The Hard Rock Café’s story, destined to become a bingeable docuseries, is as tantalizing as its menu. The priceless gems it owns took years to acquire, and the pursuit for more continues to this day. But someone had to get the ball rolling, and that individual was Eric Clapton. The singer/songwriter/guitarist was a regular at the very first Hard Rock Café, which opened in London in 1971. One day, he gifted the owners a personal guitar. After some deliberation as to what to do with the instrument, the owners hung it on a wall in the restaurant, with Clapton’s permission. A week or two later, Pete Townshend of The Who sent his guitar to the restaurant. It was accompanied with a note: “Mine’s as good as his. Love, Pete.” Others followed in their footsteps, and the dream collection was born, growing in size and popularity by the day.
The collection was a draw on its own, so much so that a pop-up was built in London to showcase pieces from their collection. Hard Rock knew they were onto something, so they decided to elevate the experience. They wanted to create a specific destination where the narrative of rock ‘n roll’s history could be brought to life. In other words, they needed a storyteller. That’s where Falcon’s Treehouse came into the picture. Hard Rock wanted to break the mold of what a museum was at the time, and they chose the perfect company to do it. In addition to story development, Falcon’s was contracted to handle content development and serve as creative guardian and executive producer for this unique staging.
This job came to Falcon’s near the tail end of 2001, early in our history. Our liaison was Steve Routhier, Hard Rock’s head curator and resident rock ‘n roll expert. With his Jedi-level understanding of the Hard Rock brand and unique insight into their enormous stash of rare items, he was an invaluable partner. Steve is the one who planted the seed with Hard Rock’s board of directors that a great opportunity existed to purchase rock memorabilia on the cheap. After all, collecting this type of memorabilia wasn’t a recognized field yet, mainly because the musical genre hadn’t been around for very long, relatively speaking.
Steve lent his incredible well of knowledge to the authors of a book called Treasures of the Hard Rock Café, which was published in 2001. As the name suggests, the guide is a comprehensive examination of the famous collection, but it dives deep below the surface, exploring how some of the pieces came into their possession while also sharing juicy morsels about the company’s fascinating history. That book served Falcon’s well through the life of the project, aptly named Hard Rock Vault.
At this point, nobody knew for sure where the Hard Rock Vault’s physical location would be. To some extent, a vision existed of what it was supposed to provide to guests, but the roadmap for getting there was yet to be determined. What does this experience look like? How do people navigate it? What exactly do they see and hear? Those were questions that Falcon’s chief creative officer, Cecil D. Magpuri, set out to answer. He brainstormed with Steve Routhier to develop the plan.
Honing in on what rock ‘n roll is and how to best tell its story was as difficult as it sounds. What does it stand for; what does it represent? One can arrive at many conclusions, but Cecil and Steve agreed on their take: rock n’ roll music is a voice for the youth. It’s a coming of age expression for every generation. Cecil says that’s why it will never die. It constantly reinvents itself for the listener and becomes part of their life’s soundtrack. That realization became the framework for the main guest experience. But the marathon was only beginning.
Cecil turned his attention to designing the experience. He wanted to take guests on a journey, and because he knows how this sort of thing works in the theme park business, he knew he could successfully adapt it for this unique model, which after all, was supposed to be a themed entertainment experience. Some theme park attractions are a pulsed experience. In these, you don’t get to skip a bunch of stuff and jump ahead to the front of the line. There’s a reason for this, besides crowd control, of course. Designers are telling a story. They don’t know for sure if you’re paying attention, but they try their best to engage you. The attraction isn’t just about the ride, it’s about the journey as a whole. The operators can maintain control by guiding the guest through the experience, hence pulse them. It is this basic philosophy that Cecil thought would work best for the Hard Rock Vault’s main attraction.
The million-dollar question was, what is the story? Anyone can imagine the countless directions you could go. That was Falcon’s next challenge. Luckily, they had a guiding light. Time Life had recently released an impressive collection of the history of rock ‘n roll. This was sold on VHS tapes (remember those?). The collection featured interviews with legends, trendsetters, glam rockers, you name it. It was the mother lode of content that Falcon’s needed. Of course, getting access to it all took a dose of savvy negotiation, but once Cecil sealed the deal, his small team of researchers and writers were set loose. They pounced like a tiger attacking a giant piece of meat, devouring hour upon hour of footage and using it to connect the dots and weave a story together.
Cecil envisioned the path forward now, and this Time Life gold mine would be used to help sculpt it. Hard Rock Vault’s main attraction would be a pulsed experience that takes visitors through a series of vignettes focused not just on the larger-than-life personalities and game-changing bands but on specific eras and elements that define rock ‘n roll and prove how it reinvents itself, again and again. Named The Total Immersion Tour, it would be led by a knowledgeable and engaging music expert, carefully trained to customize the experience as well as memorize many pages of script, written by Cecil’s team.
