Amphitheater Maintenance

By Randy Gaddo

In ancient Rome, amphitheaters were used for gladiator competitions and other mostly combative public events; with dirt surfaces, stone seating, and few conveniences, there probably wasn’t a great deal of maintenance required.

Today’s amphitheaters, with sound systems, performance lighting, restrooms, concession areas, parking, landscaping, and Wi-Fi access—among other amenities and aesthetics—surely make ancient maintenance standards pale by comparison.

However, modern park and rec professionals responsible for maintaining amphitheaters, whether small or large, have risen to the occasion. The types of maintenance required to sustain an amphitheater are basically the same, whether it is a small community space used for local events or a large hippodrome that can host regional or national events.

A Local Legend
The 42nd Rainbow Division Memorial Amphitheater in Muskogee, Okla., is a good example. The facility honors the U.S. Army National Guard division that has served from WWI to the present. During WWII, it drew from units in 26 states, including Oklahoma, prompting General Douglas MacArthur to say that such an organization would “stretch over the whole country like a rainbow.” The name stuck.

One would think that, with such an enormous title to live up to, the amphitheater would be large and grandiose; however, it is not. Seating 250 people, the modest facility is maintained to support local productions. There are 200 amps of electrical power available, along with area lighting; however, users who rent the facility must provide their own sound and stage-lighting equipment—as long as they don’t exceed the 200-amp limit.

As the Assistant Director of Parks, Rick Ewing is responsible for maintaining the venue. He shares some of the same maintenance issues as larger facilities do.

Trash is one of those issues.  Ewing, who has been with the department for 26 years, says that prior to a 2001 renovation of the amphitheater, trash was a nightmare. The original facility was built in the early 1970s and, he says, “It had terraced seating with wooden chairs on each individual terrace. This gave trash a convenient place to accumulate.”

The steady and often-high Oklahoma winds blew everything from leaves to paper cups, napkins, and hot dog wrappers into the 90-degree angles of each terrace. This made trash pickup and cleaning tedious and time-consuming for the maintenance crew.

The 2001 remodel mitigated the problem by creating larger terraced platforms where several rows of seating could be placed on each one. This provided large, flat areas where trash and debris would blow across them and be deposited at more convenient, central locations for pickup.

Today, the 18-member parks-maintenance staff has a much easier and faster job of collecting trash after events and on a daily basis. Staff members are also responsible for maintaining the department’s other parks, so any time that can be saved is essential.

A Blank Canvas
Another maintenance headache for some amphitheaters is graffiti.  The 35- by 15-foot concrete stage is backed by a high, vertical concrete wall that makes a tempting palette for vandals. In spite of their best efforts, Ewing and his crew must periodically deal with graffiti.

They have tried some of the anti-graffiti paints designed to make the surface less appealing to vandals because the paint doesn’t stick well on the surface; however, it doesn’t always deter vandals. “If we can get to it quickly enough, while the graffiti paint is still wet, we can pressure-wash it, but if the paint dries, it is really difficult to eradicate,” says Ewing. “Also, our wet, cold winters can allow moisture to get behind the paint and freeze, causing it to need repairs,” says Ewing. “We then have to come in and sandblast the entire wall to repaint it.”

 Because the staff takes these measures, graffiti vandals tend to go elsewhere where they think their “art” will be on public display longer.

Another feature of the 2001 renovation was swapping out the old, wooden seats for newer, theater-style aluminum seating. Not only are they more comfortable for patrons, but there are fewer repairs needed, unlike the previous wooden seating. This is a great time-saving feature for the maintenance crew.

Every Little Bit Counts
Funding for routine amphitheater maintenance comes from the general fund; however, a special donation fund is the source for any improvements or additions to the facility. Some of these are funded through special trusts that people have enacted with annual donations. The remainder of the funding comes from proceeds of special events held at the amphitheater.

The largest fundraiser annually is the Garden of Lights and Winter Skate event, which runs from Thanksgiving until January. The event features a holiday light show linked to a special FM station, so people can drive through and watch the animated light show synced to music. This nets about $70,000 annually for the amphitheater.  However, the event also adds several months of work to the maintenance crew’s load.

“We set up about a million-and-a-half lights, and coordinate the animation, too,” says Ewing. The crew is divided into specialty areas, such as plumbing, electrical, janitorial, and field maintenance; however, they combine their talents to create this winter wonderland. “There are about two months or more of prep work that the crew performs to set up the display, in between their other parks duties.” At the beginning of every year, there is an average five-week timetable to take the display down.

Hybrid Maintenance
This is an enormous time burden on the crew, but it is part and parcel of what it takes to maintain an amphitheater.  “It is what I call ‘hybrid maintenance’—it’s a little bit outdoor facility maintenance and a little bit indoor janitorial maintenance,” says Ewing. It is something to be expected by parks and rec professionals getting into the amphitheater business.

