On July 4, 1971, an estimated 10,000 people gathered in Bend's Drake Park to hear actor/musician Burl Ives and others “sing in a rock festival of sorts,” according to the Aug. 23, 1971, edition of The Bulletin.
Longtime Bend developer Bill Smith remembers the scene.
“The fire department said, 'Never again. You can't have a concert like that in Drake Park,'” he said last week. “All the streets around (the park) became a parking lot.”
Smith — whose William Smith Properties company purchased 270 riverfront acres in 1993 and developed Bend's Old Mill District on the site of two former lumber mills — pointed to his own hand-drawn map of the area and explained the origins of Les Schwab Amphitheater.
“These two sawmills had blowing dust,” Smith said. “There were very few places that weren't blowing dust. So when you have blowing dust, what do you do with it? You water it. And if you water it and you put grass seed down, you've got grass. If you've got grass, you're only a stage away from having Burl Ives.
“(In 1971), 10,000 people showed up for Burl Ives,” Smith said. “So you know that we can have concerts.”
As he spoke, delivery trucks lurched past an old mill management office, now dubbed the White House and used for hospitality for the artists who perform each summer at Les Schwab Amphitheater.
This weekend, that house is hosting rockers The Shins, Tenacious D and Beck as the amphitheater kicks off its 10th full season with three nights of concerts expected to attract thousands of music fans. The season continues later this summer with shows by Norah Jones, Counting Crows, ZZ Top, Huey Lewis and The News, Brandi Carlile and Michael Franti, plus a bunch of free concerts by up-and-coming artists.
None of those acts necessarily fit perfectly into Smith's musical wheelhouse; the 72-year-old says he likes “cowboy music,” the kind made by old-time country crooners like Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline and George Morgan.
Marney Smith — Bill's daughter and the amphitheater's manager — says Smith is a “big music fan” who regularly sends her stations to check out on Pandora, an online radio-like service.
Smith may lean toward classic country personally, but as far as who takes the Schwab's stage each summer, he's fine with any kind of style.
“As long,” he said, “as it's family (-friendly).”
A magnet for people
Bill Smith and his partners who developed the Old Mill District originally planned for a concert venue on the east side of the river, until they realized that location would put the sun in the eyes of either the performer or the audience most of the time.
So they moved it across the river, where the Schwab's covered stage and hilly, pristine lawn cover almost 5.2 acres. The site also includes paths for pedestrians and cyclists, space for food vendors, the White House and four refurbished rail cars used as dressing rooms and offices for venue personnel and the artists' staff.
The initial idea for the amphitheater grew out of a simple concept: attracting people to what developers hoped would be Bend's newest retail and dining hot spot.
“We know we can do one Burl Ives concert every year,” Bill Smith said. “But that's not getting people down here. These stores are open 365 days a year.”
In 2002, the team opened Les Schwab Amphitheater with an abbreviated season featuring concerts by John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett and Chris Isaak. They hired Monqui Presents, a Portland-based concert promoter that has been putting on shows in the Northwest since 1983, to book the bands and promote the series.
Despite the region's relatively small population base, Monqui was already considering expanding its business into Central Oregon when Smith came calling, said the company's principal partner, Chris Monlux.
In its second season, the series debuted in full with 10 concerts that drew more than 44,000 people to see artists including Jack Johnson, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. Since then, the Schwab has hosted between eight and 11 shows each summer (except for 2009, when there were only six), averaging about 3,452 attendees per show, according to figures provided by Marney Smith.
Financially, the Schwab “washes its own hands,” Bill Smith said. “It's not a profit center yet, but it will be.”
In fact, the 2011 season — in which 31,000 people (21,500 visitors and 6,500 locals) attended nine shows — was the first in which the venue made money, Marney Smith said.
“Just a tiny bit,” Bill said, holding his fingers a couple of inches apart.
“It's lost less and less every year,” Marney said. “We've never gone backward in the numbers. They've been red, but they've always been less red every year, so we do everything we can to cut costs.
