Barbara Russell

Barbara Russell (Photo by Sarah Hogue / June 25, 2012)

As I sat in the Merriweather Post Pavilion this spring with my son Charlie and granddaughter Lyric, waiting for the high school graduation ceremony for my first grandson Josh, my thoughts wandered to the first time I came to the Merriweather. It was 45 years ago on July 15, 1967, and it was the grand opening of the pavilion.

Many people in Columbia think of the Merriweather as a place that produces spurts of loud music and traffic during the summer months. But few know how it all began.

The grand opening of the Merriweather was a night to remember. I guess my husband Charles and I were invited along with all of the dignitaries, national elected officials and other prominent folks because we were among the first 100 or so actual residents of Columbia. We didn't know what to expect, but were thrilled with the celebrities who came to this speck of a city in the middle of nowhere to plant a seed of culture.

It seems that the Merriweather was to be the summer home of Washington's National Symphony Orchestra. On stage that night were Marjorie Merriweather Post of the Post cereal fortune, who had promised some financing for the pavilion, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and, of course, James Rouse. The Symphony Orchestra led by Morton Gould was impressive and the guest musician that evening was the celebrated pianist Van Cliburn.


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However, the celebrities and entertainment that memorable night were upstaged by Mother Nature. An almost unbelievable rainstorm hit during the concert. It was almost as if the pavilion was a ship in the middle of the sea.

As I remember, eventually the orchestra was rained out and Charles and I, along with everyone else, had to make our way back to our cars through a river of mud. I was seven months pregnant and my high heels were almost immediately sucked up by the mud, forcing me to walk barefoot and pregnant back to our car.

Fortunately, that was not the only time we attended Merriweather in those early years. As I recall, we were able to purchase season lawn tickets for the concerts for $6 a person — that would be 50 cents a concert. We brought our toddler, a blanket and a basket with a bottle of wine, cheese, snacks and juice, and spent an evening together under the stars. Quite different from the Merriweather experience today, I would say.

It is kind of fun to look back on the early years of Columbia on this, its 45th birthday. In many ways, Columbia has grown as planned and that is good. But, it is also interesting to note that some of the seeds that were planted so many years ago grew a little differently than expected.

I believe the seed that Jim Rouse planted in 1967 when he built the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Symphony Woods was meant to bloom into a music and performing arts venue in a bucolic setting in the middle of downtown Columbia. I believe he wanted to create a place where individuals and families throughout the region could escape the hustle and bustle of city life or the boredom of suburban life and enjoy an uplifting experience in a natural setting.

Although I don't think he had heavy metal bands in mind at the time, I think he may have enjoyed many of the entertainers who have performed at Merriweather over the past 45 years. I know I have.

Barbara L. Russell is a Columbia pioneer, one of the first 100 residents of the planned community. She served on the Columbia Association Board from 2000-08.