One of the maintenance headaches the Muskogee amphitheater crew doesn’t have to contend with is restrooms.  The facility has no embedded restrooms. There are restrooms elsewhere in the park that can be used, but they are not in close walking distance.

“If someone rents the amphitheater and expects they will need restroom facilities, they must rent Porta-Johns on their own,” says Ewing. “The Porta-John company brings them in and then comes back to take them out after the event, eliminating any time needed by the crew for this function.”

Ewing advises anyone expecting to get into the amphitheater maintenance business to first and foremost expect “hybrid maintenance” and be prepared to apply resources accordingly.

“I would also suggest using low-maintenance materials any time you can,” he says. “Anything you can do to reduce the maintenance load is going to give crew more time to perform quality maintenance at the amphitheater.”

In an unsolicited plug for PRB, Ewing also suggests watching the magazine for tips and ideas on maintenance, not just for amphitheaters but also for other general maintenance. “I’ve found PRB to be a great source of information on a regular basis,” he notes.

Acoustically Perfect
In contrast to the small, local venue in a bucolic setting, there is the Red Rocks Amphitheater near Denver, Colo.  This high-profile facility is one of the most iconic venues in the world, according to the “Preserve The Rocks” website (www.redrocksonline.com).

The amphitheater has naturally formed, massive monoliths—Creation Rock and Ship Rock—rising 300 feet behind and to the sides of the stage. With a capacity of about 9,000 people, the amphitheater is advertised as the “most acoustically perfect stage in the world.” It also provides the audience a breath-taking, 200-mile panoramic view of Denver and the plains.

The amphitheater was once listed as one of the seven wonders of the geological world. While the backstage of the amphitheater took about 300-million years to form, the concept of using the rocks as a sound stage probably started in later centuries with the Ute Indian tribe, who used it for ceremonial events. Then, in the early 1900s, Parks and Improvements Chief George Ernest Cranmer convinced then-Mayor Benjamin Stapleton—who viewed theaters as sinful—to make Red Rocks into a venue by using the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers and promising a place that would outdo Colorado Springs’ Garden of the Gods and rival L.A.’s Hollywood Bowl. It took the CCC 12 years to build Red Rocks. Denver acquired it in 1928, and since then it has hosted some of the greatest public and private performances and shows.

The present form of the amphitheater was completed in 1941 by the CCC, and it has had annual concert seasons since 1947. The redwood benches lining the rows of the venue were replaced in 2008, spawning an auction that saw pieces of the well-worn wood sell for upward of $250 each.

Preserving A Legacy
Predictably, much maintenance needs to be done at this unique facility, which is located in the Red Rocks Park, owned and operated by the city and county of Denver. There is the routinely budgeted maintenance expected at such a venue—restrooms, concessions, stage maintenance, cleaning, etc. However, the amphitheater is part of a larger, historically significant park, which calls for a higher level of maintenance.

“While the rocks have been thousands of years in the making, it doesn’t take long for the venue to become worn down,” the website points out. “The wear and tear of 9,000 fans a night requires constant management and upkeep.”

The “Preserve the Rocks” fund was created by the owners and is dedicated to the “education, restoration, and preservation in and around the Red Rocks Amphitheater,” according to further information on the website.

Among the maintenance and operations activities supported by Preserve the Rocks was restoration of the historic trading-post building, there since 1931. The staff has also expanded exhibit space in the Red Rocks Visitor Center, maintained and preserved the backstage dressing rooms and catering facilities, and maintained the surrounding parking lot and park facilities.

In 2001, a nine-month, $22-million renovation of the amphitheater and surrounding facilities was completed. The renovation updated the facility’s access to people with disabilities, upgraded the water and sewer infrastructure, updated the power and telecommunications systems, and built a 30,000-square-foot visitor center at the top of the amphitheater.

In 2015, Red Rocks Park and the Mount Morrison Civilian Conservation Corps Camp were designated National Historic Landmarks by the National Park Service and Department of the Interior. The designation recognizes sites that possess exceptional value and quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.

“Being awarded National Historic Landmark status is a great achievement, but this is particularly exciting because of the special place Red Rocks holds in the hearts of everyone who calls Colorado home,” Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock says. “Anyone who’s seen a concert under a star-filled Rocky Mountain night or hiked through the awe-inspiring landscape to the CCC Camp can attest to the reverence you feel by just being there.”              

Being awarded such prestigious stature also carries with it significant pressure to maintain high standards. However, whether it’s the high-profile status of Denver’s Red Rocks, the local venue of Muskogee’s Rainbow Amphitheater, or others, it is ultimately the consistent attention of parks and rec maintenance professionals who will keep the venues the shining stars they are for the communities they serve.              

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, Ala.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.