The coppery half-dome of Frederick A. Cuthbert Memorial Amphitheater, more commonly known as the Cuthbert, rises from the green foliage of Eugene’s Alton Baker Park. For a concertgoer, or perhaps someone simply ambling idly through Alton Baker’s many pathways, seeing the Cuthbert for the first time feels less like arriving at a destination and more like a discovery. Similar facilities might have a hotel or other commercial tourist attractions nearby, but the Cuthbert’s surroundings, while only across the river from downtown Eugene, have been left relatively wild and overgrown, helping event attendees feel they’re witnessing something special.
Kit Kesey, of Kesey Enterprises, says artists performing at the venue agree. When they enter the amphitheater for the first time, he says, artists and their managers tell him, “I had no idea this was here.”
While still city-owned, the Cuthbert is operated by Kesey Enterprises and Portland’s Double Tee Promotions. Those two companies have been the Cuthbert’s co-concessionaires, responsible for booking and operating the venue, since 2005.
Cuthbert Amphitheater was built in 1982 with funds raised by the Eugene-Springfield Area Rotary Clubs. The facility is named after Fred Cuthbert, a longtime landscape architecture professor at the University of Oregon, who was highly involved in the civic life of Eugene. The first concert held at Cuthbert Amphitheater was in 1983. KZEL radio hosted “96 Rocks for Parks,” an eight-hour inaugural event featuring eight local bands. At the time, there was no arched pavilion or copper shell.
The venue’s first full season wasn’t until 1985. Events that year included a blues and jazz festival and a performance by an Air Force Band. Throughout the `80s and `90s, the Cuthbert hosted such artists as Steppenwolf, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bonnie Raitt, and Tower of Power. Still, the facility lacked many essential features to draw bigger-name acts.
Then, in 1988, the City of Eugene’s Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Services Department started the first phase of a comprehensive development plan for the amphitheater, transforming the facility into what we see today. The plan added additional electrical service, an enlarged stage area with a truck access ramp, a pad where performers’ mobile dressing rooms can hook up to electricity and water, a concessions area, audience access and circulation improvements, a temporary ticket office, bike racks, and drinking fountains. By 1993, the upgrade was complete and the artists performing in the newly renovated Cuthbert included Joan Baez, BB King, and Asleep at the Wheel.
These days, Kesey says, concertgoers tend to be young, so when booking the Cuthbert, Kesey Enterprises looks for acts serving that demographic. But booking agents always try to round out the season with a broad spectrum of artists like Jackson Browne and Michael Franti, both of whom will be returning to the Cuthbert this summer. Hip hop and electronic dance music are two other genres Kesey says do well to draw audiences, as does an annual free concert from the Eugene Symphony.
“Cuthbert is an interesting size,” Kesey continues, calling the facility a “mid-sized shed” with its capacity of about 4,500 attendees. A “shed” is a concert-industry term for any outdoor venue. A 4,500-person capacity places the Cuthbert smack dab in the middle for concert venues, in between 500-person clubs on the low end and, on the high end, arenas holding thousands.
The future looks bright for Cuthbert Amphitheater. The venue, Kesey says, sells tickets on its own. “An artist someone wouldn’t see at another venue,” he says, “they’ll see at Cuthbert.” With the sun going down and everyone dancing to music coming from the Cuthbert Amphitheater stage, Kesey says, “there’s nothing going on that’s cooler than this in the state of Oregon.”
The Cuthbert Amphitheater, 2300 Leo Harris Pkwy., 541/762-8099, thecuthbert.com/events