The place has seen saints and sinners: the Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II; George Carlin and Chris Rock.
Heads of state and rock royalty have shouted out from the stage: Barack Obama and Bill Clinton; B.B. King, Miles Davis, and Joni Mitchell.
I personally witnessed great performances by Weather Report, Elton John, Steve Winwood, James Taylor, Kenny Loggins, Natalie Cole, Toto, Michael McDonald, and Dan Fogelberg.
My memories include nearly getting arrested when I snuck backstage to meet Chuck Mangione. Then there was the New Year’s Eve debacle with Barry Manilow where the guy behind me in the balcony threw up into his party hat for a good 30 minutes before medics could extract him from his seat.
My first date with my wife was to see Christopher Cross perform at the Universal Amphitheater (as it was called until 2005 when the Gibson Guitar Company bought the naming rights). The girl I originally asked turned me down. My wife never lets me forget that she was second choice.
On the subject of love, we were well into our married years when someone gave us front row seats at the Tom Jones concert. During “What’s New, Pussycat?” a mob of middle-aged women rushed the stage and a barrage of panties flew over our heads like so many brightly colored cotton birds. I thought I’d seen it all when several women lifted their shirts to shake their bare breasts at the gravelly-voiced Tom. I was traumatized. Tom took it all in stride and turned in a stellar performance, ever the consummate professional.
The venue started life as an open air amphitheater in a Hollywood back lot with a few exhibits and a studio tour. The first performers were the cast of the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar. I saw one of the last concerts there in the early 1980s before it closed for remodeling. The grand reopening in 1982 featured an enclosed space with state-of-the-art sound and lighting. These were the days when the Universal Amphitheater was the concert venue in Los Angeles. The Fabulous Forum was larger, but Universal did not have a bad seat in the house. It was intimate yet held more than 6,000 people.
Backstage, the name of every performer who graced the 41 year-old hall has been stenciled on the walls. Lots of history; lots of great performances.
This fall, the place will be demolished for “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.” It seems Universal Studios is coming late to that party; Harry Potter is old now. It is an unfair trade. The amphitheater had more than a few good years ahead of her with a little remodeling and a technology upgrade. The competition from the Staples Center, Nokia Theater, the Greek Theater, and the Hollywood Bowl as well as smaller venues like the Walt Disney Concert Hall have all drawn artists and audiences away from the Gibson.
Recently, I attended an event there and was able to wander around a bit both in the front of the house and backstage where these photographs were taken. There was the occasional loose railing or wobbly seat, but she looked good for four decades of use.
We tear down things too quickly in this city. In the process, we erase cultural icons and discard our history. But there is beauty in the aged and lined faces of buildings. Who needs a “Wizarding World?” We can visit that place in the books and films. Great performances live on in our memories. A searing guitar solo and another encore never get old.
By the close of 2013, the Universal-Gibson Amphitheater will be dead and gone. Construction jackhammers and bulldozers will silence the thundering applause. The history, the performers, the music will remain only with those of us who remember. And that will have to be enough.