History of the Les Schwab Amphitheater
INSPIRATION FOR BEND’S OUTDOOR MUSIC VENUE
INSPIRATION FOR LSA
LEARN A LITTLE MORE ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THE LES SCHWAB AMPHITHEATER
History of the Les Schwab Amphitheater
How the snowman from the 1964 stop-motion classic “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” helped inspire the creation of Oregon’s largest outdoor music venue.
Editor’s Note: A version of this story previously ran in The Bulletin and is posted here with the newspaper’s permission.
On July 4, 1971, an estimated 10,000 people gathered in Bend’s Drake Park to hear actor/musician Burl Ives – yes, the voice of the snowman narrator from Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer – and others “sing in a rock festival of sort,” 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,’” Smith recalled. “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 – explained the origins of the Les Schwab Amphitheater.
“These two (former) sawmill (sites) had been blowing dust,” Smith said about the state of the mill properties prior to development. “There were very few places that weren’t blowing dust. So when you have blowing dust, what do you do with that? You water it. And if you water it and you’ve got 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 we can have concerts.”
A MAGNET FOR PEOPLE
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 the location would put the sun I the eyes of either the performer or the audience most of the time.
So they moved it across the river where the amphitheater’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 – a former mill management office now used for show production–and four refurbished rail card 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 the Old Mill District, what developers hoped would be Bend’s newest retail and dining hot spot.
“We know we can do one Burl Ives concert every year,” Smith said. “But that’s not getting people down here. These stores are open 365 days a year.”
In 2002, the team opened the Les Schwab Amphitheater – the venue’s named in honor of Smith’s friend and mentor – with an abbreviated season featuring concerts by John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett and Chris Isaak.
In its second season, 2003, the series debuted in full with 10 concerts that drew more than 44,000 people to see artists such as Jack Johnson, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. Since then, the LSA has hosted on average 12 shows a year, including living legends such as Ringo Starr and Paul Simon and some of today’s most popular touring acts like Dave Matthews Band and the Avett Brothers. Highlights from the 2019 season included Robert Plant, The Roots, Jason Isbell, and The B-52s.
MAKING ARTISTS FEEL 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 doesn’t have the population of Portland or Eugene.
Backstage, the Amphitheater often provides badminton, croquet, ping pong and foosball tables, cornhole, inner tubes to float the river, cruiser bikes and whatever else it can offer to meet an artist’s desires. Jonathan Davis of Korn went fly fishing when he was in Bend in 2007. That same year Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes walked along the river, greeting locals the whole way. Ween usually hangs out at the D&D Bar & Grill. Jack Johnson has floated the Deschutes almost every time he’s been in Bend, while Michael Franti has been known to join a game of pickup volleyball. Chris Isaak may or may not have jumped off a certain bridge over the Deschutes with a group of kids.
The beauty of Bend and the Amphitheater have left an impression on visiting artists. Alison Krause brings her entire family to town whenever she plays the LSA for a de facto working vacation. Sheryl Crow tubed in the Bend Whitewater Park in 2019 before her evening show. Dave Matthews’s been known to take in some of Central Oregon’s spectacular biking routes.
As the word’s gotten out about the Amphitheater, the LSA has seen more and more shows each year. Travel + Leisure named the Amphitheater “one of the coolest music venues in the country” in 2014, and in 2018 the LSA hosted a record-setting 17 concerts.
The Amphitheater has also been hailed as an industry leader in sustainability for its Take Note Initiative, receiving an All At Once Sustainability Award for Jack Johnson’s 2017-18 All the Light Above It Too World Tour.
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