Many legendary performers played the Carter Barron Amphitheatre. But the stage was created to celebrate DC—and American—history.
Why was the Carter Barron Amphitheatre built? The biggest clue is found in the venue’s original name, the Sesquicentennial Amphitheatre.
When the outdoor concert space opened in 1950 along Colorado Avenue NW, the object was to honor the 150th anniversary of the District of Columbia as America’s capital city—and to do so by staging a historic pageant each summer.
Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Paul Green supplied a musical about the life of George Washington, titled Faith of Our Fathers. Green authored 15 similar “symphonic dramas,” including The Lost Colony, which continues to be staged each summer in North Carolina.
Faith of Our Fathers had a short run in 1950 because of construction delays. The executive vice chairman of the National Capital Sesquicentennial Commission, Carter T. Barron, died that November, and the theater was renamed in his honor.
Following a less-than-stellar 1951 season, the pageant was not renewed—leaving authorities to ponder what to do with the outdoor theater. Despite neighborhood opposition to commercial uses of the space, outside promoters were allowed to stage nine ballet performances in 1952 and a 12-week program of Broadway musicals in 1953.
Bruce, Ella and the Ice Capades
As the years passed, Carter Barron featured an expanding roster of live entertainment. In the 1950s, performers included Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Durante. The 1955 production of the Ice Capades not only featured an ice rink that filled the stage, but the show was promoted with free sledding on some 25 tons of snow created one Sunday afternoon in August.
In the 1960s, audiences could enjoy jazz from Ella Fitzgerald and Stan Getz; folk from Peter, Paul and Mary, Odetta and the Kingston Trio; star turns by Ethel Merman and Harry Belafonte; nearly every legend of Motown; plus ballets, musicals, operas and the circus.
The amphitheatre was the first federally owned center for the performing arts—and, in its early years, the only permanent outdoor theater of its kind in Washington. As a US government facility, it also stood out as one of the area’s few integrated theater houses during the 1950s and into the 1960s.
By the mid-60s, new, more modern concert spaces were being built. Despite the amphitheatre’s setting in a natural bowl shaded by the treetops of Rock Creek Park, fewer people were willing to attend shows in the middle of the city that could be interrupted at any time by wind and rain.
Still, three concerts by Bruce Springsteen demonstrated that, even in 1975, popular artists could fill the arena no matter what the weather, as an Evening Star review noted:
Springsteen drew 4,300 people to the 4,100-seat Carter Barron Amphitheatre... Last night's crowd had to sit through two torrential downpours that held up the show for nearly two hours... None of this seemed to bother the audience. They cheered and yelled and stomped their feet as if they were in the comfort of the Capital Centre.
The National Park Service took over operation of the theater from private promoters after the 1976 season.
One of its most successful partnerships was with the Shakespeare Theater, which provided free performances of Shakespeare plays each year from 1991 to 2008. Although the Carter Barron stage has seen fewer big-name acts in recent decades—and its infrastructure is in need of millions of dollars in repairs—Washingtonians can still enjoy summertime concerts under the stars.
Show Business’ Ambassador to Washington
Beginning with his arrival in Washington in 1932, Carter T. Barron’s job title was manager of the Eastern Division of Loew’s Theaters. But this was the era when theater managers often served as community leaders—and Barron organized benefits, balls and fundraising drives for causes that ranged from the March of Dimes to war bonds.
When DC still had a reputation as a sleepy Southern town, he used his Hollywood connections to recruit the biggest names of stage, screen and radio to perform in Washington, participate in charity events and golf tournaments, and interact with political and civic leaders. Back in Hollywood, the moguls realized it was a good idea to get along with Presidents and politicos. As Barron connected the two worlds, he earned the title of Show Business’ Ambassador to Washington.
It was his idea to mark the inauguration of the President by staging a star-studded variety show. He organized the first such gala in 1941 for Franklin Roosevelt, with a bill that included Irving Berlin, Mickey Rooney, Charlie Chaplin, Raymond Massey, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Nelson Eddy and Ethel Barrymore.
Carter Barron naturally took the leading role in the Sesquicentennial Commission, which was officially headed by President Truman. Mr. Truman himself dedicated the Amphitheatre in Barron’s honor, with actor Walter Pidgeon providing the eulogy.