Merriweather Post holding on

Pavilion: The entertainment venue's future is uncertain, but acts are being booked for the summer.

March 21, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

For more than three decades, Merriweather Post Pavilion has brought recognition to Columbia as a place to see big-name musical acts.

It has also earned a spot in the hearts of music fans, who reminisce about picnics on the lawn of the open-sided pavilion, singing along with their favorite bands and dancing under the stars.

The future of the venue has been uncertain since the Rouse Co. announced plans to change the structure. But a new management company is booking concerts for the summer -- including Kenny Chesney, Sarah McLachlan and the Dave Matthews Band -- and the Merriweather tradition looks as if it will continue a little longer.

"It is still going to become an enclosed theater and performing arts center," said Dennis W. Miller, a Rouse vice president and general manager of Columbia. But, he said, there are no concrete plans or timetable for the changes.

The loss of up to 10,000 lawn seats would make the venue significantly smaller and likely change the types of events held there. Concertgoers and community members are anxious to find out what the future holds for the site.

Merriweather opened in July 1967 as the second public building in Columbia. It was designed by architect Frank Gehry, known for his design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Gehry also designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, set to open in Los Angeles in the fall.

It took eight months and $1 million to build the simple pavilion amid towering beech trees adjacent to the Symphony Woods park in Columbia. With top-notch acoustics, the amphitheater was created to be the summer home of the National Symphony, and it was named for one of the group's key patrons, Marjorie Merriweather Post.

But after two seasons, financial problems forced the symphony to end its relationship with the pavilion. The venue started seeking groups that would draw crowds, moving toward rock bands such as Led Zeppelin and the Who.

In 1971, two events out of 37 were classical, and the venue was still losing money. During the next decade, Columbia developed a love-hate relationship with rock 'n' roll at Merriweather. Popular rock bands were the only ones that brought in enough money for the venue to make a profit. But residents and community leaders were not happy with violent incidents, drug use and other problems.

The Howard County Council passed a bill in 1972 securing the ability to veto acts that were likely to draw troublesome crowds. Leon Russell and Rod Stewart were the first to be denied.

Classical acts made a brief comeback in the 1970s, including a number of performances by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. But the need to draw a profit proved more powerful.

The Nederlander Organization managed the pavilion from 1974 to 1999 and focused again on rock, pop and folk acts. The 1980s were more successful, with 30 to 40 bands on stage each season and most security problems under control.

A few events still drew a mixture of wonder and ire. The Grateful Dead anniversary concert in 1985 included thousands of fans camping in Symphony Woods, descending on The Mall in Columbia for food and bathing in a Columbia fountain.

Phish fans clogged traffic in Town Center in 1998, and Jimmy Buffett concerts still draw thousands of fans in tropical costumes.

Other Merriweather regulars such as Crosby, Stills & Nash and Jackson Browne have calmer but still strong local followings. Browne recorded parts of the album Running on Empty live at Merriweather in 1977.

Despite some successes, the Rouse Co. said it has not been happy with the venue's financial performance in recent years. During discussion of zoning changes to Columbia Town Center last year, Miller talked about plans to change the pavilion when the company developed adjacent land.

He pointed to a dwindling list of entertainment booked by Merriweather's management company, Clear Channel Entertainment. That company, which also owns and manages Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, Va., booked 19 acts at the amphitheater last season.

Despite numerous rumors of Merriweather's demise, Rouse hired a new management company in October. I.M.P. Inc., which is based in Bethesda and owns the 9:30 Club in Washington, has started announcing another season of national acts.

The company also has created a new Web site for the venue at www.merriweather"Merriweather has been portrayed as outmoded," said Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of I.M.P. "That couldn't be further from the truth."

Patrons appreciate the history and quality of the venue, he said. "You can't build character like that."

"The acoustics are wonderful on certain parts of the lawn," said Justin Carlson, an information technology consultant from Columbia who started a group called Save Merriweather. "The sound there is unique. ... Much of the lawn sounds better than in the house."

Bands at the pavilion may not sell as many tickets as arena-packing pop stars, "but their fans are just as loyal. They do buy tickets," said Ian Kennedy, a graduate student at the University of Maryland and a Save Merriweather member.

"It provides a cultural attraction that draws people from all over the state and even from other states," Kennedy said. "It provides distinction for our community."

Merriweather has become a local landmark, said Carlson. If it goes, he said, "It is going to create a vacuum in this region."

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