Amphithearters Gather Coastal Audiences
The Emerald Coast makes a perfect backdrop for a new slant on an old design
A good idea never goes out of style. The Romans built the first amphitheaters about 2,000 years ago, and while not as large or elaborate as those, modern versions still use the same basic blueprint — outdoor venues for entertainment and gatherings.
With the Emerald Coast’s mild climate and abundance of year-round activities, many towns have a central green space, often sloped, with a raised platform surrounded by an acoustical “band shell” — a curved structure that amplifies sound. These amphitheaters are often cultural centers that showcase a community’s art and soul and are unique to each town’s character.
The centerpiece of Seaside, the amphitheater is a catch-all event space, in use almost daily during the high season. Kevin Boyle, Seaside’s events director, calls it “the Central Park of 30A. Everything flows to the amphitheater.” The distinctive band shell over the stage evokes the Sydney Opera House and ensures that everyone can hear the concerts, children’s theater and movies presented there. “The space is within a five-minute walk from anywhere in Seaside. People naturally gravitate here,” Boyle said. The amphitheater is home to the hugely popular Seaside Farmers’ Market, where local farmers sell goods and produce each Saturday. The annual July 4th celebration, meanwhile, draws more than 2,000 people, culminating in a fireworks display. Carrying through its design approach to minimize wasted space, the Seaside Amphitheater serves a dual purpose — its lawn functions as a retention pond. When it rains, water temporarily floods the lawn to drain water from other areas of Seaside.
In Destin, the Mattie Kelly Cultural Arts Village is home to the Dugas Pavilion, a permanent stage topped with a canvas canopy facing the Village Green. The pavilion boasts a highly flexible design that allows it to host events of all kinds. “Mattie Kelly left the acreage specifically for the arts for the community,” said Marcia Hull, CEO of the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation. “The amphitheater is a fundamental part of the Cultural Arts Village, which serves as a vibrant cultural center where community spirit is encouraged and appreciation of the arts is enhanced.” Standout events include Bluegrass at the Beach over the Labor Day weekend, one of the largest folk music festivals in the region. And on the last weekend in October, the Festival of the Arts, a fine arts show featuring more than 100 artists competing for $10,000 in prizes, is held. The festival also highlights local student artists and emerging talent.
The Randall K. and Martha A. Hunter Amphitheater overlooking Pensacola Bay has been built to last. The structure features exposed steel trusses and frames that were designed to resemble palm fronds and support curved steel roof members with a heavy timber, tongue-and-groove roof deck. The amphitheater sits atop concrete piers that also support the main stage floor, a concrete slab that is eight inches thick. The facility is part of the public-private Vince J. Whibbs Sr. Community Maritime Park development — home of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos minor league baseball team — and accommodates both local performers and traveling shows.
Situated on Scenic Highway 30A in the heart of town, the Amphitheatre in Alys Beach is still growing to meet the town’s needs. Surrounded by Canary Island date palms and native yaupon holly, the stage is set for future plans to convert the covered platform into a permanent entertainment venue. “Eventually this area will be the anchor of the community,” said Kelli Siler, Alys Beach’s director of events. “In spring and summer, kid-friendly movies are shown on a large, inflatable screen, and Wednesdays offer concerts by local and regional bands.” During times when structured events are not presented, the space is used by children playing soccer or adults flying kites. Kids of all ages make use of the splash pads at the north end of the space. Memorial Day Weekend opens summer with Sinfonia Goes Pops. People bring blankets or chairs for seating, and everyone has a good vantage point from the sloped lawn. The amphitheatre also serves as the start and finish points for the annual Alys Beach 5K and 1 mile Fun Run, scheduled for Labor Day weekend.
Panama City Beach
Adjacent to Pier Park, the Amphitheater at Aaron Bessant Park features 10 acres of festival lawn with a 7,500-person capacity. The state-of-the-art facility hosts everything from jazz headliners at the Seabreeze Jazz Festival to local and regional bands that participate in the free summer concert series. Design elements include acoustical insulation lining the interior of the band shell, speakers oriented to project as little sound as possible outside the festival grounds, and projection screens on either side of the stage to enhance the spectator’s experience. On days the stage isn’t in use, the grounds make an excellent choice for a family picnic.