After two years of darkness, the comfy, rickety amphitheater at Lubber Run Park is preparing to resume its evening magic. It’s a fine Arlington example of collaboration between the governors and the governed.
For thousands who like their culture in the open air, summer isn’t complete without nights of entertainment under the stars and sheltering trees off Route 50. My personal faves from Lubber Run over the decades include legendary singer Richie Havens, a rich production of the “Fantasticks,” and the annual acapella nights hosted by the goofball Tone Rangers and Da Vinci’s Notebook. All for free.
“Built in 1968” is the factoid bandied about in the debate over the county’s 2009 decision to suspend the shows for budget and safety reasons. But the venue’s history goes back farther. The original Lubber Run stage opened on Flag Day 1941, and the first free concert series began in 1956, according to news items in a history by civic activists.
I personally recall gallivanting before a Lubber Run audience as a seven-year-old summer camp performer in 1960-some cavalcade featuring the then-smash song “Itsy Bitsy Teeney-Weeney Yellow Polkadot Bikini.”
It was similar memories in hearts in the Arlington Forest neighborhood that led residents to mobilize to lobby county staff, circulate a petition that earned 800 names, and eventually launch the Lubber Run Amphitheater Foundation Inc.
The campaign got started after “neighbors walking their dogs in the park discovered yellow tape across the facility in 2009,” local activist Chris Scheer told me. With a recession on, the county cultural affairs staff had stopped assembling the annual schedule of stage performances. Even when the budget crunch eased, “the county was doing so much with the arts, Lubber Run kind of got left behind,” Scheer said. The foundation will tap civic federations and arts groups to build support that is “countywide and regional,” he added.
Worried about a decaying structure and code violations, the county commissioned a study by Neale Architects. This March the firm recommended a $2.5 million renovation (or a new amphitheater for $3.5 million), not counting compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and resource protection and floodplain regulations. It was a sad catalog of “open trenches, steep grades, deteriorated benches, tilting walls, crumbling paving,” mold and grim bathrooms.
Enter the foundation folks. They argued the study was exaggerated. They recommended instead an interim “no-frills” renovation to keep live bodies in the amphitheater.
Following the usual ultra-thorough community meetings, the board this May agreed to provide $100,000 to replace the wooden stage, replace the area and stage lighting and add accessible parking spaces, portable restrooms and accessible seating. There’s a nifty $45,000 worth of performances for late July and August, and another $100,000 to study future construction.
Are neighbors happy? Arlington Forest activist Tricia Freeman told me there was a bit of resistance when the amphitheater “was upgraded over 40 years ago addressing concerns of traffic, noise and parking. But at this point most residents have moved in knowing the amphitheater was there and, in fact, are delighted to have a free performance venue within walking distance,” she says. The county has “worked with performers and residents to make sure those issues are rare. I have had the good fortune to have the amphitheater provide background music for a small dinner party on the back deck.” Bravo.
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at email@example.com