As Festival Nears, Some See New Uses for Jerry Garcia Amphitheater

Linda Stark Litehiser
Newswire21.org

As an all-star line-up warms up for the eighth annual “Jerry Day” festival on Aug, 1, there’s lots of discussion about how to make more use of the underutilized Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in John McLaren Park.

This year’s free concert will run from noon to 6 p.m. with music from Melvin Seals and the Jerry Garcia Band with Stu Allen; Front Street; and a band called Check Engine Light that features Jerry’s big brother Tiff Garcia on guitar. 

Tiff affectionately refers to his band as “Geezer Rock” in a back-handed reference to the age of the members of the band. 

A pre-party fundraiser will be held on Friday, July 30, at The Broken Record on Geneva Ave. More details on the concert can be found at JerryDay.org.

"The Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in McLaren Park has the tremendous potential of being one of the city's premier event venues,” said Elton Pon, a spokesman for the city’s Recreation and Parks Department. He said the department is looking at ways to “draw more people to this unique and beautiful section of the park."

The natural arena was named for the late Grateful Dead guitarist five years ago after a long, strange trip through city bureaucracy.

Bureaucratic Roadblocks
The idea first came up after Jerry’s death at 53 in 1995 when the Friends of McLaren Park thought of naming the amphitheater for the Excelsior District native. But there were a number of roadblocks and the idea was shelved before many people even knew about it. 

Excelsior native Tom Murphy made a connection with the Jerry Garcia Estate in 2002. Murphy, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was researching his childhood neighborhood’s heroes and thought of contacting the estate for help with a community fundraising project. Crocker Amazon Playground, on the edge of McLaren Park, was in need of matching funds for a renovation. 

The Garcia Estate was very enthusiastic and soon Jerry’s original artwork was adorning special T-Shirts on sale all over the community. 

The collaboration enticed people to share their own stories. Karen Hemer, another San Francisco native, remembers walking to grammar school with her friend, Jerome.

“He was a very nice boy, kind of quiet but very smart,” she said. “He loved science and he would explain things to me.”

Hemer, Murphy and a few other friends produced the first Jerry Day. A petition drive and letter writing campaign to rename the theater began in earnest in 2004. Civic, neighborhood and park groups were contacted for their support and the Garcia Estate gave an enthusiastic okay. On July 21, 2005, the Recreation and Parks Commission made the new name official.

Varied Uses
For all the popularity on Jerry Day, the venue is remains short of fulfilling its potential. A number of promoters and non-profit groups have put on a variety of concerts. It has also been the site of school graduations, Earth Day celebrations and even a bit of Shakespeare, but there is only one or two performances in a typical month.

The poor economy and dwindling charitable sources have played a role, particularly as the parks department steadily raised the rental fees year after year.

Recently the department rolled back the price. At a recent Neighborhood Parks Council meeting with Mayor Newsom and park advocates, the department’s General Manager, Phil Ginsburg, expressed hope that the lower fees would generate more events.

But other challenges remain. Good direct public transportation is limited and the southeastern region of San Francisco is still unfamiliar turf to many city residents and tourists.

Funding is another hurdle. To produce a concert can run upwards of $10,000-$15,000, even with a lot of volunteer labor. The funding has to be raised through donations, sponsorships or grants.

Charging a ticket fee for all attendees is unrealistic. It would require fencing in a large part of the surrounding area, something that would be costly and out of character for the park.

Small Venue
The venue is relatively small with about 700 bleacher style seats, though another 1,000 or so can sit on the grassy area. It isn’t a space that big promoters would consider for a large revenue-generating concert, and there’s not yet any trust to underwrite performances.

Some supporters are working on creating a non-profit “friends” committee. The office of Supervisor John Avalos and San Francisco Parks Trust have lent organizing expertise.

The committee has identified the major issues, logistics and challenges in securing more events as well as the needs for capital improvements. Lighting for nighttime events comes up a lot, so does fundraising and grant writing expertise.

There are also plans to develop a McLaren Park Festival in 2011 that would include varied performances with hopes of creating a broader donor and sponsorship base.

One idea is to have a concert that would “bring back the blues,” because the amphitheater was the home of the San Francisco Blue Festival in the early 1970’s.
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Linda Stark Litehiser helped to establish Jerry Day and sits on the Friends of the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater Committee. This is her first article for Newswire21.org.