Back, I believe, in 1970, Sesquicentennial State Park inaugurated, with great fanfare, a concrete ampitheater. My memory says that it was inspired by The Tricentennial. At this remove, I can't recall why anyone thought this boondoggle made sense, but at the time it was a fairly big deal, and I understod everybody in the arts community to expect great things from it. (Inasmuch as a 9 year old understood what the "arts community" expected!)
The first production I saw there was The Liberty Tree. I believe this was part of the Tricentennial celebration, and was a play set in Revolutionary Times, full of patriotic themes. I remember it had a very catchy theme song where the refrain was "Dee dah dah -- dah dah, The Liberty Tree, The Liberty Tree, something something..", but I don't think the play itself was a musical. At any rate, it was great fun for us kids, and one of the few live plays we saw growing up (the others [aside from below] were The Roar of Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, and an imfamous USC production of Huckleberry Finn which my mother ended up paying my sister to leave). It was fun to drive out to Sesqui, which we never had done at night, and to run around the asiles.
The next production we saw there was a production of Gypsy: A Musical Fable with local radio personality Gene McKay cast as the act's manager (Herbie?). In retrospect, I'm a bit surprised that our parents took us to a show (partly) about strippers, but of course there was no actual stripping involved, and they probably figured that most of that would go over our heads, as indeed it did, and besides, I had figured out how to make a flashlight by taping two D batteries to a 12-inch ruler, wrapping a wire around a flashlight bulb and then touching the wire to one end of the batteries and the bulb to the other. Naturally I insisted on bringing this to the show and spent most of my time fooling with it (I hope my parents made me go back into the building portion of the amphitheater!).
After that the ampitheater fell into disuse. I can speculate as to why, and I would advance several guesses. First and foremost would be the fact that it is located in South Carolina. I don't mean anything cultural by that, rather that the climate is not really ideal. In the summer, the days are blazing hot, and nobody wants to sit in a concrete oven. The nights are better, but the location in a wooded state park guarantees plenty of bugs. Spring and Fall are better, of course, but you still face the prospect of rain-outs and daytime shows are still uncomfortable. Second, Columbia was (and still is though to a lesser extent) a medium sized city which already had two permanent drama companies (Town Theater & Workshop Theater) as well as various productions by USC. It's not clear to me that there was ever a drama community to support productions out in the boonies (as Sesqui certainly was at the time). Also, I expect that the location of the ampitheater inside a State Park probably would raise problems regarding anything of an avant-garde nature, or involving the sales of alcohol.
The final production I saw there was probably around 1976 or 1977 by which time, the ampitheater was definitely out of regular service. I don't recall the name of the show, but it was a British farce of some sort, put on by a travelling British troupe and essentially our whole high school was bussed over to Sesqui to see it. I think they got the by now defunct venue for free or a nominal fee since it was "educational". (If you make students go, then it's "Educational" by definition, right?) The only details of the show that I can recall, were that you had to listen very hard to hear the speakers, and to interpret their accents, and that a lot of the action seemed to revolve around making "bubble & squeak", apparently some sort of English "delicacy". This would have been in the spring, around May, and in the early afternoon. The place was blazingly hot. I had recently read a book on science projects which included a chapter on building a solar oven, and I remember thinking that the wall of white concrete seats surrounding the stage floor (where we were all clustered) looked a lot like the tinfoil "solar wings" which reflected and focused the sun onto the oven in the book. It certainly felt like that anyway!
Sesqui is not one of my regular hangouts, but I've been there dozens of times since the 1970s, and idly wondered whatever happened to the amphitheater. On my most recent visit there, I decided to look for it. I remembered that it was off to the left as you drove in from Two Notch, but not how far down it was. In the event, I got all the way to the lake parking lot without finding it, and it didn't seem to appear on any of the park signage. I drove back out towards Two Notch and saw a disused dirt road to the right, parked and hiked in a bit before deciding that there was no way the access could have deteriorated that badly since the 70s and it was too far off the road anyway, so I drove back down to the lake one more time.
Hmm. That building behind the (still!) never finished colonial era house looked oddly curved -- Could it be? There were still no signs, but I parked and walked on up. There was a little building in front that could plausibly have been a box-office, and the big building was oddly curved. I walked around to both ends of the building, but there was fencing keeping me from getting behind it, or even seeing what was behind it. OK, there was a little access road to the side signed Training Cener, so I walked down that. The whole place was fenced in, and the path didn't go all the way behind it, but siddenly I could see -- the bank of concrete seats! This was the ampitheater! I took some pictures and figured that was probably that, but then decided to walk back up to the building again, and see if I could see anything through the doors.
I couldn't; the glass was too dark, but then on a whim, I turned the handle, and the door was unlocked. Now, normally when I take pictures of abandoned buildings here, I don't make any attempt to go inside. There may be alarms and it's certainly trespassing. Given the total lack of signs here, I'm pretty sure the ampitheater building is not considered an "open to the public" part of the park, but since it's a State Park, I figured I was part owner, and I went in.
As it turned out, there was nobody inside. It appears to me that the theater is now a training "retreat" for State Park employees with sleeping quarters and a nice kitchen in the old concession stand. The back door leading down into the ampitheater was locked, so I was not able to go down into the seats, but I was able to get some reasonably good pictures through the back windows. The place looks kind of sad, as you would expect after 30 or so years of disuse.
On my way out, I took some more pictures of the "box office" and wandered over to the log cabin. I have some kind of vague recollection that it was originally meant to show colonial building techniques as part of some historical village exhibit, but that never came to fruition, and the place remains unfinished despite having been there over 20 years now.
Oh well, it wasn't economical, or practical, but it was entertaining!
Let me entertain you
Let me make you smile
Let me do a few tricks
Some old and some new tricks
I'm very versatile
UPDATE 21 June 2011: Added (at top) a picture of The Liberty Tree being performed in the ampitheater from an old Chamber of Commerce promotional book.
UPDATE 13 March 2013 -- Commenter Bo sends in this photo:
along with this information about the log cabin:
Hey Ted here is a photo of the "old Log House" at Sesqui Park. Before the lapboard siding was removed. It was a rental house near the corner of Lancaster & River Drive. Now an empty lot next to Head of Style Salon. The "tenants" were customers on my paper route That building was originally "Watson's Tile and flooring. Owned by The Honorable Albert Watson US House of Representatives.
and this youtube video: