When you're near the top of the grassy slope at Fiddler's Green, the massive stage below dominates the foreground. It has hosted Bob Dylan, John Denver, Lollapalooza (back when it was still a touring event), Wiz Khalifa and plenty more, but in 1982 that stage was just an asphalt thumbprint next to the street.
The lawn was there then, but it was smaller, and the facility mostly hosted community festivals and the occasional classical-music performance. Today, Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre can accommodate more than 17,000 people and is one of the largest music venues in the state. And thanks to its newest tenant, AEG Live, it's undergoing a $6 million renovation that will update everything from the sound system to the concession stands. The majority of the work will be done in time for this weekend's Volunteer Jam with headliner Charlie Daniels; local policemen, firefighters, military members and other public servants and first responders will see the concert for free. To date, there are eighteen other shows booked at the venue this year, with more to be announced.
"We'll be working right through the summer and into next year to make everything as close to perfect as possible," says Chuck Morris, president and CEO of AEG Live Rocky Mountains. The Museum of Outdoor Arts, a nonprofit organization based in Englewood, owns the amphitheater. MOA describes itself as "a forerunner in the placement of site-specific sculpture in Colorado," and in addition to an actual museum attached to its headquarters, it oversees the extensive collection of public art in Englewood's Civic Center. It also owns, among other things, both Fiddler's Green and the adjacent Samson Park.
Since 1988, the organization has leased the amphitheater to large concert promoters, including MCA Concerts, Universal, House of Blues and, most recently, Live Nation. MOA recently negotiated a fifteen-year lease with AEG Live, which now operates the venue. "We thought having a big outdoor place would be the natural way to fix the missing link for us for certain acts that want to play here," says Morris.
Along with Fiddler's, AEG Live Rocky Mountains now operates the Gothic, Bluebird and Ogden theaters, as well as the 1STBANK Center in Broomfield. It also books many of the shows at Red Rocks and some at the Pepsi Center. In total, the company could conceivably sell some 54,000 tickets to concerts on a single night in the Denver area.
A few weeks before their first show as the venue's operators, Morris and AEG general manager Rob Thomas, who is also Fiddler's Green's building manager, are standing at the venue's main entrance. The updates, Morris says, were badly needed: "I was shocked that it looked like it was one of the most neglected amphitheaters in the country, and I want to make it into the finest in the world. That's what we're going to do." The changes start right at the entrance, where in previous years the lines were often so long that it wasn't uncommon for fans to be stuck in them through an entire opening act. The new entrance will be able to accommodate twice as many people at a time, one of many changes aimed at making it easier to move through the venue. "The flow of this place will be three times better," says Morris.
The merch booth, which was previously situated in such a way that crowds waiting to buy T-shirts impeded traffic, was moved, and the pathway to the facility's largest bathroom was paved. Concession shacks were torn down and replaced. "Everything we've done is focused on the fan experience and improving that," Thomas says. "Now you can actually walk though here and get something to eat or drink." The areas out of public sight are being rebuilt as well, including a brand-new production building, an administration building, a catering area and a kitchen. Morris and Thomas make their way up to the lawn, where Thomas explains changes in the sound system. He says that the number of speakers on towers there has increased by 30 percent. Improvements have been made to the large speaker bays on either side of the stage, as well. They used to be low and pointed up, so the sound was aimed over the audience's heads. The bays are now raised, with the speakers pointed toward the crowd. "People are going to be blown away by how much better it sounds," Thomas says.
There are smaller changes, too, such as cable trenches that run from the soundboard to the stage so that concert-goers will no longer have to step over aboveground electronics. The overall aesthetics of the place have been improved; in addition to a bigger stage and new LED screens, there will be an art-deco facade on the stage and new signage created by Jeremy Stein of Madison House. In addition, "living walls" will debut at Fiddler's: Thirty-five thousand live plants with fiber-optic lights running through them will cover the wall near the south side of the stage and at the top of the bowl.
Cynthia Madden Leitner, who co-founded MOA with her father, John W. Madden Jr., came up with the idea for the living walls. She says she had always visualized having some sort of botanical mural in the venue, so she brought in Paul Kephart, who works for the California-based ecological-design firm Rana Creek, to design the installation. Madden Leitner says Kephart worked to make the walls as environmentally friendly as possible by using water recycled from elsewhere in the venue, and thousands of sensors will ensure that the plants are watered only when they need it.
"Our goal at Fiddler's Green is to completely make it a green facility, even with the art," Madden Leitner says. She says sustainability has always been one of MOA's goals for the venue. "It's great that we have a partner like AEG. They understand it, and they're supportive of it. Just like we're supportive of all the improvements being done."
AEG Live Rocky Mountain's vice-president and senior talent buyer, Don Strasburg, says the company's approach to Fiddler's Green is the same as it is at its other venues. "It's not rocket science," he says. "It's just thinking about how to make it a better patron experience, how to look for the commonsense things that people want for a more enjoyable experience at a concert: the ability to get a beverage, the ability to hear the show better.... These are just commonsense things that were not attended to.
"Honestly, this is the beginning. Anybody who saw what we did to the Ogden, the Gothic, the Bluebird and 1STBANK Center knows. We go in, and every day we walk around and say, 'What can we improve? How can we make things better?'"
If they struggle to answer those questions, it won't be for lack of experience. Chuck Morris has been in the Denver music industry for over forty years. He previously worked for Live Nation and was with Feyline Productions when Fiddler's Green originally opened. "I always felt that there was a gem in this community for large concerts," he says. "We're still going to do over sixty shows at Red Rocks. But for certain acts, certain genres, [Fiddler's Green] is certainly a viable alternative. I always thought it was underused and underappreciated in this town. We took over Broomfield Event Center and made it into a jewel. It has become one of the jewels of the many arenas in the whole country. We're going to do the same with this."
How Colorado music fans will respond to the new Fiddler's Green remains to be seen. But there's certainly plenty to respond to. "It's going to look like a brand-new facility inside," Madden Leitner says. "It had good bones. It's always had good bones. Now it's got a Chanel outfit on."
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