Not since counter-culture legend Ken Kesey hit the road with the Merry Pranksters have so many artistic types been so eager to get on a bus.
On Tuesday night, the first 40 riders showed up across the street from Playhouse on the Square and climbed aboard what they hope will be a new way to get around town: a shuttle loop that could benefit locals trying to avoid parking issues and tourists wanting to explore beyond the core.
"Basically we were trying to figure out a better way of linking Downtown and Midtown with public transportation," said Playhouse's executive producer Jackie Nichols to the group of test riders. "Our route would link four colleges, eight neighborhoods and most of the arts venues in the central part of the city."
The "arts bus" as it was conceived by Nichols and is now being researched by community groups such as Heart of the Arts and Memphis Midtown Development Corporation could solve a recurring complaint about public transportation, which many commuters feel is ineffective and confusing. The Madison Avenue trolley, once projected as a way to link the Downtown and Midtown entertainment centers, currently stops halfway to Overton Square.
The bus or shuttle model, they say, has worked in other cities. In Philadelphia, the Philly Phlash connects a wide range of arts and culture venues, ideal for tourists and late-night revelers alike.
The group is now exploring ways to make the "M.A.D. Dash" (or Midtown and Downtown Dash) a possibility.
Though the details are still being worked out, organizers envision either one or two shuttles running Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays -- early enough to get tourists around town and late enough to get people home after a late night out. Fares could range from 50 cents to $2.
Nichols says that the Memphis Midtown Development Corporation is forming a committee to look for ways to fund the service, whether through federal grants, a partnership with MATA, or on-board advertising.
"As everything, it all depends on the funding," Nichols said. "We are looking to get it started within six months to a year."
Organizers are uncertain whether the bus would be a private or public venture, or how they would raise the estimated $9,000-a-month operating fees unlikely to be recouped in the till.
Most of all, they ask, would people use it? Say, a Central Gardens resident going to a Redbirds game or tourists setting out for dinner in a Cooper-Young restaurant?
Ham Smythe IV, president and CEO of Premier Transportation Services, and a proponent of the concept, doesn't think that convenience alone would sell people on the concept of leaving the car at home.
"For this to work, the trip will have to be just as important as the destination," he said. "We've talked about having karaoke on the bus. Or having a driver with a lot of personality. Maybe the driver could be a singer. We're talking about having a tricked-out vehicle. It's gotta be funky."
Smythe contributed one of his company's own buses for the test run. The predicted 35-minute loop stretched out to nearly an hour. Notes were made, suggestions taken, the route reconsidered.
"This is not a moneymaking opportunity," Smythe said. "And you can't predict if it will be successful. The only way to do it is to do it."