Somewhere beneath my feet, and the high grass, and the silt, was the spot. They had all come here before me. All had stood on this very spot. Somewhere in this immediate area.
Bob Hope. Bing Crosby. Rudy Vallee. George Burns and Gracie Allen. The Babe. Harpo Marx. I wish I could tell you that I could still hear the voices. Thousands and thousands of cheering soldiers crammed together on a hillside. Laughter. Singing. The Pledge of Allegiance recited en masse.
But, no. On this morning there was only the wind and Topper’s dog tags jingling as he helped me explore the large grassy hillside on the southwestern edge of the Cuesta College campus.
It’s been years—make that decades—since any crowd, any noise, has been heard at the Cuesta College amphitheater. The aging adobe structure, originally designed by Young Louis in 1943, now plays host only to the memory of a generation. During World War II, the amphitheater was the site of regular USO shows, staged to entertain the troops at nearby Camp San Luis Obispo.
The soldiers moved on. The war ended. And then the floods came. And people started forgetting about the county’s premier outdoor entertainment forum. Today, grass covers the stage. The dressing rooms have been reduced to mere shells by time and vandals. The once-grand structure is all but ignored by both the military who built the amphitheater and the financially-strapped college, which currently owns the property.
Alone. Decrepit. Ignored. What a way to mark your 50th anniversary.
It seems so easy today, standing on the grassy stage, facing the hillside where 5000 people can be seated comfortably. You sense the history of what came before. You know how people would flock today to attend an outdoor play or musical concert. And part of you sounds like an old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie—“Hey, let’s put on a show!”
Barbara George knows it’s not that simple. She and others, including county supervisor Bud Laurent, have been trying to 12 years to restore the historic amphitheater. Barbara explains their lack of success in a simple sentence. “There’s a will, but no way.”
A private theater consultant concluded in 1987 that the amphitheater restoration was a viable project. What happened? Ask, and you get an earful. The amphitheater was built on a flood plain. There’s no money. Parking problems. There’s no money. Problems with providing electricity and restrooms. Insurance. But mostly, there’s no money.
Barbara, who directs Cuesta’s foundation, certainly understands money and is the first to admit that students and staff must come before sentiment. Yet from time to time, Barbara steps away from her desk, slips on her tennis shoes and visits what’s left of the amphitheater.
“Look around. This place is so special,” Barbara said as we stood, surrounded by history., hearing only the silence. “Imagine Mozart by moonlight. Or Shakespeare. Or jazz. There are so many local groups involved in the cultural arts looking for a place to perform. I wish they could come here.”