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Sep 19, 2018
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The Fresno State Amphitheater at Fresno State (Khone Saysamongdy/The Collegian).

Fresno State Amphitheater may lie dead, but its history is not

Fresno State’s Amphitheater boasts a rich history that few could balk at if they’d heard it. For decades, the stage was filled with famous musical acts and politicians drawing crowds from all over the San Joaquin Valley – bringing life to Fresno State.

But the future of the venue – which is located in between the Speech Arts and Music buildings – is somewhat bleak. If the history of the venue is so vast, then why don’t we use it anymore?

The History

The cheers can be heard for blocks. Students are on their feet with their hands in the air. The adulation is deafening. It is very possible that the man before them will be the next president of the United States. What no one knows is that in less than two months, the would-be president would be assassinated.

The year: 1968. The location: Fresno State’s Amphitheater. The man: Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and he’s 48 days away from being gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel the night he wins the California Presidential Primary.

“I stand with the spirit of youth, and that is where I think America stands. And, that is why I run for president,” Kennedy said in April of 1968.

More than 5,000 people packed into the Amphitheater to see the Democratic presidential hopeful. Kennedy hit many hot-button issues during his speech, including eliminating the draft and getting out of the no-win Vietnam War.

Just 19 days prior, incumbent Democratic President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. And just two weeks prior, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

Dennis McCall, The Collegian’s executive editor, covered Kennedy’s campaign stop in 1968.

McCall reported that during a question-answer period, Kennedy was asked if he would bring peace to the Middle East if elected president. Kennedy firmly replied, “yes,” then qualified it with, “I’d need some help from the Arabs and Israelis.”

“There was a really good atmosphere. The students and the campus were thrilled that Bobby Kennedy came to Fresno State to make a campaign stop,” McCall said Tuesday – recalling the story he’d covered for The Collegian nearly five decades ago.

The crowds were ecstatic to see a real-life Kennedy, and Fresno State was his first stop on his 13-hour visit to Fresno.

“It was really cool to be there with the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times – very enjoyable for a student journalist,” McCall said.

While working at The Daily Collegian as it was known back then, McCall worked part time at United Press International – an Associated Press competitor that was once headed by Fresno State alum Roger Tatarian.

“We need to preserve the Amphitheater, but if they replace it with a big building, they need to find another place on campus for an outdoor venue. It’s a key element in the campus,” McCall said. “Fresno has great weather much of the year, so it would be nice to have some green space with an Amphitheater.”

After college, McCall moved back to his home town in Taft where he took a job at the local newspaper – The Taft Midway Driller. After 10 years, and after becoming the newspaper’s executive editor, he took a teaching job at Taft College where he taught journalism, communication and creative writing for 28 years. He’s now retired.

McCall hopes that the college will retain the Amphitheater, but either way he’ll always be a Bulldog.

“Those were two of the best years of our lives spent up at Fresno State,” McCall said. “We’re still very fond of Fresno.”

McCall said how amazing it was to have Kennedy speak to the students at the Amphitheater two months before his murder.

After Kennedy’s death, former Vice President Richard Nixon won the presidency in a landslide against the man who ended up winning the Democratic nomination – Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

The Legacy

Kennedy wasn’t the only heavyweight to utilize Fresno State’s outdoor venue.

In 2000, Sen. Joe Lieberman was running to be vice president on the Democratic ticket with then Vice President Al Gore – who wanted America’s top spot.

One of Lieberman’s campaign stops? The Fresno State Amphitheater.

But it wasn’t just as a political venue.

“I personally feel the space should be used to build a new performing arts venue for the music department and college,” said Dr. Matthew Darling, music department chair.

Famous musical acts from all walks of life played the venue.

Jefferson Starship played at Dog Days in 1982. Tom Petty and Journey both played the Amphitheater in 1983. And in 1985, Prince played at Dog Days – Prince.

Also in 1985, B.B. King played at the Jazz Valley Festival hosted by the Fresno State radio station – KVPR.

In 1995, Radiohead played the venue, and Incubus and Tool both played in 1998.

In 2000, Weezer took the stage, and in 2001, the Vans Warped Tour made a stop in Fresno. Where? The Fresno State Amphitheater. The show brought 311, New Found Glory, Good Charlotte and Thrice to name a few.

Other now-famous entertainers worked to earn their chops doing shows at the Amphitheater.

The music scene at the school and in Fresno, in general, was disheartening to Reggie Rush, who arrived at Fresno State in the fall of 1975. Rush was a College Union Sound System (CUSS) member and student from Riverside in Southern California.

“We decided to book this guy, Steve Martin,” Rush told The Collegian in 2013. “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 told The Collegian in 2013. “It’s more of a group experience when you are not assigned to a seat.”

