The silent fall of the Fresno State Amphitheater
There was an amphitheater at Fresno State once. It was a place where thousands of people gathered and listened to music, comedians or just found ways to have fun.
The space that’s called the Amphitheater still exists, but it hasn’t been used for a long time. The reason stems from financial issues, as well as the Save Mart Center, which drew away much of the amphitheater’s crowds.
Back in the mid-1970s, it was the goal of a group of enterprising men that organized into the College Union Sound System, also known as CUSS, to work together to bring shows to Fresno State.
The music scene at the school and in Fresno in general was disheartening to Reggie Rush, a CUSS member and student from Riverside in Southern California, who arrived at Fresno State in the fall of 1975.
“There were not a lot of shows in Fresno,” Rush said. “There wasn’t even a place to rent sound or light equipment. There was nothing going on in this town show-wise.”
Rush, who now owns the entertainment lighting company Live Light in Fresno, and CUSS worked to fill that empty air space with sound and eventually set their sights on the amphitheater.
At the time it was a banged-up stage of rotten plywood with no roof or power.
“It was about three feet tall and rickety beyond all belief,” Rush said.
The group cobbled together funding to get the amphitheater updated into a venue where promoters felt comfortable bringing Hootie and the Blowfish, The Go-Go’s and others.
The result was a place that was a must-attend venue for Vintage Days or when shows came to town, said Mike King, a former CUSS member and president of a sound and lighting equipment business called Speeda Sound in Fresno.
“During Vintage Days it was Thursday night movies, Friday night concerts and Sunday shows,” King said. “It was a great place to be. At one time, it was a pretty popular venue for promoters to put on shows from jazz to country.”
Even something as simple as air guitar brought in huge crowds.
“That place used to be so packed you couldn’t get in there,” Kings said about the air guitar “concerts.”
One of the more packed shows was unexpected.
“We decided to book this guy, Steve Martin,” Rush said. “No one knew who he was. No one had really heard of him, but he was kind of starting to become famous. About a month before the show, he appeared on ‘Saturday Night Live.’”
The two shows sold out, and an original capacity crowd of 6,500 grew to 8,000 for both shows.
Brian Hijos, a member of CUSS who arrived at Fresno State in 1976 and now owns a staging company in Lodi, said the outdoor venue encouraged a different atmosphere than in an arena like the Save Mart Center.
“If you don’t put chairs in you are enjoying a concert with your neighbor,” Hijos said. “It’s more of a group experience when you are not assigned to a seat.”
The Save Mart Center is part of the reason shows no longer occur in the amphitheater.
The construction of the Save Mart Center in 2005 provided Fresno State with a venue it could rent out that already had infrastructure in place, and is a controlled environment with room for about 10,000 more people than can fit into the amphitheater.
Financial concerns and the stage’s unfortunate location are also part of the story of the amphitheater’s abandonment.
Gary Nelson, the senior coordinator at the Student Involvement Center, said the buildings around the amphitheater have changed since its heyday. What was once an open area behind the stage are now fully enclosed with classrooms.
“What happened is, [when] these buildings got nicer, they built new performing areas,” Nelson said. “Essentially what happened is more classes, more theater performances, more music performances with the concert halls — so the availability of it in terms of not interfering with the instructional aspect of the university was a big thing.”
Waiting until the weekend is not necessarily a solution, either.
“Even on the weekends there’s lots of music performances and theater,” Nelson said. “It’s not an ideal location to have a facility.”
The second part of the location problem is controlling access. Nelson said if the event charges admission, there would need to be a fence around the area so no one sneaks in without a ticket.
“You got to put a fence that’s secure all the way around,” Nelson said. “You also have to secure the buildings — every single entrance is a possibility because people can get in one side of the building and get into the amphitheater. Or they can do what they used to do and climb over the top of the building.”
The price of an event starts to add up when portable toilets, lights, sound systems and security to make sure no one gets into the nearby buildings are included.
The structure itself also needs repair, up to $150,000 worth according to an estimate in 2011, which includes tearing down the dressing rooms because of mold, Nelson said.
The future of the amphitheater is not entirely known. No decision has been officially made about its future but the amphitheater’s history is well established, as a once proud musical venue in Fresno.
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