St. Augustine, Florida: Amphitheatre stages the scene for music and outdoor movies

Guests visiting today's St. Augustine Amphitheatre come to hear music by well-known bands. But guests who visited from 1965 to the late '90s came to see actors portraying Menendez and the Timucuan Indians. The original Amphitheatre opened in 1965 to host "Cross and Sword," a drama telling the history of St. Augustine's founding in 1565 by the legendary playwright Paul Green.

The outdoor production was presented 10 weeks every summer in the 2,000-seat venue on Anastasia Island. The Amphitheatre was a tribute to the late W.I. Drysdale, a St. Augustine businessman who had a vision more than 50 years ago for an outdoor setting to tell the city's story. The Amphitheatre was paid for by contributions from local businesses and individuals, without public funds.

In the beginning Longtime St. Augustine resident Tom Rahner was involved "before the beginning." "I was there in 1963 with the city's 400th anniversary board, in preparation for the opening of the Amphitheatre's 'Cross and Sword' in '65," Rahner said. The play was created in honor of St. Augustine's 400th anniversary in 1965. "I was first hired as the production manager. My title was later changed to general manager ... I oversaw construction of the original Amphitheatre building, I chose the director, designer, composer, choreographer, worked with playwright ... you name it." Rahner went on to play several acting roles and become the director from 1968 to 1979, with the exception of the 1977 season.

Before Rahner became general manager, Phillip Weber held the title for a short time. According to Rahner, Weber convinced National Geographic Magazine to write an article on the Amphitheatre in the late '60s. "Cross and Sword" debuted June 27, 1965, and was designated Florida's official state play in 1973 by the Florida Legislature. It ran on the Amphitheatre's stage until 1996.

At that time, the production expenses had become too high and the aging Amphitheatre needed expensive renovations. The Amphitheatre received state funding for many years, but when the Amphitheatre board asked the state Division of Cultural Affairs for $27,089 in 1997, it was turned down. Needing renovations In 1999 the county took over the property, and it currently operates the facility on state property.

The facility sits on 16 acres of maritime coastal hammock and backs up to Anastasia State Park. "When I got involved, (the Amphitheatre facility and 'Cross and Sword') was pretty much going down the drain," said Glenn Hastings, director of the county's tourism department and the Tourist Development Council. "What we found is that it is a unique venue. You can't find anything like it in the state. And among the community, it has sentimental value.

We wanted to keep it as an asset for the community." According to Hastings, grant money in the amount of around $1 million was provided by the state Division of Cultural Affairs for beginning renovations on the Amphitheatre. Extensive renovations began in 2003 and continued through 2007, with county and state funding adding up to about $5 million in construction costs.

During that time, Tommy Bledsoe was the operations manager. Although construction took place, the grounds still played host to community festivals and the Old City Farmers' Market every Saturday.

New Amphitheatre The renovated Amphitheatre now boasts seating for up to 4,100 concertgoers, a conference room, four concession stands, a merchandise area, a large plaza, a state-of-the-art performance stage, dressing rooms, restrooms, a box office, VIP amenities, nature trails around the facility, and a canopy that covers more than 2,000 seats -- the first roof the Amphitheatre has ever had. "The things that make it attractive are that it is in a unique area, and the proximity to restaurants and to the historic area of St. Augustine," Hastings said.

"We wanted the facility to become a destination. We knew it could serve a local and regional audience. We even did studies on how much people were willing to spend on tickets and travel expenses." Hastings said the county developed a business plan and decided that with renovations, the possibility of events attracting large crowds at the Amphitheatre could work. "We knew it was not going to be huge in the terms of the number of seats, but there was a niche for smaller venues (in the roughly 5,000-seat category) ... and so it just came together," Hastings said. The grand opening of the new St. Augustine Amphitheatre was Sept. 2, 2007, with a concert called the Blackwater Sol Revue.

Musicians such as JJ Grey and Mofro, Grammy Award-winning band Los Lobos, Tony Joe White, the Lee Boys and the Legendary JC's performed. Since that time, the Amphitheatre has hosted 54 major acts including Little Richard, Willie Nelson, James Taylor, The Beach Boys, Chicago, 311 and Counting Crows -- with Stone Temple Pilots on stage last Saturday, and country music star Alan Jackson performing Sunday night.

"It's become a major tourist stop for artists routing through the southeast," said Ryan Dettra, general manager of St. Johns County's Cultural Events Division, which oversees the Amphitheatre as part of the county's Parks and Recreation Department. "It's the right place, the right size." Dettra said his goal is to grow St. Johns County as an arts and entertainment destination.

Not only are big concerts hosted at the site, but community events such as festivals and the Old City Farmers Market continue to be held on the grounds and in the venue. New events also hosted by the Cultural Events Division at the Amphitheatre are free outdoor movies called the Night Owl Cinema Series, and the biggest undertaking -- Winter Wonderland, an event hosted the past two years from mid-November through early January that includes outdoor ice skating, games, Santa, local performance groups, sleigh rides, a giant ice slide, live theater, lighted nature trails and other winter-themed activities.

But the most important aspect to date is the fact that the Amphitheatre is packing in fans to concerts. According to numbers from the Cultural Events staff, 246,851 fans have attended ticketed events since 2007. "The (new Amphitheatre) is conceived in a different spirit than what it was originally planned for [outdoor theatrical performances], and it should be a different concept from its earlier, rustic days," said Rahner. "I congratulate the county and Ryan Dettra (and everyone helping) it to become a very viable asset."

Renee Unsworth


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