Merriweather: Birth of a classic music venue

James Rouse needed something big to attract attention to his vision in Howard County in the mid-1960s. His “new town” had garnered quite a bit of media attention, but he made sure there would be a lot of traffic to the site with the second public building — preceded only by the Exhibit Center — to open in Columbia: Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Merriweather has endured its ups and downs to become a premier venue. Billboard magazine named it the second best amphitheater in the U.S., and Rolling Stone magazine named it the fourth. As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, the roster of acts that have played there read like a Who’s Who of rock and roll and pop music.

But Merriweather was not originally intended to be a venue for rock music. It struggled for almost 10 years after opening, and had to abandon Rouse’s vision for the building.

Rouse had envisioned a cultural arts center that offered symphonies, ballet, modern dance, opera and musical theater. The venue, originally called the Columbia Pavilion of Music, would not only provide the desired foot traffic to the new town, but would also provide some needed credibility to Columbia.

Hamilton summed up the Wolf Trap episode in his notes: “In hindsight, it does seem that we should never have touched this issue with a ten foot pole. But at that time it seemed very urgent.”

Construction on the Columbia pavilion started on March 17, 1967 and was completed in about 10 weeks. As it progressed, the pavilion underwent more changes. Most significantly, after a few flattering letters from Jim Rouse, Marjorie Merriweather Post agreed to lend her name to the venue. Construction costs soared as physical changes were implemented, such as the permanent roof, a concrete pad under the orchestra pit and permanent seats (which were increased to 3,000). The total cost was now estimated to run $600,000.

Traffic control became a priority as the pavilion neared completion. As described in a May 12, 1967 memo from Rouse official James Wannemacher to Finley, discussions with the Howard County police decided that “Washington traffic would be routed south on the present Double H Road [probably South Entrance Road] and onto Route 29 at the new intersection which is scheduled to be completed by June 15. Baltimore oriented traffic would be routed north on the Little Patuxent Parkway and onto Route 29 at the present Oakland Manor Road intersection.”

Ticket prices were announced for the first season: reserved seats, $5.50, $4.50, and $3.50; lawn tickets, $2; season passes, $5.95. The main box office opened in the Gate House at Cross Keys, and tickets were also sold at Hutzler stores.

Opening night

Merriweather opened on July 14, 1967 with guest pianist Van Cliburn accompanying the NSO. Unfortunately, rain started an hour before the program began and was a downpour by the time it started. The side sections in the current pavilion were not part of the original design, so the rain at times reached all the way to the center seats. People were soaked making their way through Symphony Woods. A supper dance scheduled at the Exhibit Center for the black-tie crowd after the concert was postponed.

But the show went on and Vice President Hubert Humphrey dedicated the pavilion in front of a sell-out crowd, including Marjorie Merriweather Post, Jim Rouse and a host of dignitaries, senators and congressmen. When the NSO began playing the national anthem, a tremendous thunder clap shook the pavilion.

By all media accounts, even with the rain the show was an unqualified success. Paul Hume, the long-time music editor of the Washington Post, was effusive in his praise: “The sound in the new shed is marvelous. The Post Pavilion is one of this area’s greatest musical assets.” The New York Times also offered praise: “The Merriweather Post Pavilion of Music turned out to be an unqualified architectural and acoustical success.” The Baltimore News American called it “the gem of Howard County.”

The entire schedule for the first season in 1967 followed Rouse’s vision by offering a mix of the NSO, ballet and the Russian Festival of Music and Dance. The accolades continued to pour in. The Washington Daily News wrote: “Three cheers for Gehry, Walsh & O’Malley [the architects] and for Christopher Jaffee & Associates [the acoustical consultant]. They have come up with a perfect building in an ideal setting.” Even the St. Louis Post-Dispatch gushed about “its astonishingly good acoustics.”

But the inaugural 1967 season was a financial disaster.

The lineup of music for the second season in 1968 reflected a change. July was again dedicated to the NSO, but starting on Aug. 7, the first pop music act appeared at Merriweather: the Cowsills. This foray into pop music expanded that month with Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Jimi Hendrix, Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez, the Doors, Tiny Tim and Country Joe and the Fish.

The Rouse Co. was pleased with the trend. In a memo to Finley after the 1968 season, Community Research and Development official James Wannemacher provided concession sales totals and concluded, “Rock groups may not please PTAs, but they sure as hell make a lot of money.”

Even with the increased revenue from the rock acts, the NSO had a hard time. The “permanent” arrangement of hosting the NSO ended after two seasons because of financial difficulties. Once the NSO withdrew, Community Research and Development took over full-time management of the facility and booking acts, and Rouse’s vision of a full-time fine arts center was over.

The 1968 season was also notable for a non-musical major headache. Segregationist Gov. George Wallace, of Alabama, was running a third-party campaign for president and requested the use of Merriweather for a campaign rally. The NSO, who still controlled bookings, approved the request, which unleashed a tidal wave of protest in the new town.

At a meeting attended by about 250 of Columbia’s then population of 1,300, Rouse addressed the residents, saying, according to the Sun: “I am convinced that the fabric of our country is so true that we have the capability of weathering demagogues. … Only through exposure have they been suffocated.”

Then-Howard County Police Chief Jack Larrimore told the Sun, “I’m very happy Wallace is going to speak here, not so much personally, but I think those who want to hear him should have the opportunity to do so.”

