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Concrete Amphitheater, Sesqui: 1970s   21 comments

Posted at 2:36 am in Uncategorized

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:

Written by ted on November 7th, 2008

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21 Responses to 'Concrete Amphitheater, Sesqui: 1970s'

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  1. Fascinating! I remember all of that.

    Joe Turner, the extremely talented and energetic head counselor at Camp Barstow (back when it was in Gaston) for many years, played a lead role in The Liberty Tree for several seasons, so of course my family had to go. I spent a lot of summer time at Barstow, 1969-1974.

    The solar oven effect is why I avoid going to Blowfish games.

    ted - can I suggest that you post fewer photos? Just a suggestion.


    7 Nov 08 at 7:47 am

  2. I do get carried away at times -- it's the I took 'em, so darn it, you're gonna see em syndrome.


    7 Nov 08 at 9:54 am

  3. The Liberty Tree was written by the same guy who did Horn in the West and Unto These Hills which are still playing outdoors in NC. It debuted a couple of years before the Tri-Centennial. The group that produced the show and tried to get state backing for it but after several years of failure, gave up and folded.

    The last season of the Liberty Tree was produced by USC who alternated it with Annie Get Your Gun. (I'm dating myself, but I saw both shows there.)

    In 1975 Spring Valley High School did a bicentennial production out there, of which moi was a small part of the cast. Also sometime in the 1970s James Brown preformed there.

    The cabin dates back to the 1730s and is believed to be the oldest structure in Richland County. At one time it was a gift shop.


    7 Nov 08 at 5:35 pm

  4. Very interesting! From the apex of the stage musical in "Gypsy" to the "I Feel Good!" funk of JB. Hard to believe that JB couldn't at least fill The Township in the 70s though!

    For some reason I had it in my head that the cabin was a modern demonstration of colonial techniques. If it's not that they just didn't finish it, then I wonder what happened to the floor..


    7 Nov 08 at 8:05 pm

  5. Can't say what happened to the floors though they may have been modern replacements. I went inside the building once and it had two floors.


    9 Nov 08 at 1:40 pm

  6. Well, it probably still does, but I was pretty sure I wasn't supposed to be in there, so I wasn't going to leave the main area.


    9 Nov 08 at 1:54 pm

  7. Huh. I've been going to the dog park at Sesqui for a while now, and never knew why that round building was round. I do know that it's often rented out for family reunions and whatnot, because it has the sleeping quarters, and is not just for staff training.

    The old colonial house is in the middle of some renovation - trying to bring it back closer to its "original" state and whatnot. Work was going on over the winter and spring, stopped for summer, and supposedly is going to start back again soon.


    12 Nov 08 at 9:17 am

  8. Is there another cabin on site at Sesqui? In the early 1990's some friends and I took art classes on the second floor of a cabin at Sesqui. I thought it was the one pictured.

    jenni b

    13 Nov 08 at 4:58 pm

  9. Yeah, I agree with Jenni B. I remember going to an Earth Day celebration at a cabin that looked like the one pictured.


    25 Sep 09 at 12:04 pm

  10. I remember seeing the Liberty Tree once I think back in 1970 when I was a memeber of the Columbia Boy's Choir at that time, but really dont remember much about the Liberty Tree.. I guess it wasnt all that entertaining to a 12 year old kid when Hotwheels was the big rage at the time.


    26 Sep 09 at 9:54 am

  11. My dad was president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce the year the Liberty Tree opened... I well remember the excitement.. Also, friends of mine were in the cast.. A few years later they tried alternating the Liberty Tree with another musical at the "new" convention center in Myrtle Beach.


    13 Apr 10 at 2:48 pm

  12. I have many happy memories from my childhood that took place at Sesqui. My parents (mom and step-dad) were married in that building when I was 8, back in '83. The building does have 2 stories. I vaguely remember there being a strange way to access it, almost like attic stairs.

    My dad used to take me swimming at Sesqui almost daily during the summer. I'll never forget the teeny little frogs that hopped all over the shore and that weird, unknown mushy slimy algae that grew in the lake.


