- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2008

He’s performed for millions and recorded hit records (the horn-funky “Bustin’ Loose” remained atop Billboard’s R&B; chart for four consecutive weeks in 1978). To locals, he is perhaps best-known for his starring turn in TV ads for the D.C. Lottery.

Yet for many years, local music legend Chuck Brown had only one dream: to play the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, the sylvan enclave on the eastern edge of Rock Creek Park.

“When I finally got the opportunity to play there, it was the best gig I had up until that time,” the ageless godfather of go-go music, now 72, says of that first appearance in 1973.

Mr. Brown, of course, would go on to play the Carter Barron many times through the years - most recently last month, when even a lighting outage brought on by a string of thunderstorms failed to stop the concert.

“The fans there are great; they’re very loyal,” says Mr. Brown. “You wouldn’t find that in any other town.”

Or, perhaps, in any other venue.

While local entertainment locales have come and gone, the Carter Barron has remained a staple of local summertime fun for nearly 60 years, as much a part of the local scene as insufferable humidity and fireworks on the Mall.

“It’s gonna be here for another 60 years,” said George Randall of Northwest, a D.C. native and security force employee at Boeing who came out a few weeks back for a packed celebration of 1980s R&B; featuring Lakeside, the Bar-Kays and Clones of Funk.

“This is the only community amphitheater here in D.C. Fort DuPont is off and on,” Mr. Randall said, referring to the Southeast amphitheater that, like the Carter Barron, is also operated by the National Park Service.

The Lakeside concert (part of a summer lineup that also features the National Symphony Orchestra, reggae and Latin music nights and the annual DC Poetry Festival) yielded a sold-out crowd of baby boomers, including those who braved the sweltering heat and the park’s near-molten asphalt walkways - some in imposing stiletto heels.

“This is my second time here. I came out for the old-school music,” said Franda Davis of Clinton, Md., who chose to celebrate her birthday at the July 12 concert. “It’s free, it’s open to the public, and the atmosphere is just great.”

This summer, amid a growing field of outdoor area venues - Columbia, Md.’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, Baltimore’s Pier Six Pavilion and even its upscale cousin, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna - the Carter Barron is more than holding its own. Each of the 28 dates in its season, which began in late May with the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Hamlet” and concludes Aug. 30 with the annual DC Blues Festival, have been sold out.

Most performances are free but still require tickets that must be picked up in advance for unreserved seating. All shows end promptly at 11 p.m., says Rita St. John Gunther, a National Park Service ranger and the Carter Barron’s supervising theater specialist.

Long before the region’s glut of motorists, thousands made their way to the Carter Barron via public transportation. Large green and orange D.C. Transit buses lumbered north along the city’s 16th Street corridor to the Colorado Avenue intersection before depositing jubilant concertgoers directly in front of the amphitheater’s front gates.

“That [bus stop] was moved when more people started driving to make way for a parking lot,” Ms. Gunther says.

With Rock Creek’s towering trees as backdrop, the old amphitheater has seen it all, welcoming a who’s who of entertainment to its stage: King of Swing Benny Goodman, blues icon B.B. King, Oscar-winning composer Henry Mancini, humorist/pianist Victor Borge, Broadway belter Ethel Merman and folk music’s Peter, Paul & Mary all played there. Jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole, Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald also appeared, as did the New York City Ballet, calypso crooner Harry Belafonte, comic genius Richard Pryor and rock stars the Band and Bruce Springsteen.

Motown legends Stevie Wonder and the Four Tops once made annual stops there. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles performed their final live concert at the Carter Barron in 1972. A performance by Issac Hayes was “one of the amphitheater’s biggest draws,” Ms. Gunther says.

“People always remember the shows they saw here,” she adds. “We once had a lady come in who remembered seeing the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo here.”

Completed in just six months, the Carter Barron (originally called the Sesquicentennial Amphitheatre to mark the District’s 150th birthday, Ms. Gunther notes) was scheduled to open on the Fourth of July in 1950. Unlike many facilities of the era, the amphitheater was never segregated.

Although initial plans for an amphitheater within Rock Creek Park began taking shape in 1943, construction (at cost of nearly $600,000) on the 4,200-seat venue fell behind. With the summer of 1950 quickly fading, the theater - later renamed the Carter Barron in honor of Washington arts patron and presidential adviser Carter T. Barron - opened that August with the period drama “Flags of Our Fathers,” a tribute to George Washington. President Harry S. Truman and his family attended the event. Mr. Barron died three months later at age 45.

“‘Faith of Our Fathers’ was not received well, critically,” Ms. Gunther says, “but people loved the amphitheater.”

Crowds came in droves. Yet a close call came in 1953, when a summer season of Broadway musicals (including “Show Boat,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Carousel”) failed to attract audiences. New promoters were brought in and successfully stemmed the losses.

The NPS has managed all attractions since 1979 - with little or no advertising.

“We have a small mailing list of about 4,000 or 5,000 and a limited advertising budget. That’s it,” Ms. Gunther says.

Yet fans still come.

“It’s not going anywhere,” District native David L. Jones said of the Carter Barron. “People love Rock Creek Park. Plus, their concert lineup is diverse. I hope they’ll be in existence for another 60 years.”

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