The tour was divided into five galleries: Punk Rock, The Dressing Room, Psychedelic, The British Invasion, and the King’s Chamber, which is all about…well, you know. No matter what style you were into, there was something within the Vault’s heavily fortified walls that could send your imagination into a time warp.
Of course, there was the teensy matter of what to display in the different galleries. Hard Rock had thousands and thousands of items across the globe, most of them taking up residence in their popular restaurants or at least slotted to be shipped to one. So, Cecil and company went from the tough task of choosing who to include to the immense undertaking of what to include and how to obtain it! Aretha Franklin said it best…R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Treasures of the Hard Rock Café was thumbed through over and over, to the point where it’s surprising it’s still in one piece. You can see the sticky note remnants left behind. Needless to say, the team always had eyes on this volume.
During the research, writing, and designing phases, a final location was determined. Hard Rock Vault would be housed in an existing building in Orlando, Florida that had served as the home of the Guinness World Records Experience. Ironically, the 17,000 square foot facility featured an enormous upside-down pyramid on its upper half, the opposite of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One of Falcon’s responsibilities was making the outside look like a vault.
Inside, guests discovered multiple rooms they could explore on their own. In the Originators Room, they received an introduction to rock ‘n roll via seminal figures from its infant days, including Bo Diddley, Dick Clark, and Alan Freed. As part of their storytelling scope, Falcon’s chose which parts of the Time Life interviews to show to guests, as well as the many other clips gathered from the helpful anthology.
When it was their turn to take The Total Immersion Tour, guests were pulsed into an introduction hall, an opulent setting reminiscent of a dignified English manor, but with a hint of rebelliousness. A music video montage playing on a large monitor served as a high-energy introduction before the tour guide introduced themselves. The enthusiastic leader told the eager visitors that they would encounter more than 1,000 pieces of authentic memorabilia. This was their chance to celebrate some of the most outrageous moments in rock ‘n roll history and to connect with the rarest items in Hard Rock’s massive collection. But no touching, of course! Some of those items are very delicate and priceless.
The guide also explained that this wasn’t a lecture or a one-sided conversation. Based on comments from the group or answers to questions the guide posed, he or she would select a preset video that would make it feel as if the experience was customized to the group’s personal tastes. And what an experience this was. Falcon’s drew up a synergistic set design that played into the theme of each gallery.
The Punk Rock gallery drew its inspiration from a New York City back alley, complete with graffiti-splashed brick buildings and clotheslines stretched across two buildings where frayed punk t-shirts hung. Highlights here included Lou Reed’s leather jacket, The New York Dolls’ album and photo cover, and Sid Vicious’ suit from the film, The Filth and the Fury.
The lights in the Punk Rock gallery dimmed, and guests were led into gallery number two. Here, the tour guide explained how ordinary musicians transformed into bona fide rock stars in their inner sanctum, also known as the dressing room. The plush, elegant space featured the flashiest costumes ever worn by the likes of Tina Turner, Madonna, James Brown, Elton John, Little Richard, and Gene Simmons. A few visitors probably kept their eyes peeled for a bowl filled with M&Ms, sans the brown ones. Look that one up, kids.
The 1960s were filled with strife. Chaos virtually ruled the day, and oh yes, there was a giant dose of drug experimentation. These flammable ingredients fueled a new era of music. The psychedelic wave roared through the industry and onto concert stages everywhere, with stars like The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, and Pink Floyd shining the brightest. The Psychedelic gallery at Hard Rock Vault was a detailed reflection of this far out time. Displays were lit by ghostly glows, and walls were lined with trippy posters and vintage album covers.
The next stop on the tour was a tribute to the British Invasion, but it wasn’t all about The Beatles and their magical mysteries. The Rolling Stones, who were marketed as the antithesis to the mop-topped boys from Liverpool, shared an equal footprint with the Fab Four. Because of the dichotomy between these two legendary bands, the gallery was labeled The Light And The Dark. The Beatles were clean-cut good boys; the Stones, rebellious bad boys. A huge, impressionistic, sculpted rendering of an apple tree dominated the center of the gallery. On the Beatles’ side, oversized apples dangled from the boughs like Christmas ornaments. The Stones’ side was dry and dusty, barely strong enough to hold its crop of desiccated apples. Nonetheless, this was a very satisfying display, by any measure.
The last stop on the guided tour was reserved for who else but Elvis Presley. There was a section dedicated to his early years when he was a baby-faced sensation showing off his spastic moves. This living room looked like it was delivered straight from Leave it to Beaver’s sound stage. A white leather sofa that resembled the trunk of a Cadillac was the centerpiece of the room. Film footage of Elvis at basic training rolled in the background.
The final section was the definition of a shrine. Heavenly beams of light shined through mosaic panels, beautifully accentuating the glow from candles. A peaceful, spiritual medley filled the air. The voice of Elvis was heard near the exit. “Thank you very much,” he whispered. Then the room unexpectantly rotated to reveal a different space. With that, The Total Immersion Tour ended, fittingly like Elvis’s life…too soon
Producer / Writer