“It's a learning curve, and it takes a while to figure out how to do it and how to make money as a venue,” she continued. “But we do think we have the right formula now, and we try to get as much of a mix as possible to cover the musical requests we get from the community.”
(As a side note, the amphitheater's name has nothing to do with the famous local tire company, nor was it purchased as a promotional tool. Les Schwab Amphitheater is named in honor of Bill Smith's longtime friend and mentor.)
Making artists welcome
Just as important as responding to the requests of the community is attracting artists to a town that's not on a well-worn touring route and that doesn't have the population base of Portland or Eugene. That takes a combination of skill, experience, luck and some favors here and there, said Monlux.
“The first couple years in a venue are really rough because the bands don't want to play there, their agents don't know about it, their managers don't know about it, and it's very risky,” he said. “So it's been an uphill battle, (but) for where it's at, I think it's done really well.”
Monqui frequently bills Bend shows as a band's only Oregon appearance to entice Portlanders to make the trip over the mountains, which helps make many concerts viable. (Wilco's crowd in 2008, for example, was 89 percent visitors, 11 percent locals.)
The company's “great deal from Bill” also helps Monqui take on some shows that are “loss leaders,” designed to get people into the venue and also flesh out a full, diverse series, Monlux said.
“As much as we pat ourselves on the back, a lot of it is just the luck of the draw: Who can you get out there that's not going somewhere else?” he said. “It's certainly not a market where the agents are going for it first. They're going for Bend as a fill-in date.”
That can change, however, once an artist has actually been here. Monqui's on-site production manager, John Sanders, works hard to make sure an artist who plays the Schwab has a top-flight experience in hopes of making an impression on a mind that has seen more than its share of venues.
“We've made a reputation ... of treating the artists with a little bit of respect and ... going the extra mile, so to speak,” he said.
Backstage, the amphitheater often provides badminton, croquet, pingpong and foosball tables, inner tubes to float the river, four cruiser bikes, and whatever else it can offer to meet an artist's desires. Jonathan Davis of Korn went fly fishing, Sanders said. Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes walked along the river, greeting locals the whole way, Marney Smith said. Ween usually hangs out at the D&D Bar & Grill.
Jack Johnson floated the Deschutes every time he played Bend, while Franti has been known to join a game of pickup volleyball, Smith said.
“Chris Isaak, one year, came to town, wandered around, (and) ended up going swimming (and) jumping off the bridge with the kids,” Sanders said. “He did it like four or five times.
“We point them in the right direction and let 'em go,” he said. “ 'Go this way. I guarantee it'll be scenic and you'll love it.' ”
Bend's beauty, the rail cars and the privacy afforded the musicians by his staff “stand out in the artists' minds,” Sanders said. “It always leaves an impact and people always remember the (venue).”
In recent years, in fact, some have purposefully steered their tours back to Bend, even turning a stop at the Schwab into a working vacation. Alison Krauss brings her family to town. Gwyneth Paltrow accompanied her husband, Chris Martin of Coldplay. This weekend, Beck chose to return to town, and Tenacious D's Jack Black got a tip about Bend from Ben Harper. (What Black's up to today is obviously a secret.)
“Word gets around,” Sanders said. “(These artists see each other) and get to chit-chatting: 'Oh yeah, did you play that one venue in Oregon?' And they'll start describing it, and there's nothing else like it, so it's not hard to put a place with it.”
That's when Sanders, the Smiths, Monqui and the rest of the team know they're doing things right.
“The vibe here is just so relaxing to everybody. It's just awesome,” Sanders said. “We usually win the artists over when they come to town. It's the agents in New York that are the hard part. So basically we have to win them over by winning the artists over one by one.”
Visitors by the thousands
More artists and bigger artists mean more popular shows with the power to attract people from well outside Deschutes County, of course. And for the Les Schwab Amphitheater, attendance by out-of-towners is crucial.
In nine seasons, 81 concerts at the amphitheater have attracted nearly 280,000 people, 60 percent of whom came from outside Deschutes County. Last year, almost 31,000 people attended nine shows, and 70 percent of those people came from elsewhere, the largest percentage in the venue's history.
