nearly covers the entire half-a-million-square-foot first floor. Nine-feet-deep at the deepest, there are enough fish, ducks, and alligators in here, not to mention all the taxidermied critters, to make you think you got lost in mid-Louisiana somewhere rather than being in metro Memphis with its two-thirds million population.

Except, of course, there’s a lot of stuff to buy in here. And lots of stuff to do. Boats for sale sit on the water as well as the ducks, and the three-story waterfall is (only slightly) outdone by the 28-story freestanding elevator (the world’s tallest). There’s a restaurant and bar with a bowling alley and saltwater aquarium, pistol and archery ranges, and, get this, a “wilderness” hotel with over a hundred rooms, complete with screened porches and rocking chairs and, of course, an excellent view of “the swamp.”

Beretta, the world-class Italian gun manufacturer, has a significant corner of the store, where you can buy anything from shotguns to premium-grade pocket-size pistols; and Ducks Unlimited, which is headquartered in Memphis, has a 4,600-square-foot museum in here as well, featuring wetland conservation and waterfowl history along the Mississippi Flyway.

Inside the famed Bass Pro Pyramid in Memphis. (Trevor Birchett)

All that down close to the ground. Get in the amusement-park-ride-looking elevator, and for 10 bucks you can travel to the apex of the Pyramid, where you’ll find another restaurant and bar, another aquarium, and a glass-floored observation deck from which you can view the Mighty Mississippi, Mud Island, Memphis proper, and miles and miles of Arkansas farmland just across the river.  

I don’t know for sure, but I bet the Great Pyramid in Memphis, Egypt, never had a 10th part of these sorts of attractions. Sure, it’s big, pretty, and awesome, but, as far as I know, there were never any elevators, alligator tanks and archery ranges. Mummies and hieroglyphics and so forth — OK, maybe alligators (or rather, crocodiles).

Memphis is pretty much right in the middle of everything Southern — exactly halfway between the westernmost part of Texas and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. You’ve got Rendezvous Barbecue, Elvis’ Graceland and Beale Street Blues. But where else in the South are you going to find a river-flanking Pyramid with a sort of hunter-fisher fantasy land inside its four perfectly sloping walls?

Crazy crystal skulls notwithstanding, that’s got to be worth a visit for sure.