    26 Jun 10 at 9:51 pm

  13. I remember wandering around the park with a friend of mine (probably 25 years ago) just looking for things we had seen as kids. The first thing was the old pedal boats that were available to take out on the lake. They were strewn along the bank looking like a rotting pile of fiberglass and the lake looked unfit to even go near. Then we decided to go on a search for the amphitheater. We wandered several of the sandy trails for what seemed like forever and the we happened to stumble upon it. At that time the old Revolutionary home and the other buildings around the theater were hidden from the main road. The bleachers were all rotted and broken. The entire 'bowl' was littered with pine straw cones and general signs that the earth was slowly reclaiming the area. It looked like a scene from Pripyat (the lost city at Chernobyl). It's nice to see that they have cleaned it up and are reusing the space (well, as of this post, at least). I haven't been to the park in years and I wonder what kind of shape it is in now.


    3 Jun 12 at 2:30 am

  14. I worked with Guy White, PE, who provided the electrical design for Sesqui before I started with his firm. He was also the electrical engineer for the Main Street relighting project. The City had planned a stage for the intersection of Hampton and Main (across from the Museum) using the old autotransformer dimmer board from Sesqui. The dimmer was just sitting in a weatherproof case at the SW corner and was never used as the stage never evolved. Workshop Theater wanted to build a new theater (Guy was the electrical engineer) and was offered land near Decker Blvd. Kirkman Finley was mayor and wanted the theater to stay downtown. During the negotiations, the old Sesqui dimmerboard was offered to Workshop by the City. Since it was an outdoor equipment package, it had to be altered to make it work. Jack Shirk, professor and lighting designer at USC, modified the dimmerboard where it remained in use until the "new" auditorium was demolished to make way for the current USC Law School at the corner of Bull and Gervais.


    13 Aug 20 at 10:01 am

  15. I was the Production Stage Manager for “The Liberty Tree” and “Annie...” that summer of 1970 and also a graduate student at U of S.C. Professor Russell Greene of USC’s Theatre Department was the director. Thank you for the trip down memory lane and yes, it was incredibly hot, especially under the stage lighting. I’m glad the facility still serves some purpose.


    14 Sep 20 at 8:55 am

  16. When I was in high school I played the trumpet in the "stage band" for the Liberty Tree. This was the season they alternated with Annie Get Your Gun. I think it was the summer of 1970. The stage band was a brass choir with percussion. We had 3 or 4 trumpets, some trombones, French horns, and a tuba. It was all guys. Everybody else was in college. For almost the entire show we sat behind a scrim that made up the back wall of the stage. We had to be quiet, because that cheesecloth was the only thing between us and the audience. We did march onto the stage a couple of times during the show for crowd scenes. That meant that we wore colonial outfits and some stage makeup. It was a good summer. I was well paid. I would play golf all day and play the show at night.

    Walt Theus

    17 Feb 21 at 4:04 pm

  17. One final comment. As the youngster in the group, I took a lot of good-natured abuse (like getting sprayed with water by trombone players while on stage). But I could hold my own with the trumpet.

    An odd coincidence--Somebody posted online that Steve Coatney had died this morning. Steve was a wonderful guy and a terrific trombonist. He was in the Liberty Bell "band" as well.

    Walt Theus

    17 Feb 21 at 4:10 pm

  18. After reading this again, I now have the "Liberty Tree" tune stuck in my head... THANKS !! And yes I remember the tune for some reason after 50+ years.


    18 Feb 21 at 3:48 pm

  19. Plant the seeds in our homeland boys
    Let it grow where all can see
    Feed it with our devotion boys
    And Call it the Liberty Tree
    It's a tall old tree and a strong old tree
    and we are the sons
    Yes, we are the sons
    The sons of Liberty!

    I was in the production on opening night.

    TErry T

    24 Jan 22 at 2:45 pm

  20. I was in chorus of "The Music Man" and had a bit part in "Gypsy" as a tike - grand memories, tho tying to recollect- did Thom Jones sing the lead in Music Man?

    Bill Thompson

    6 Aug 22 at 12:49 pm

  21. The only things I can remember Thom Jones singing in was his production of "Carmen". I saw him around 7-8 years ago I think and he remembered me from my Columbia Boys Choir days, plus he knew my Dad too. I'm sure the Rev. Jones was in a lot of musical things at one time...but don't remember for sure now.


    6 Aug 22 at 3:51 pm

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