History: 10 Years of Koka Booth Ampitheatre

Story by Lindsey Chester. Booth Amphitheatre at night photographed by AbbyLadyBug via a Flickr Creative Commons license.

Cary, NC- I remember walking through the woods with my 4 year old daughter in the summer of 1998 to attend an NC Symphony concert at the Ampitheatre in Regency Park.

The experience was magical and unlike any other concert I’d been to in the New York metro area before moving to Cary.

Even as we enjoyed that special evening, plans were already in place to create an even more wonderful experience, the venue we know today as Koka Booth Amphitheatre. The Amphitheatre celebrates its 10th anniversary this summer.

I met with Lyman Collins, Cultural Arts Manager for the Town of Cary to discuss a bit of the history of Koka Booth Amphitheatre.

Beginnings

The original structure was basically a wooden platform with a tent above it at the far side of what is now the lawn with the Lake to the right. The venue had a dedicated following of symphony goers. The new amphitheater was proposed to solidify the relationship with the NC Symphony and help persuade them to keep Cary as their permanent summer home.

The construction was budgeted as a Capital project, totally funded and paid for by the Town. There are no outstanding loans or bonds.

Who Had the Vision?

Ed Wolmer was the original Regency Park developer and also worked hard to attract the Symphony to summer in Cary. Former Cary Mayor Koka Booth was also a big advocate of the new structure, then known as the Ampitheatre at Regency Park.

In 2005, it was re-named to honor Koka Booth’s 12 years of service as Cary’s mayor.

Koka Booth statue inside the entrance to the amphitheatre. Photo by Hal.

The Design

William Rawn Associates were chosen as the architects. They had designed the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts with similar needs for both acoustics and natural surroundings.

Initial thoughts were to respect the environment and keep the intimate feel between the concert goers and the stage. The orientation of the stage was changed to put it’s back to the lake and look up to the crescent seating.

The design mimics the pine trees that surround it, incorporating hurricane-sturdy construction, yet open with hairpin trusses and a Chinese Lantern effect. The twinkling lights that shine at night are meant to suggest fireflies.

Sustainability

One of the added benefits of locating the venue within an office park is the elimination of the need to build additional parking.

The surrounding offices are not in use on weekends and evenings when Koka Booth events typically occur. So the Amphitheatre asked to use the parking. This was accomplished before ‘sustainability’ became an environmental buzz word. It just made practical sense.

But the Town was thinking ahead: it  negotiated permanent use of the parking.

First Season

The summer season of 1999 continued in the old structure while the new one was being built. The original opening date was the first Saturday in June of 2000.

Unfortunately, the previous Friday had seen torrential rains. The new sod had just been laid, so the concert had to be canceled. Lyman Collins remembers turning people away at the entrance. The Saturday weather was beautiful, but the foot traffic would have ruined the grass.

The following Saturday was the official first concert. “What a special place this is,” Lyman recalls thinking as he brought down the lights for the very first show.

Formal Dedication

That first year, facilities were still being finished (the basement under the stage, for instance, hadn’t been completed). A formal dedication was set as a “Playing With The Pros” concert for Saturday, September 15th, 2001.

Of course, no one could have predicted the events on September 11, and the concert was canceled. Quickly, Lyman was contacted by the Council of Interfaith Churches and asked if a non-denominational service could be performed to bring the community together in a meaningful way after that tragic event.

The venue finally received a formal dedication the following spring during a Tony Bennett concert in 2002.

Interesting Stories

I asked Lyman if he had any interesting stories and he told me a few:

One of the times Harry Connick, Jr. played, there was a gold circle reception for season ticket holders. These folks were up on the Crescent when Harry began singing. He saw all the empty seats up front and thought they were unsold. Onstage he invited folks to “come on down and fill the seats.”

When Alison Kraus was here, she loved to talk about the turtles that her daughter sees in the lake behind the stage. Lyman told me that the area where the artists are fed (“The Green Room Tent”) actually wasn’t part of the original plans.  Most stages have an interior area where artists hang out and eat while waiting to go on. So a happy accident occurred: Koka Booth Ampitheatre puts up a tent behind the stage and it sits directly next to the Lake.

Many artists have come to love the venue exactly because they feel part of these natural surroundings when they play here.

Cheap Trick backstage at Koka Booth with young fans. Photo by Hal.

What’s New for 2010?

The newest addition to the breadth of offerings is “Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare, slated for the weekend of August 28th during the Lazy Daze festival.

Theater and dance have long been something that the Town would like to see as part of the program at Koka Booth. This first play aims to feature local artists and stage crew and keep it a LOCAL production. Later, its success will be analyzed and hopefully more plays will be added next year, maybe even a musical.

Although it started as a home for the NC Symphony, Booth Amphitheatre has become all that and much more. From the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Benefit to Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights, and from “Movies by Moonlight” to the Beer, Bourbon and BBQ Festival, Koka Booth has something for everybody in town.

Koka Booth Ampitheatre is truly a magical place, and if you haven’t visited, what’s keeping you?

A Special 10th Anniversary Event

Booth Amphitheatre has teamed up with CaryCitizen to create a new and exciting event celebrating 10 years of stellar concerts and events.

Stay tuned for details.

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