Anyone who has anything to do with Riverfest Amphitheatre, or anyone who dreams of bringing another amphitheater to Little Rock or North Little Rock, should check out a show at Timberwood Amphitheater, the music venue at Magic Springs and Crystal Falls Theme Park in Hot Springs.
It’s more than simply a serviceable spot for music to attract more people to the theme park rides and water park splash-athon. It’s an attractive facility; it sits atop a hill — one they bulldozed down in the perfect incline for concert watching — next to the classic Arkansas Twister wooden roller-coaster ride. It has a nice view of the area’s beautiful terrain through some of the openings in the forest surrounding the place.
The facility can hold up to 10,000 people. It was designed for easy access both to seating and to concessions and bathrooms. The main concessions and merchandise booths are at the back of the venue, and smaller concessions are set up behind the sound booth. The recessed sound booth area is centered in front of the concrete walkway that leads patrons to the seating areas, both lawn and the aluminum bench reserved seating up front. Sightlines are maximized, and there is plenty of space to spread out on blankets or in fold-out chairs.
We didn’t get close enough to the stage during Saturday’s Click Five show to check out all its amenities for the artists, but suffice it to say it appears to work for the bands, and nobody on stage is going to get wet from a rainstorm, like they will at Riverfest Amphitheatre.
This isn’t meant to criticize Riverfront Park’s amphitheater. It was never designed to be Little Rock’s chief outdoor venue for major country and rock concerts, but it evolved into it. It was originally meant to be a stage for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in Riverfest back in the 1980s (but, still, someone decided on a roof design that, if it pours, would drench anyone, including the horn section of the Symphony). It’s run by the city Parks and Recreation Department.
Over the course of a Crosby, Stills and Nash show in 1990 and a run of Lynyrd Skynyrd shows and Willie Nelson concerts that overflowed the place, it became our outdoor rock venue, and for a while it seemed a pretty cool place to see a concert. For several years, beginning in the mid-1990s, the city turned to promoter Butch Stone to exclusively manage the amphitheater’s concert business, and Stone worked with promoters in the South to bring in a variety of shows every summer. Stone’s dealings were not without controversy, however, and the city and Stone ended the exclusive deal after 2002.
On the physical front, while the city made efforts to upgrade the amphitheater on a small budget, It seemed that every little change to the place seemed to take away a few more sightlines, and weird designs took shape: a Quonset hut of a permanent bathroom on the right side, contrasting to the row of port-a-potties lining the fence on the left; a tall Moroccan-looking turret atop the soundboard; picnic areas covered with more blue material to mirror the tired-looking covered stage. More space has been lost to expanded parking and staging areas. The new nature center is taking a slice as well.
As for attracting the bigger touring acts these days, the amphitheater became obsolete: It can’t accommodate the 14,000-18,000 folks who fill the larger cities’ “sheds,” and there’s probably the question of whether Little Rock would turn out in large-enough numbers, anyway. The bigger shows determined to play outside just pass us by.
This week, though, even the Rob Zombie tour for Edge Fest is going to the North Shore Riverwalk in North Little Rock. Outside of Riverfest, the Power 92-sponsored Juneteeth hip-hop extravaganza and the poorly attended Little Rock Jazz Festival, the amphitheater has, for the third year in a row, been mostly silent. The free Movies in the Park are a Wednesday night regular happening as the River Market celebrates 10 years this summer, but there is nary a concert scheduled for July. We’ll have big-hair bands Poison and Cinderella in late August, which is at least something, and we’re hearing Willie Nelson may make his annual Little Rock pilgrimage and play the amphitheater.
Meanwhile, at Magic Springs, those folks are presenting an affordable concert package of up-and-coming rock and country acts as well as classic country, rock and R&B acts on weekend. Yes, Magic Springs has a budget boosted by its park admissions and other income to pay for the concerts. The 3,500-seat Arkansas Music Pavilion at the Northwest Arkansas Mall in Fayetteville has a similar series of acts, ranging from the young rock band All-American Rejects, who played there in May, to Lyle Lovett and the Beach Boys playing there in September. Again, the shows are affordably priced to make for a fun summer night getaway, and the AMP also has a movie night, Chick Flicks, where it charges $5 (admission is free with a receipt from the Mall).
Blake Rutherford and a group of young Little Rock professionals organized Movies in the Park last year, and Rutherford has gone about securing sponsors for a spring series and again for this 10-week run in the summer so the films can be shown with no admission charge. Movies in the Park has averaged 600 people in the spring and 800 people during the summer run (and, it appears, has spurred theaters around town to offer their own once-a-week rerun of classic movie titles for free).
Even if the music acts were only to draw 1,000 to 2,000 people a show, the city should look at opening up the amphitheater to a local promoter on weekends and not require the promoters to jump through so many hoops (starting with a $5,000 rental fee) to get music on the stage, with an affordable admission price. It could be a local showcase of bands, or a touring act like the Click Five or SHeDaisy, or something more regional and popular like Big Smith. Some local promoter, though, is going to have to seek out the usual suspects who sponsor concert series (Budweiser, Pepsi, Toyota, etc.) and will have to be as committed as Rutherford has been with his movie series (and the man loves movies, trust us).
Little Rock is missing out on putting its amphitheater to its best use, even if the venue pales in comparison to the one at Magic Springs.
But, if anyone is inclined to build Little Rock a new amphitheater, say away from downtown or across the river from downtown Little Rock (don’t think Pat Hays hasn’t given it some thought), the first place to go for a good example on how to do it is Timberwood Amphitheater.