Building Community Through Music: An Exclusive Interview With Levitt Pavilion's CEO Chris Zacher
By: Jura Daubenspeck, Boulder Beat
Last Thursday, November 10th, folks gathered at Ruby Hill Park to celebrate the groundbreaking of what will be Denver’s newest (free!) concert venue: Levitt Pavilion. The hour-long ceremony featured speeches by Mayor Michael Hancock, Parks and Recreation’s Executive Director Happy Haynes, a number of the city’s council members, as well as a serenade from the talented RL Cole, who later shared his thoughts on the concert spot with us. While listening to so many influential city leaders speak, it was hard not to leave feeling uplifted and optimistic about Denver’s cultural prowess in the national music scene.
Following the ceremony, we sat down with Chris Zacher, CEO/Executive Director of Levitt Pavilion, who shared his thoughts with us about the soon-to-be concert venue and its positive impact on the local community. Read on:
How long has the process leading up to the groundbreaking of Levitt Pavilion today taken?
Four and a half years; I began working on this project in July of 2012.
Where exactly is the Pavilion? Is it easy to find and access?
Levitt Pavilion Denver is being constructed in Ruby Hill Park, which is in Southwest Denver between Florida and Jewell, just off of Santa Fe.
Why did you pick this specific location?
Ruby Hill Park is the third largest park in Denver’s urban park system; it boasts 88 acres of greenspace. It also happens to be one of the most underutilized parks in that system. Many of Denver’s parks have reached critical mass when it comes to use, due in part to the massive population growth the region has seen since 2011. Efforts to bring amenities and awareness to Denver’s underutilized parks to relieve that strain have been underway for quite some time. Ruby Hill Park was the only park considered for this project. In 2009, Denver Parks and Recreation completed a master plan for Ruby Hill Park, engaging the community in the process. An outdoor performance space was one of the components that the surrounding neighborhoods asked for. The bowl in which Levitt Pavilion Denver will sit is roughly 2 ½ times the size and acreage of Red Rocks Amphitheatre. It offers a natural shape that is conducive for an amphitheatre. It’s just too good a site to pass up!
So exciting! When is the grand opening of the venue?
Friday, July 14, 2017.
What would you say is the overall mission of the venue and its creators?
It is our mission to bridge cultural gaps and to find ways to heal schisms, erase divisions, and embrace differences in the communities we serve. We believe that nothing brings people together better than music; to truly build and revitalize communities around it, it has to be accessible to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay.
What else makes Levitt Pavilion special and unique?
All venues are unique, or at least most are. It’s the programming that makes them special. Levitt Pavilion Denver is a family-friendly amphitheatre with no permanent fencing and no permanent seats. It’s designed to break down socioeconomic barriers and foster connections amongst people. [We will host] 50 free concerts a year; three a week every summer. It’s a place where local artists will be paid a fair wage. Hopefully this catches on.
How will the venue engage the community, including local businesses?
We are forming a Community Advisory Board to work with the impacted neighborhoods and the greater community. We will have sponsorship packages aimed at small businesses. Now, and in the future, we are engaging with local schools and nonprofits to form dynamic partnerships that will help bring awareness to and raise funding for issues our citizens face.
Similarly, how can community members & lovers of the arts get involved?
We need people to show up and we need people to volunteer. Organizations like this need volunteers or they fail. We put a majority of our revenue into the programming. In return we need volunteers to be advocates for us to help us raise money at the shows [and] to assist with tear-down and set-up of concerts. We also need discounted and pro-bono creative work from time to time.
What types of artists will perform here?
From local to national and international; [from] emerging artists to seasoned professionals. This is not a venue or programming that is being designed for one or two genres. We will work to book acts that the community wants, and to introduce them to acts that they don’t know about yet.
Will the same artists perform at all seven Levitt Pavilion locations throughout the country? Or will there be some variation?
Each Levitt programs their venue based on their individual communities’ desires. There is some crossover in the acts that are booked, and a national tour each summer that brings one artist to each of the venues, but each venue books their own shows.
Will artists be paid for their performance(s)?
Yes. We are striving to increase access to the arts. I think that when most people hear someone say that they are working to ‘increase access to the arts,’ they believe it’s related solely to the entry cost for patrons, but this is not necessary the case. Increasing access to the arts for patrons is the easier part; the harder part is making a concerted effort to do this for artists through fair pay for [their] art.
Will all events be free to the public?
Our organization will bring 50 free concerts to the venue each summer. There will also be admission-based events at the facility, but the majority of performances will be free.
What other types of events will be held at Levitt Pavilion?
Outside of the free concert series, we expect to produce 20 admission-based concerts in the venue each summer. Neighborhood leaders are discussing the possibility of a free film series. I would expect to see beer festivals, graduations, and some use in the winter in conjunction with the Ruby Hill Rail Yard. I would like to see dance, opera, and possibly a ‘Shakespeare In The Park’ as well. The possibilities are limitless. At the same time, we don’t want to over-program the venue or put strain on the park. That has happened in City Park, Civic Center Park, and Wash Park in the past. Denver Parks and Recreation have been working very hard to make certain that they are not putting strain on parks or the surrounding communities by over-programming. We need to be careful in making certain that there are plenty of rest days.
How do you plan to compete with for-profit venues in Denver?
We’re promoters, nonprofit promoters, but promoters. The legal structure of a business and the mission do not change that. We know what we can and cannot do in this market, and where our place is. Our belief is that through free family-friendly programming, we will be attracting many patrons who cannot regularly afford tickets to Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre, Pepsi Center, etc. We also believe that we will be attracting families across the region who are looking for a cultural outlet. The fact of the matter is that many people quit regularly attending live shows after the age of 35. What we’ve seen in other cities is that when a Levitt is present, people rediscover live music and the local venues benefit from us being there.
What are your future, long term plans for the venue and the company?
For the venue, I would like to see us continue to add elements that increase the user’s experience: additional concession stands, more parking, more bathrooms, another support building. For the company, we need to continue to work on our mission, and with our partners in the community. In the end, I’m not a long term planner. I look at everything in three year cycles and focus on them six months at a time.
When people leave Levitt Pavilion, how do you want them to feel?
Exhilarated, happy, included, inspired, loved, refreshed.
There’s no doubt Levitt Pavilion will be a cultural cornerstone for Denver’s music-lovers, but the venue will make some serious waves for local musicians and performers too. Though Denver will have to wait until next summer to experience the magic of Levitt Pavilion, the wait will certainly be well worth it. Denver artist RL Cole agreed:
As an entertainer and a member of a vibrant, blossoming arts community, I am delighted to have the Levitt Foundation oversee the Pavilion’s construction in Ruby Hill Park. Bigger stages mean bigger dreams and the envisioning of greater goals for performance musicians. Free entertainment programs create culturally diverse crowds, and a new level of relatability between audience and performer. As Denver begins to be represented as the cultural behemoth we always have known it to be, the Levitt Pavilion can be one of the people’s platforms for arts and entertainment that represents and showcases a multi-faceted and incredibly talented musical community. I urge and invite the members of all our communities to come and participate in future events.
We know we will be.