The Rev. John Walsh organized a counter-rally that was held while Wallace was speaking at Merriweather. Rouse and state Sen. James Clark spoke at the rally, which was “not designed as a protest to Wallace’s appearance,” according to the Post.

Once rock and roll got its foot in the door, the floodgates opened. Merriweather now catered so much to rock and pop that Community Research and Development undertook a major renovation just to book an act. Jean Parker, the current general manager of Merriweather Post Pavilion, recounted how superstar Tom Jones only played at venues with a certain capacity, and Merriweather fell short. In a bid to book him, the permanent seats in the side loge sections were added in 1970 to increase capacity.

Every year saw more hard rock groups booked, such as Iron Butterfly, Janis Joplin, the Allman Brothers Band, J. Geils Band and the Grateful Dead, along with mellower performers like Jackson Browne and — the performer who holds the record for playing Merriweather the most times — Jimmy Buffet.

With the invasion of rock, out-of-control crowds became more commonplace. The 1970 season was a watershed year. At a Steppenwolf concert on July 26, 150 gate-crashers attempted to enter. On July 28, about 100 “hippie-types,” according to the Washington Star, crashed the gates for a Procol Harem concert. Fights broke out, the pavilion sustained $1,000 in property damage and five people were arrested. The following night, July 29, The Who and Led Zeppelin sold out the pavilion, but more than 10,000 people without tickets showed up. To avoid a repeat of the previous night’s troubles, Merriweather management opened the gates and admitted the huge crowd. There were the usual problems with drugs, but the concert went off without violence according to news reports.

Merriweather management had enough. They announced that the remainder of the rock concerts scheduled for the 1970 season were cancelled and, according to the Post, it was “highly unlikely that rock concerts will be scheduled next summer.” But a day later, they backtracked. In a Post article headlined, “Pavilion Bars Only Hard Rock,” Merriweather management clarified that no additional hard rock concerts would be added, but those already booked would perform. Richard Anderson, the general manager of the pavilion, told the Post, “I don’t know what hard rock is, but I’m told it means acts like The Who, Sly and the Family Stone and Janis Joplin. Rock concerts featuring Bobby Sherman, Bobbie Gentry, The Four Tops and The Fifth Dimension will be held as scheduled.”

The ban disappeared before the next season in 1971. But again, gate-crashing and violence occurred. At an Elton John concert in June, five security guards were injured by crashers. In August, three guards were struck by rocks and hospitalized when 50 gate-crashers stormed a Ten Years After concert. Two golf carts were set on fire, which spread to a small security shack.

Amid calls to shut down Merriweather, Republican Howard County Councilman Charles Miller resuscitated his “concert control bill” to prohibit concerts at Merriweather with audiences of more than 3,000 without a permit. Provisions of the bill were declared unconstitutional by county solicitor Robert Fischer before the Howard County Council when it was first proposed in 1970, but community disgust with the violence at rock concerts persuaded Miller to re-introduce it with modifications suggested by county solicitor Robert Fischer.

The Central Maryland News summed up the bill: “Acid rock events at the Post Pavilion have resulted in controversy over the past four seasons. It brought about the Concert Bill now pending before the County Council.” Miller told the Howard County Times that his “proposed law is a response to three years of violence at the Pavilion.”

The bill, which became law in February 1973, retained the requirement for permits issued by the county executive for concerts of more than 3,000. According to the Sun, “One criterium for permits is that the performer had not provoked any disturbances during or after his concert within the past six months.” The law is still in effect today.

Community Research and Development drew up an initial list of 200 “approved” acts for the 1973 season. Among the names on the approved list were the New York City Ballet, Cat Stevens, the Carpenters and, curiously, Elton John and Ten Years After, whose concerts were marred by violence the year before. The first two performers on the banned list were Rod Stewart and Leon Russell. Omar Jones, the Howard County executive at the time and the man who issued the permits, told the Sun, “I’ve never heard of either of them.”

It’s unclear if the new law had any effect on reducing violence. Overall, the next few years did see a decrease, but violence was far from eliminated. Gate-crashing, drug use and vandalism were still problems. The financial reality of booking rock band always won out over objections.

It was quite a shock to the concert-going public when Michael Spear, Columbia’s general manager, announced in January 1974 that there would be a rock concert ban for the entire 1974 season.

“Pop and folk concerts will be unaffected by the ban,” according to the Post.

“We’ll allow people like the Carpenters, Judy Collins, and Carole King,” said Spear. “We won’t allow people like Alice Cooper, the Grateful Dead or Edgar Winter.” But, as usual, the ban was temporary.

Merriweather survived and thrived to become the premier venue it is today. As part of the deal to allow Howard Hughes Corp. to develop the crescent property, the corporation had to relinquish ownership of the pavilion to a nonprofit, the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission. Executive Director Ian Kennedy said that while DCACC runs the facility, booking and promotion is handled by IMP Productions. DCACC is overseeing the $50 million renovation to the pavilion.

Even though Rouse’s dream performance venue dedicated to fine arts of a fine arts center died years ago, Parker observed that Rouse would approve of the current management run by a nonprofit.

“He would be thrilled that this is the answer to the piece of land,” he said. “I think he would be totally pleased.”

Information for this story was found at the Howard County Historical Society and the Columbia Archives. Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.


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