Why did we stop using it?

Rumors circulate that the Amphitheater itself isn’t up to code or is condemned, but those are just myths.

They stem from another building that was attached that was used as green rooms for speakers and performers, as well as storage. Those were torn down because they were in disrepair.

Bob Boyd, associate vice president for facilities management, said that there still is a myriad of issues preventing its usage. For one, it doesn’t have an public address (PA) system.

“There is no speaker system as it stands right now, and the canopy doesn’t support any weight. So you can’t hang speakers; they have to sit on the ground,” said Boyd, who has worked in facilities since 1974 when he started as a student assistant.

Boyd said another big problem ended up being security.

“People would find ways to get onto the roofs of the surrounding buildings,” Boyd said. “People would climb trees to get up there.”

Deborah Adishian-Astone is the vice president for administration and the associate vice president for auxiliary services. She said the problem was noise.

“It really became an outdoor green space – a very nice outdoor green space right there in the middle of Speech Arts and Music,” Adishian-Astone said. “As I recall, the catalyst was the noise and event disruption of academics. We have classes going on on the weekends as well as into the evenings. And it’s in the middle of the campus.”

Dr. Colin Stewart, associate dean of student involvement, said the current setup creates problems that add endless red tape.

“When the Amphitheater was built, there were no classrooms nearby. Now there are several buildings, and scheduling the Amphitheater was complex because you weren’t allowed to hold a concert if a class in the surrounding buildings was in use,” Stewart said.

University code made it so impractical to book the venue, that it was eventually taken off the list.

“Every effort must be made to avoid the scheduling of two major outdoor events on the campus within a 72-hour period. At no time should two major events occur on the campus on the same date,” the code states. And the code is one of many restrictions limiting its use.

Is there any hope of revitalization?

Stewart said the current item being figured out is whether or not the university will build a new, state-of-the-art University Student Union (USU).

“The current USU was built when it needed to support 11,000 students. Now Fresno State has 24,000, and space is limited,” Stewart said.

He brought the plans for the proposed new USU because there’s a tentative plan for a venue to be built in – perhaps even onto the existing Amphitheater space.

Facilities coordinator Mehrzad Zarrin said that the campus is ever evolving, and that the landmarks of the university change with the times.

“When I was a student here, [the existing] USU building was the only thing around,” Zarrin said. “It wasn’t surrounded by buildings. The students hung out in The Pit where there was a screen for movies and a fireplace.”

Zarrin said the college added the Satellite Student Union (SSU) to offset the small space of the USU. And now it’s time for something bigger.

“The new USU is designed to bring increased campus life. We want to give students more options, and that includes music performances and other shows.”

But Zarrin and Stewart said they want the university to do what the students choose. If students don’t want a new USU, then the university won’t build one, they said.

Adishian-Astone said there is hope for the space.

During focus groups on the new USU plan, the university found that students would want the building to be in the heart of campus near the Henry Madden Library. And that could spell good news for the outdoor venue.

“The architects took a look at the site and said this Amphitheater is a great space. It could be incorporated into the site plan of the new student union where it becomes more of a seating bowl where you can be outside and study or gather with friends – and make it a more vibrant space.”

Ishaq Ali, senator for Associated Students, Inc., said that he personally feels like the outdoor venue is ideal for the university to appeal to students of the commuter campus.

Anyone passing by the Amphitheater might check out an event, where you have to already know what’s going on in the University Theatre, Save Mart Center or SSU, Ali said.

Ali said he was at San Diego State where they built a new Amphitheater, and they were able to pull big-name acts there to perform outdoors.

“Even if it’s not for bringing in big acts, I think having a space for students is good,” Ali said.

He said there’s something to be said about performing at Fresno State.

“There’s not the same association as going to the Save Mart Center,” Ali said. “You don’t think of going to Fresno State – you’re going to the Save Mart Center.”

Basically, an on-campus venue would be good name recognition for the university, Ali said.

The university is accepting public comment on the proposed USU and taking suggestions on what students want to see. Stewart said if students wanted to have the Amphitheater to be revitalized – a project that Boyd guessed would cost at least $10 million to modernize – the comments would be a good place for students to suggest it.

The comments are being taken on the website for the new USU at fresnostatenews.com/boldnewu.

Voting for or against the USU plan will happen in the spring.

The history of the Amphitheater is truly astonishing. But it’s quite possible that it could be torn down in favor of some other project.

“It’s a lot of real estate to not use,” Ishaq said. “Outdoor spaces are perfect for Fresno State. Allowing students to express themselves through art, music – whatever they use this space for … I think it spurs a positive culture of creativity, community – bringing people together.”

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