Staged in Stone

The Civil Works Administration built the amphitheatre at Berkeley’s Hinkel Park, completed in 1934. The park commission reported that the “CWA funds not only provided much needed relief to the unemployed, but also gave to the citizens of Berkeley a new means of cultural recreation.”
Courtesy, City of Berkeley Parks and Recreation.

Open air theatres, from the modest 350-seat amphitheater in John Hinkel Park in Berkeley California, built of salvaged concrete by Civil Works Administration workers, to the internationally famous 9,000-seat Red Rocks Amphitheater above Denver— probably the greatest single project of the Civilian Conservation Corps—continue to provide live entertainment to millions of Americans unaware of the theaters’ shared New Deal parentage.

The Living New Deal’s website describes 137 of these open-air venues, but there are doubtless many more. Historian and Living New Deal Associate Brent McKee has identified 1,121 outdoor theatres in a dazzling range of designs. He suspects that more remain to be found.

The CCC commenced construction of Red Rocks near Morrison, Colorado, in 1936. The 9,525-seat amphitheater took five years to complete. Photo by Susan Ives.

Detailing the largely improvisatory design and construction of Colorado’s Red Rocks and the Cushing Memorial Mountain Theatre at Mount Tamalpais State Park in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, a paper by Professors Linda Jewell and Steve Rasmussen Cancian quotes William Penn Mott, former director of the National Park Service, who said that the primary purpose of these amphitheaters was “to keep the [CCC] boys busy.” But there was more to them than that. 

Other New Deal agencies, including the Civil Works Administration (CWA), National Youth Administration (NYA) and Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) built amphitheaters as well.

Built by the CCC, the Sidney B. Cushing Memorial Theater at Mt Tamalpais State Park offers stunning views across the bay to San Francisco.
Serpentine rocks provide seating for 4,000 who attend the “Mountain Play” in summer.
Courtesy, Marin County Free Library. Anne T. Kent California Room.

As McKee notes, “the thousands of performances by the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project, Federal Dance Project and Federal Music Project, and also the many work-relief jobs offered to stage designers, lighting technicians, directors, actors, musicians, circus performers, etc.[made] the New Deal .. a truly revolutionary era in the history of performing arts,” while at the same time helping to end the Great Depression. 

In their frequent emulation of Greek models, the designers of these public spaces may have sought to bolster democracy as well by bringing Americans together.

Among the most impressive of these New Deal creations is Woodminster Amphitheater, high in the hills of Oakland, California. It is far more than a theater, but rather an immense work of landscape art by WPA workers.  

Woodminster Amphitheater

Woodminster Amphitheater
The stage is bordered by two 18-foot sculptures by Edward T. Foulkes, representing family closeness. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room

Woodminster began as the dream of Gertrude Mott, who led the California Writer’s Club to champion an “Open-Air Theater and Temple of Honor” dedicated to the state’s past and future writers. Theater and temple were to be sited on land once owned and described by the poet Joaquin Miller (1837-1913) as “these Greek heights.” But it was not until the WPA made work crews available that the 1,500-seat Woodminster Amphitheater took shape between 1938 and 1940 in a city park named for Miller. 

Vintage postcard

Vintage postcard

Dubbed Oakland’s Cathedral in the Woods, the theater is reached by a series of stone ramps, terraces and stairs. It faces a stage wall embellished by colossal Moderne-design sculptures representing family tenderness. Water gushes from the base of the wall, cascading a hundred feet through reflection pools and groves of redwoods and olive trees. At the bottom of the cascade, twin fountains once erupted with changing plumes of spray lit at night by an electric console capable of producing almost 1,300 different combinations of light and color. The spectacle was visible from the Art Deco wonderland of Treasure Island’s 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, itself the product of WPA and PWA funding and labor.

Woodminster’s cascade and fountain are now in disrepair.

Now used primarily for summer stock musicals and high school graduations, Woodminster’s fountains are dry; its broken lighting, rockwork and neglected landscaping reflect the decaying condition of many once-vibrant New Deal landscapes built to rescue a democracy in grave peril. Their restoration might help to do the same today.

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

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