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Paul Wellman

The Bowl Raises the Roof, Literally

The Hallowed Santa Barbara Venue Goes Big with a New Stage


If you’ve been feeling like something’s missing this spring, you’re right. By this time last year, the Santa Barbara Bowl’s concert series was already in full swing, delivering the best in live music to our ocean-view, hillside venue on the corner of Milpas and Anapamu streets. This year, however, the concerts don’t start until the Norah Jones show on June 22, making it one of the latest Bowl season starts in recent memory.

But don’t despair, for while our musical diet may be a tad malnourished, this brief fast will be rewarded with ever-bountiful servings of rock ‘n’ roll. That’s because the people behind the Bowl have been literally raising the roof since last October, working nonstop and spending millions of dollars on a new stage pavilion to make it “the best outdoor theater in the country.”

By Paul Wellman

That’s the opinion of Executive Director Sam Scranton, who started the nonprofit Bowl Foundation back in 1980. He’s spent the past 27 years navigating Santa Barbara’s political, economic, and social realms in efforts to turn the Bowl into one of the preferred places to play in America, despite its puny 4,500-seat size. It’s an anomaly in a competitive billion-dollar industry, thanks to a dynamic partnership between the public (the county owns the Bowl), the private (the Nederlander Producing Company books the venue), and the community-benefit, nonprofit Bowl Foundation. It’s this unique relationship that’s allowed the Bowl to flower beyond everyone’s expectations, making massive renovation projects possible when similar undertakings at other venues might not make financial sense.

We’re not the Staples Center,” explained architect Eric Lassen, the Bowl Foundation boardmember in charge of design. “We can really afford to do the absolute best without having to explain every little thing.” To date, about $22 million has been raised, mainly from wealthy baby boomers who have chosen Santa Barbara as a place to live, according to foundation president Paul Dore. “They made this possible. There’s not anywhere in the world with a cool location like this and the money to make it happen.”

By Paul Wellman

This year’s roof project-which is technically called “The Pavilion” and will allow the Bowl to handle the heaviest rock-star loads on the planet-is yet another cherry on top of an increasingly rich sundae that already boasts a new stage, dressing rooms, bathrooms, VIP terrace, and concession areas. Future cherries include an enhanced upper terrace, upgraded seating, a remodeled box office, and a beautified entry “glen.”

The $8-million roof project officially began after Dave Matthews stepped off the stage as the Bowl’s final performer last fall. The parking lot’s been a hub of heavyweight construction since, as tons of steel beams have been assembled and erected by Santa Maria’s Diani Construction. More than 12,000 individual welds were required, so almost every skilled welder in the tri-counties was hired. And on the day the roof’s main truss was lifted, they needed to call in two large cranes for the job, making it one of the more impressive construction projects in Santa Barbara history.

The need for a new roof was known way back in 1995, when the city and county signed off on a $250,000 master plan for the Bowl after three years of development and 17 public meetings. In fact, the conceptual sketches for the new copper-and-sandstone pavilion look nearly identical to what’s shaping up as you read this, a process that can be watched online at sbbowl.com.

But the foundation waited a decade to embark on the roof-raising, because, as Dore explained, “You’ve got to live in a house before you remodel it.” To that end, the Bowl tapped chief rigger Eddie Swink’s wisdom on how to make the new pavilion the best riggin’ roof in the concert biz. Back in 2001, when the Bowl Foundation cashed in $6 million to rebuild the stage, a million dollars had been spent on a stronger foundation just to prepare for the updated roof.

So why does the quaint, rustic Bowl need a new roof? Apparently, rock ‘n’ roll bands no longer just plug in and play. Now they’ve got walls of video projections, sky-high speakers, crazy lighting systems, pyrotechnic displays, and all the trimmings of a 21st-century circus. Bowl Foundation president Dore calls it the “Las Vegas-ification of music.”

By Paul Wellman

Because of this trend, the Bowl has had to turn away artists, since the venue cannot accommodate their hardware. The most recent example of this took place when Tom Petty had to cancel last year. But more often, the Bowl just didn’t bother going after artists with big stage equipment such as Madonna, U2, and the Rolling Stones.

Amazingly, big fish like U2 and Madonna are no longer impossibilities due to the diligent efforts of Moss Jacobs, who books the Bowl through Nederlander. Scranton explained, “Thanks to Moss’s success, we are consistently getting artists who are way bigger than we are.” And we haven’t seen anything yet, according to Jacobs, who confirmed, “There are bigger elephants out there we’re still shooting for.”

Does the Bowl Foundation fear a backlash from Santa Barbarans, a change-is-scary clan that clings to the comfortable ways of old? “If the seasons started going the other way because we couldn’t accommodate the bands that people have grown accustomed to seeing,” explained Scranton, “that’s the backlash I worry about.” Said Dore, “This is the new Bowl. We had the classic Bowl, like they had the classic Yankee Stadium. But this is the new Yankee Stadium version of the Bowl.” Nostalgia only goes so far, believes Scranton, who added with a laugh, “No one is saying, ‘I wish we had the porta-potties back.’”

And the timing of both 2002’s stage project and 2007’s roof-raising could not have been better. “We’re on a mission from God, obviously,” said Scranton, “because we picked the two driest years to do the work. We just got lucky. If it had rained, we would have no shows in June.”

It’s yet another mini-triumph in the Bowl’s history, which is commonly described in terms of planets aligning. “There were plenty of people who said we couldn’t do it,” said Scranton, reminiscing about the early ‘90s, when the new roof was but a glimmer in his eye. “But the miracle of rock ‘n’ roll in a neighborhood continues.”

4•1•1

The Santa Barbara Bowl’s annual concert season begins on Friday, June 22, with Norah Jones and M. Ward. For information about other shows or to support the Bowl Foundation, visit sbbowl.com.

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