A small army ensures that concerts at Merriweather Post Pavilion come off without a hitch.


Tom Petty apparently is a fan of Coke - in glass bottles.

And so on the day before the rock star was set to play the Merriweather Post Pavilion recently, Tina May, the venue's hospitality manager, was scouring grocery stores looking for that notoriously hard-to-find beverage item.

Cans? Plastic bottles? No problem. But she looked in four stores until she found two six-packs of Coke in glass bottles at the Giant in Wilde Lake.

"Other areas have had trouble finding it," Merriweather manager Jean Parker says. "So, now that she's found it, she's a hero."

May, a.k.a. "The Goddess of Happiness," is part of the team that works for hours behind the scenes to put on the shows that rock Columbia's open-air amphitheater all summer.

Fans may have little clue about the detailed setup that begins early the day of a show - by the time they arrive, the stage is set and the performers are ready to entertain until the late evening hours.

But getting there is a long process.

Every concert at Merriweather - 20 are scheduled so far this season - takes a small army of workers to attend to the needs of the fans and the performers, sometimes working 18-hour days.

They put together the stage; prepare food for the performers and fans; sell the last remaining tickets; deal with a plethora of questions from ticket holders; and make the evening's show appear effortless.

For the recent show featuring Petty, along with the Black Crowes, a local crew of about 400 workers, along with 68 entourage members for the bands, worked in the blazing heat to ensure the bands and the fans would enjoy the evening.

A peek behind the scenes at the setup for that concert illustrates the kind of controlled chaos that goes into arranging for a memorable night of live music at one of Maryland's longest-running venues.

The day of a concert at the pavilion begins about 8 a.m., as the semi-trucks and buses carrying the crew and the equipment for the bands roll in, Parker says.

Vic Rivkin, the head production runner, takes the drivers to a nearby hotel to get some rest. Fifty-four workers from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Union Local 19 in Baltimore start building the stage, erecting the video, lighting and sound equipment, said Clark Hospelhorn, the union's steward.

The workers, most of them in shorts and T-shirts, are dripping in sweat and combating the oppressive heat - with the temperature soaring into the 90s - by wrapping white towels around their heads or shoulders.

By early afternoon, the bare stage has been transformed into a fully functioning entertainment venue; most of the light, video and sound equipment is in place, along with all the instruments.

Jeff Kerstein is starting to tune 36 guitars, 22 of which belong to Petty. Kerstein will tune them for hours, even during the show.

"It's so hot today, I have to go through them all," Kerstein says. "The temperature changes the pitch."

Musical interlude

About 2:45 p.m. Petty's song, "You Don't Know How It Feels" starts blaring from the speakers on the stage. But this isn't a sound check; there will be no sound check today. Petty's production manager Chris Adamson's philosophy on sound checks: Strumming a guitar and singing to an empty amphitheater is virtually pointless. That doesn't come close to the veracity and energy of a live show.

Ticket sales

Mike McKenny is the coolest person on the staff. As Merriweather's box office manager, he gets to sit in his air-conditioned office and monitor ticket sales, ensuring that every last ticket is sold.

"My excuse is - the ticket stock won't work if the air conditioning isn't on," he says. "It's true - they get sticky with humidity."

Even if a show sold out months ago, Merriweather sometimes releases extra tickets the day of the concert - some from the band's share and others that the venue set aside in case the production equipment would have taken seat space.

In the morning, the venue released about 50 tickets. By about 3:30 p.m., all the tickets were gone. The show is sold out, about 18,000 tickets.

Creature comforts

Pavilion staff members do everything they can to make the performers comfortable. They set up an artists' lounge outside back stage, where performers can relax in the serene green setting by a pond and get massages.

Rivkin takes their laundry to be drycleaned, then picks up take-out food from a restaurant for the band after the show.

Though food is just one piece of the larger puzzle, it is a crucial one.

"The two things bands remember when they come here are how much they got paid and how good the food was," Parker says.

May shops for hours to get each food item that artists want in their dressing rooms. She buys cereal, energy bars, beer, nuts, fruit. She is happy to do it - she says the requests usually aren't unreasonable. But one thing irks her.

"At the end of the night, if I go back there [to the dressing rooms] and it's barely touched," she grimaces. "It's really annoying."

Merriweather also gives the artists Merriweather duffel bags to remember the venue. They're nothing spectacular, just canvass bags with the pavilion's logo. But Parker said the bags travel the world with the bands, and every so often an artist will come back to the venue and say, "I need a new bag."

Weather problem

By the time the gates open at 5:30 p.m., the stage is fully set. The concession stands and carts are stocked with sushi, wraps, pit beef, hot dogs, not to mention 10,000 bottles of water and 25,000 pounds of ice.

Vendors have set up 18 styles of T-shirts, key chains, bandannas, about $60,000 worth of merchandise.

In Petty's dressing room are two six packs of Coke in bottles, a box of Trader Joe's corn flakes, energy bars and tea bags.

Fans start filing in, blankets in hand, to claim their slice of grass on the lawn seats.

But about 6:30 p.m., the sky opens up and a downpour begins, complete with thunder and lightning.

Some fans run for cover, back to their cars, to wait out the storm. Pavilion staff dash into the administrative office, soaked from the rain, and run out with yellow rain slickers.

Right now, Jennie Burke, the receptionist at Merriweather, probably has one of the hardest jobs at the venue.

With a pleasant voice and a smile plastered on her face, she is answering every call that comes into the pavilion's office. People wondering if the show is still on because of the rain. People wanting tickets to the sold-out show. People wanting directions.

She speaks with a polite cadence into the phone: "You shouldn't have gotten on Snowden River Parkway, you should have stayed on Broken Land Parkway. ... Take the first exit into the parking lot. ... Broken. Land. Parkway. ... Right now, it's pouring down rain, but the concert is still on as scheduled. ... No, no, it says right there on your ticket, no refunds, no exchanges. ... You cannot tape the show, under no circumstances."

'A quick out'

About 7 p.m., the rain lets up, with some drops still falling. The crowd is ready for the Black Crowes, who take the stage about 30 minutes late, at 7:30 p.m.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers also start late, and the band can't complete its set without violating the 11 p.m. curfew. But Howard County police allow them to run over by 15 minutes, ending at 11:15 p.m., said Pfc. David Proulx, a police spokesman.

The bands then do what the staff calls a "quick out."

"The band pretty much says thank you, good night, jumps in their limos and takes off," Rivkin says. "Before the crowd is even finished clapping, they're down on [Interstate] 95."

And the search for Coke in glass bottles will begin anew at the next venue.

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