by Mike Corrigan

When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers take the stage at the Gorge Amphitheater this Saturday night, kicking off the venue's 2001 season to a sold out crowd, they'll be doing it in style -- rugged and sublimely gorgeous Central Washington-style. At some point, a question is sure to tiptoe its way into their minds. A question, no doubt, pondered by just about every artist that's ever performed here.

Who the hell first decided it would be a good idea to drop an amphitheater in the middle of a desert 150 miles from just about everywhere?

"Dr. Vince Bryan owned the property and had vineyards here," recalls Gorge General Manager Bill Parsons. "He came up with the concept of putting a little platform stage down in this natural amphitheater bowl and have folk music and let people buy bottles of wine from his winery. I think the first show was in 1986."

What may have first appeared to many as an act of folly turned out to be a stroke of pure genius. Now in its 15th season, the Gorge Amphitheater has earned the distinction of being the No. 1 outdoor amphitheater in North America for five years running (according to the concert industry authority, Pollstar magazine).

"The bands especially like it, and that's where a lot of the votes come from," says Parsons, "from their agents and managers. I've worked 12 amphitheaters around the country -- got them started, hired the staff and trained them. They all try to be different, but they're all the same. They're asphalt. They have a roof over the seating area at most of them. They're cookie-cutter. The Gorge is a natural amphitheater that we couldn't do much to improve."

How could the others possibly compete? Perched on basalt cliffs high above the mighty Columbia River, the natural beauty of the site is unmatched. In the evening, the amphitheater turns orange as the sun dips over the river gorge. This stunning, God-like spectacle slowly unfolds behind the stage and performers, putting light shows designed by mere mortals to shame.

"It's got a natural bowl sound, it's got the backdrop of the Columbia River. The sun sets behind the stage. I mean, you can't buy that."

The outstanding acoustics and near perfect weather from early spring to late fall add to the list of advantages for both artists and concert attendees alike. And even though it sits in the middle of nowhere, it is perfectly situated to draw equally from both sides of Washington state and beyond.

"We average 13,000 tickets [sold] a show," Parsons explains. "The national average is 8,500 for the same shows. When I first came here, I thought, who's coming this far? I'm from California where if you can't valet park and pull right up, you don't go. But the Gorge is equidistant to the Seattle and Spokane and North Idaho areas, and we draw from the Tri-Cities and Oregon and from Canada, as well as the Central Washington area. We are a regional amphitheater."

Parsons has been the jack-of-all-trades at the Gorge since Bryan sold the property to MCA Concerts in 1993. Two years ago, House of Blues Concerts acquired the amphitheater.

"It's been the same management people since I've been here. It's just different ownership."

Though the amphitheater was more or less successful from the get-go, in the early days, things were a little rough around the edges. And the accommodations were anything but accommodating. Crowd management was almost non-existent. The porta-potty lines were notoriously long. Paths were unpaved and dusty. And trying to find your car in the parking lot after the show wasn't easy -- unless of course you happened to remember to pack your infrared night vision goggles.

"Lights in the parking lot," quips Parsons. "What a unique concept."

The lights for the parking lot went up soon after Parsons came on board. To celebrate this first on a long list of improvements, the Almost Live troupe from Seattle whipped up a little Gorge parody for their skit comedy television program.

"They had a guy crawling out of the parking lot," recalls Parsons. "Pretending he had lost his car for three years and was still looking for it."

Originally designed to hold around 10,000, the amphitheater has been expanded twice. In 1988, bleachers were added along the top rim. After Parsons and his people came on board, improvements kicked into high gear and the amphitheater, as concert-goers know it today, began to take shape.

"When we bought it, we took the cliff out and made a natural bowl to tie the two pieces of property together. When the cliff was above, there was a gap between that and the people below and facilities such as restrooms were separate. Now they're all one. We added a food court, beer garden. We also did a lot of landscaping and pathways and new entries over time."

Last year, House of Blues purchased 130 acres of property adjacent to the amphitheater and created a campground (sites are available for $30 in advance and $35 at the gate). The site has its own store, hot showers, restrooms, a recreation area and security.

"The campground was a major purchase, but we've also worked a lot on traffic control and getting the cars in and out better. We also built a pathway for the campers to walk so they don't have to walk on the county road like they used to."

And guest services in recent years have improved drastically. At the food plaza, you can score pizza, soda and bottled water. The beer garden features microbrews and wine. In the past, beer drinkers were required by state law to stay within the confines of the beer garden, making it nearly impossible for guests to enjoy the show and their beverage of choice at the same time.

"In the state of Washington at concerts -- not just here but at the arenas -- you can't take your alcohol to your seats and enjoy the show," says Parsons. "With professional sports you can. If you go to the Tacoma Dome or Key Arena or Spokane Arena and there's a professional hockey game, you can take your beer to your seat. The next night, there's a concert, you can't. It's beyond me."

This year, the House of Blues worked out a deal with the state liquor board to allow beer consumption throughout the food plaza.

"That means our beer garden has expanded out to three acres. Now people will be able to sit down at a picnic table with their family and have a pizza and a beer, whereas before they were in a confined area."

The 2001 concert season at the Gorge is shaping up to be one of the most impressive -- and stylistically diverse -- in years. Fans of classic rock, punk, Top 40, metal, alt-rock, country and blues will all find something worthy of their patronage in this year's schedule.

"I think it will be our best season," says Parsons with a ring of pride. "Even some of the shows that have yet to be announced will be great. And some haven't been here before, so we've got some new fans coming."

But for now, it's back to work for the Gorge GM and his crew as they scramble to complete preparations for Saturday night's season opener.

"I live in Seattle, but I'll stay straight through 'til we get open. We have some construction projects out here right now that we're in a race to finish before the first show."

"But," he adds, "that's the way it happens every year."

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