As far as facelifts lifts go, this is a pretty darn impressive one. For the past several years, the folks from the Santa Barbara Bowl have been slowly working to revamp the nearly 80-year-old outdoor amphitheater, bending over backward to deliver a finished product that embodies all that is expected from a world-class music venue in the 21st century without losing the hand-built charm and old-world character that has defined the Bowl for decades. This week, as the sandstone-studded mecca atop Milpas Street opens for the first time this season, that hard work, now in its very final stages, will be on display for all to enjoy. “There was a time when I wasn’t sure we would ever get to this point,” admitted Eric Lassen, a longtime Bowl Foundation Board of Directors member. “It wasn’t easy to do, but here we are, and I think everybody will be pretty happy with how it has turned out.”
Lassen, an architect by trade, has counted the Bowl as one of his neighbors since moving to Nopal Street in 1979, and he has been closely involved in the ongoing renovations of the venue for what he figures has been “almost 20 years.” Though well steeped in rock music history, the Bowl had grown famous for its general disrepair by the time management hatched a comprehensive renovation master plan in 1995. Funded by donations from the public, the slow and steady implementation of that plan has been presided over by Lassen. “It started with basic utilities work, things like water and electric and bathroom upgrades and drainage fixes,” said Lassen, “and to be honest, when we got that done, I figured that might be all we ever did.”
“The Bowl has certainly been polished up but not polished out. It’s more of a professional facility now, but it still has that beautiful one-of-a-kind vibe.”
However, as the donations kept coming in, more and more of the master plan’s wish list was built into reality. The stage was restructured, state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems were installed, bathrooms were expanded, all the seats in the 4,562-seat venue were replaced, the backstage area and green rooms were reworked, and the primary concessions area was vastly improved. Then there were the major undertakings, like the construction of the Wendy McCaw Terrace, the Sam Scranton Overlook atop the venue (which, it should be noted, affords some of the best views of downtown Santa Barbara and our coastline that can be found anywhere in town), and Jerry Garcia Glen. Even better, by using the same type of sandstone boulders (the bulk of which are harvested from the ground beneath the venue) and wood and metal materials that were historically used on the property, the overall effect, despite the major upgrades, is one of seamless aesthetic continuity. As rocker David Crosby, himself a veteran of countless Bowl shows as both performer and spectator, told me, “The Bowl has certainly been polished up but not polished out. It’s more of a professional facility now, but it still has that beautiful one-of-a-kind vibe.”
The functional facelift efforts continued in earnest this past off-season, something that people will notice immediately upon their arrival during this week’s shows. A massive new sandstone-faced retaining wall was erected at the back end of the parking lot, a snaking structure that not only works to hold back the hillside and further improve drainage issues but also brings the look and feel of the Bowl right down into the venue’s entrance. Further, new tour-bus parking areas were created, complete with full-power hookups, a development that will rid the venue of the tour-bus alley that people used to have to navigate through before and after shows. Other improvements new for this year include a souped-up BBQ pit named for Bob Marley (surrounded by an all-edible landscape), new dividers and cushions for the bleacher seats, and, perhaps most importantly, the completion of the aforementioned Scranton overlook. The latter now features sprawling modern bathrooms (good-bye, Porta Potties!) built into the hillside, along with formal food, beer, and wine offerings, and a bevy of amenities designed to make the venue’s “cheap” seats even more valuable.
All told, to realize the desires of the Bowl’s master plan, more than $35 million had to be raised, something that has happened thanks to the donations of over 500 individuals. The last two steps in the renovation, and easily the most publicly visible of the overall effort, are already underway and will remain in construction during this year’s run of concerts. And should you have a ticket for Thursday night’s New Order show or Friday’s Sigur Rós performance, you will be hard-pressed to miss these final improvements. The first is the construction of a brand-new box office. Described by Lassen as a “kind of bold new thing for the Bowl,” the new contemporary-themed structure will feature a brand new entrance out to Milpas Street and a surrounding walkway and tree-lined, public park–inspired area similar to Jerry Garcia Glen that, when complete, will reroute folks out of the current and anything-but-ideal path through the parking lot and onto the walkway that leads to the venue’s entry gates.
The last bit of work is happening where Lowena Drive flows into the upper area of the Bowl parking lot. Having recently received approval from the city to block off that end of the street with a gate and a roundabout of sorts, this area, located just to the left of where you traditionally have your first opportunity to get seating and drinking wristbands, will eventually be relandscaped and connected to the park-style walkway coming up from the future box office. “The idea of all this is to express the architecture and the general feeling of the Bowl itself all the way out to Milpas,” said Lassen. “We are doing all we can to do make sure this comes out right. … Things probably wouldn’t be quite like this if we were doing this anywhere else, and we know that. It’s a Santa Barbara thing.”