Visitors not only attend concerts, but they need places to stay, food to eat and, in Central Oregon's unpredictable climate, sometimes a new raincoat or T-shirt.
In 2010, a Boulder, Colo.-based consultant interviewed 800 attendees at that season's nine concerts and found that 80 percent of visitors said they came to Central Oregon specifically for the show, and they stayed an average of 2.2 nights, most in paid lodging, according to a report provided by tourism agency Visit Bend.
The report goes on to estimate the “total direct economic activity associated with the concert series in the local area” at $2.88 million that year, and the total impact attributable to visitors attracted to the area by the concerts at $1.81 million.
“The Les Schwab Amphitheater is a critical component of Bend's tourism industry. It would be difficult to find a segment of our local economy that is not directly impacted by the events at the LSA,” wrote Visit Bend President/CEO Doug LaPlaca in an email. “In addition to the significant economic impact generated by the events, the LSA substantially enhances the vibrancy and quality of life in our community. That goes a long way in attracting new visitors, residents, and businesses to Bend.”
Two of the closest restaurant patios to the amphitheater's stage see a significant bump in business on concert nights, their general managers said. At the upscale steakhouse Greg's Grill, activity at the Schwab brings “an incredible injection of foot traffic” to the restaurant, said general manager Rob Ramaker. The result is, on average, around a 30 to 40 percent increase in sales, he said.
“Any time that you can bring an extra 5,000 to 8,000 people down to our vicinity,” he said, “we're going to benefit from it greatly.”
Greg's Grill also beefs up staffing on concert nights, putting more people to work for longer hours. There are some headaches — policing alcohol consumption, especially — but the extra revenue makes the shows well worth the trouble.
The story is very similar at Pastini Pastaria, an Italian restaurant where general manager Steve Pappas was adding tables to his patio on Thursday. The restaurant gets its dinner business much earlier on concert nights and tends to see an increase in sales that ranges from 10 to 30 percent, Pappas said.
Pastini also staffs up for those nights, and increases its food, liquor and wine orders accordingly, Pappas said.
“We understand that this is a community that thrives in the summer months, and we want our guests to enjoy our facility,” he said.
Each restaurant employs tactics to ensure their patios don't become a spot for hanging out without eating or drinking. Greg's Grill requires a food order at tables, while Pastini tries to set an expectation that tables will turn over every 90 minutes or so — nearly twice its typical length.
Noelle Fredland, marketing director for the Old Mill District, said the two restaurants' experiences are common in the shopping center.
“I would say that across the board, you could take the top sales days for any of our restaurants and they are a concert day, no problem,” she said.
Old Mill retailers were “devastated” when the Schwab hosted only six shows in 2009, Fredland said.
The right direction
That season — cut short in part because of the economy — hurt the amphitheater, too, Marney Smith said, and the venue has no interest in going back to those kinds of numbers.
Meanwhile, Monqui Presents continues to monitor the kinds of acts that do well in Bend and adjust its booking efforts. The five best-attended shows in the Schwab's history are three dates by surf-pop star Jack Johnson, one by country legend Willie Nelson, and one by alt-rock pioneers the Pixies.
Country music and classic rock has traditionally done well here, said Monlux, Monqui's owner, although country, especially, has receded a bit in recent years.
Meanwhile, attendance at modern rock shows seems to be getting stronger.
“Bend has been trending to getting more hip to that kind of music over the last 10 years,” Monlux said.
All involved still battle against Bend's notoriously last-minute ticket-buying crowd, as well as the one factor they can never control: the weather.
Still, Monlux has been happy with the venue and Monqui's business there.
“I think we're on the way up now,” he said.
Marney Smith thinks so, too.
“It's to a place where we know it will continue growing,” she said. “The city has to continue to want us to be here, (so) we've been working with the noise ordinance committee to refine the ordinance so we are able to stay. But it's to a point where we have local support, we definitely have support from the nationally touring artists who want to come here, and I think it will just continue to grow.”