Fans want Merriweather to stay the same

For 36 summers, music fans have gathered on the grassy rise at Merriweather Post Pavilion, sitting on blankets, singing along with their favorite bands and dancing under the sun and the stars.

The open-sided pavilion surrounded by towering beech trees has brought hundreds of national acts to Columbia as diverse as the National Symphony, Benny Goodman, Janis Joplin, Willie Nelson, Tina Turner, Chicago and Britney Spears.


But soon, that tradition may end.

Pointing to financial losses at the concert hall, the Rouse Co. plans to rebuild or replace the pavilion with an enclosed, year-round venue. The company is seeking to develop the land around the pavilion, including its parking lots.


For its fans, who return year after year to see perennial favorites such as Jimmy Buffett and The Grateful Dead, such changes mean a cherished landmark will never be the same.

"People need to get that [Merriweather] is gone, and it is not coming back," said Justin Carlson, a computer programmer from Columbia who has organized Save Merriweather, a grass-roots effort to save the pavilion. "It is going to be a real loss. It is going to create a vacuum in this region."

The loss of up to 10,000 lawn seats would make the venue significantly smaller. But otherwise, there are no concrete plans or timetable for the changes. 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 and grounds 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, 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.

Today, the pavilion's owners lament the loss of popular bands to other venues, such as Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, Va. But some acts still draw fans to Columbia. Jimmy Buffett concerts draw thousands of fans in tropical costumes. Phish fans clogged traffic in Town Center in 1998, and some Merriweather regulars such as Crosby, Stills & Nash and Jackson Browne still have a strong local following. Browne recorded parts of the album Running on Empty live at Merriweather in 1977.


Recent years have seen the addition of amenities to make Merriweather more attractive to bands and concertgoers. Renovations in 1997 an 1998 increased space at the loading bays, opened a hospitality suite, improved the power supply and added video screens.


In 2000, a $750,000 upgrade included 12 corporate boxes, more concession stands and improved parking lot lighting.

Despite the efforts, Dennis Miller, a Rouse vice president and manager of Columbia, told the Howard County Zoning Board last month that the amphitheater is deteriorating and not making a profit.

Miller was at a hearing to request a change in the density allowed in Town Center so more housing units can be built on land near the pavilion. The Zoning Board will address the issue again Sept. 10.

Miller said changes were warranted at Merriweather, pointing to a "dwindling list of entertainment." Merriweather's current manager, Clear Channel Entertainment (which also owns and manages Nissan Pavilion), booked 19 acts at the amphitheater this year. Tori Amos is scheduled to perform Wednesday.

But fans of those acts and others that play at Merriweather say they will be sad to see the venue change.

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 of Columbia.


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

Fan's approval

"I love the place," said Kenny Hubbard, who attended a Radiohead concert recently while visiting from San Diego. "I like the whole atmosphere and style."

Hubbard, 25, who grew up in Gaithersburg, said Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., does not usually have the style of music he likes, and "you don't want to trek all the way to Virginia" to attend concerts at Nissan Pavilion.

Many of the people who have organized Save Merriweather are afraid the lack of details on how an enclosed theater would be built and managed means the Rouse Co. could close down Merriweather for good. Others have begun to think about ways in which an enclosed venue at the site could be a community amenity.

"Merriweather is not being killed; it's just being transformed," said Donna L. Rice a Columbia Council member for Town Center.


As a board member of Columbia Festival of the Arts, she is eager to see a larger venue available for acts like those at the festival, including Mikhail Baryshnikov and Wynton Marsalis.

Merriweather's current configuration is too expensive for most local groups to use and not conducive to the more classical events, Rice said. The main community use is for high school and Howard Community College graduations.

Frances Motyca Dawson, a musician and conductor, would like to see more cultural events at Merriweather, but said she recognizes how difficult it can be to make an arts venue profitable.

In 1977, she founded a chorus to sing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which had decided to spend summers at Merriweather. When the symphony decided to use other venues, her group organized concerts to bring it back to Merriweather through 1981.

To make an effective transformation at Merriweather, "it would take the will of a lot of people and the financial resources," Dawson said.

Sun staff researcher Shelia Jackson contributed to this article.