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everything old is new again
the new history of the st. augustine amphitheatre


      The St. Augustine Amphitheatre is nothing new. At the same time, the spectacle that you will behold the next time you attend an event there after the September 2nd grand opening will be something new indeed. The new facilities are now equipped to seat more than 5,000 people in comfortable plastic seats that are elevated in a step system so that everyone can see, and then enclosed from behind by a shell and baffled on either side of the stage to ensure exquisite outdoor acoustics. When you see the facility, you will forget all about what the old St. Augustine Amphitheatre looked like and think you have moved to San Diego or to some faraway place that actually builds facilities like this for outdoor concerts. St. Augustine is now just such a place.

      But the soil under this new amphitheatre has seen its share of entertainment in the past. The land belongs to the State and is leased by the county. It was originally leased by Cross & the Sword when the play was here. The County bought Cross & the Sword out by liquidating some debts they had and then renewed the lease with the State.

      Tom Bledsoe is the Special Events Manager for St. Johns County. The amphitheatre, the fairgrounds and the equestrian center are all part of the Special Events division of the Parks & Recreation department of St. Johns County.

      “In the capacity of the amphitheatre, I am an operations manager rolled into a general manager.”

      Prior to 1963, the grounds where the amphitheatre is was a part of Anastasia State Park. Cross & the Sword started construction of the amphitheatre in 1963 in preparation for the 400th anniversary of Pedro Menendez’s founding of St. Augustine. The outdoor drama provided 60 performances each year starting in Spring and going until Labor Day. During the other parts of the year they would have concerts and festivals and events that would take advantage of the setting.

      “The Cross & the Sword was designed because St. Augustine was a big family tourist destination. When Disney came in it diverted people away, making us more of a way station than a destination.”

      But St. Augustine has never been a quitter, and the outdoor play lived on for 32 years. Even after the play’s peak in the 70s, when they were performing to sold out crowds (which meant just over 2,000 people at the time) and the total number of attendees reached 40,000, the community held on to their historical drama during it’s slow decline.

      “I think there’s a large sentimental connection to the play because the people that grew up here either worked the concession stand or parked cars or were in the cast or went to the outdoor drama when family came to town. The thing about all of those regional historical pageants, the community takes ownership of them and then the production changes through that.”

      But the trend of having historical outdoor dramas subsided as social sensibilities became more relevant and the accuracy of the history presented came into question.

      “There were a whole bunch of [historical dramas] that were created and they are all formulaic and broadly brushed as far as history is concerned, social history, particularly, because they were usually written in a very Euro-centric point of view. A lot of these plays were fast and loose with traditional cultures. So a lot of those productions were dated. Times have changed.”

      Although there is always talk of a new state play and more objective historical dramas, and several have come and gone by local historians and playwrights, a historical drama is not currently on the schedule of events to hit the new stage.

      “Right now everybody is excited about the Amphitheatre. Everyone wants to see what will come in here. The Amphitheatre was off the radar for a long time as construction went on. People didn’t forget about it, but they just knew that there wasn’t much going on over here except for what we can do in the parking lot. The farmers market kept people coming back here and the Gamble Rogers Festival has been going on in the lot, so there’s been a lot of awareness of the construction.”

      After dealing with four years of construction and some political controversies that bubbled up over decisions about management, people are just anxious for it to open so they can see what it’s like. Well next weekend, you’ll have your chance when the Blackwater Sol Revue takes the stage, bringing quite possibly the biggest number of headliners to a single venue in St. Augustine in recent history. Not that St. Augustine is new to headlining acts. This may be Tony Joe White’s first trip to the Oldest City, but we had some hitmakers of our own back in the 60s.

      “The first road trip that the Almann Brothers went on, their first stop was the St. Augustine Amphitheatre. I’ve got a friend that has pictures of that. It was in the late 60s, early 70s. Before that they were just kind of a local band that played around a lot and decided to buy some equipment and buy a van or a bus and hit the road. One of their first stops was right here in St. Augustine. I’d have liked to be here then,” said Bledsoe.

      Ironically, JJ Grey & Mofro, the headliner of the headliners at the Blackwater Sol Revue, just finished playing a set of shows with those legends and is now kicking off a tradition of their own at the amphitheatre. Although this weekend is the grand opening, the attendees won’t be the very first to see the facility. They’ve had a few events to show it off early. The school system had an event here and the Gamble Rogers Festival took the new stage this year.

      “We want to have stuff that tourists can do, but we also want the real people that live here to have things they can do within their own community. Having programs here that appeal to local people as well as tourists. Myself, as a tourist, I would rather see something that is local. If I were in Greece or Bangkok, I don’t particularly want to see something that is created for tourists, I want to see how the real people celebrate or the real people live. Right now, our promoter is bringing in a big show and it’s worth every bit of the forty dollars.”

      While the initial reaction may be overwhelming, since tickets to events at the old facility were likely far less expensive, given that it was four years ago and a smaller facility with more restrictions, it won’t be long before patrons of the events at the amphitheatre feel the benefits vastly outweigh the costs associated with some of the larger concerts.

      “We have support for this facility at the county level and I think they want to see us succeed. This means making the right investments, paying our bills. At the same time, everyone needs to realize, when you have a startup business, which is exactly what this is, the county is in the entertainment business, and you have to put some money into that business to succeed and it has to be run like a business. There are some people at the administrative level of the county that realize that, but getting the system to work that way is a little more difficult.”

      Do your part, and do yourself a favor, don’t miss this historical event. If the history of the amphitheatre isn’t enough to impress you, then seeing musical legends such as Tony Joe White and Los Lobos ought to make up that difference. This is a night that you won’t forget.

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