Merriweather feels pangs of middle age Site tries to compete with newer venues

October 20, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

The idea behind building Merriweather Post Pavilion in the late 1960s was to create a permanent summer home for Washington's National Symphony Orchestra, a place in the woods of Columbia for culture to flourish, as carefully planned as the community that would grow up around it.

That idea lasted only a few years before rock and pop music moved in to pay the bills for what was one of the first outdoor amphitheaters with covered seating in the area.

Now, like so much of Columbia, the 15,000-capacity Merriweather Post Pavilion has reached middle age and finds that it has lost a step as it races the bigger and more technologically hip youngsters on the industry block.

Take Nissan Pavilion at Stone Ridge outside Manassas, Va. The 3-year-old amphitheater has a stage almost twice the size of Merriweather's, two 30-by-40-foot video screens, about 1 1/2 -acres of loading space for 10 trucks and six to eight buses, plus room for 25,000.

"The main drawback to Merriweather is that its seating capacity is not as large," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, a weekly trade magazine based in Fresno, Calif., that covers the concert business. "You can't offer an artist the potential to make as much money."

"We're a 30-year-old facility," said Jean Parker, Merriweather's general manager. "We hear acts come in and say they want the amenities of a state-of-the-art place. We're trying to make sure we are still state-of-the-art."

To compete, Merriweather this spring added three video screens -- two are half the size of Nissan's and one is 20-by-16-feet for the lawn seats -- built a loading dock big enough to hold six tractor-trailers and enclosed its catered eating area for artists.

That helped hook such sellout shows as Lilith Fair, Counting Crows and The Wallflowers and Rage Against the Machine this season, which ran from May through September, organizers said. Jimmy Buffet returned for sellout performances.

But there is no doubt that some big-name acts coming to this area prefer the newer amenities of Nissan and Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna, Va. Merriweather at times had to schedule leftovers to keep its schedule full.

Because of poor ticket sales -- or scheduling conflicts -- eight shows booked for this past season were canceled: Iggy Pop's R.O.A.R. tour, Pirates Bell, Bill Cosby, Don Rickles and Debbie Reynolds, UB40, Bryan Adams, Country Music Madness and Kathie Lee Gifford.

"Sometimes you book an artist to fill a date," said Anne McKee, a vice president at Wolf Trap Foundation, which books shows at the park. "You know you're going to lose money, but you book it so you stay in the public eye."

Even with the cancellations, Merriweather's general manager said, more people came to concerts this year.

"Sometimes the cancellations serve to help our bottom line," Parker said. "We feel like we're mind readers trying to figure out how somebody will do. We take the good with the bad to offer something for everyone."

But the bottom line at the amphitheater does not suggest huge profits.

While Merriweather officials will not give exact figures on profits or ticket sales, Howard County's entertainment tax revenues from concerts and live shows -- about 80 percent of which comes from Merriweather -- provide a picture.

This summer, the county got $188,000 in its admission and amusement tax, down from $217,000 last year. The county charges a 5 percent admission and amusement tax on all live shows and concerts, said Raymond S. Wacks, the county's budget office administrator. The decreased revenues, Wacks said, can be attributed to Merriweather.

"Merriweather Post isn't as popular as it used to be," Wacks said. "It's an older facility trying to compete. It used to be a much larger portion of our [entertainment] tax came from the [pavilion], now the single, largest revenue is golf courses and movie theaters."

Whether the improvements to Merriweather will help it draw top attractions, organizers say, won't be known until next season.

The pavilion will never return to its original purpose. "We wanted it to be the permanent summer home of the [National] symphony," said W. Scott Ditch, a former Rouse Co. official who helped design the pavilion in the 1960s. "What was then a state-of-the-art system with the acoustical clouds is now considered old. It has become a place for more popular rather than more cultural acts."

Despite its problems, Merriweather is still considered a major player on the local concert scene.

"We can seat more, but Merriweather has significant name recognition. We're the new kid on the block. They've [Merriweather] penetrated the market," said Wilson Rogers of Nissan Pavilion. "We all have our battles to fight in this business."

Pub Date: 10/20/97

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