By Gary McKechnie
Anastasia State Park, on the Great Florida Birding Trail, features four miles of Atlantic Ocean beachfront, 139 campsites, a tidal salt marsh and the famous St. Augustine Amphitheatre.
As dusk descends on Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine, some sunbathers will stow their coolers, fold up beach chairs, wrap their towels, then sift through the sand and wander back to their campsite.
At day’s end here beside the Atlantic Ocean and Salt Run, the prevailing silence of Anastasia State Park is broken only by the sound of friendly campground conversations, the skitter of birds in the thick oak hammock, the snapping hiss of multiple campfires and, a short distance down a dirt path…
… the live sounds of Tony Bennett.
America boasts more than 6,600 state parks, or so estimates the National Association of State Park Directors. None of them, however, could hold an upraised encore lighter to 1,600-acre Anastasia State Park.
That’s not just because this is an avian rest stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail or that it features four miles of Atlantic Ocean beachfront plus 139 campsites, a tidal salt marsh and the ruins of a quarry where coquina rock was mined to create Castillo de San Marcos.
It’s because Anastasia State Park is home to the 4,000-seat St. Augustine Amphitheatre.
St. Augustine Amphitheatre
While tens of thousands of visitors are drawn annually by the fishing, swimming, hiking, bicycling, canoeing, camping, shelling and kayaking to be found here, tens of thousands more come because of a cultural calendar that reads like a Live Aid line-up.
During their latest March-November season, the Amphitheatre presented Bill Clinton, Stevie Nicks, Heart, Tony Bennett, Wilco, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, and the Moody Blues. Then there was Blondie, Devo, Jill Scott, Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang, Joe Cocker, Train, Boston and REO Speedwagon. Also on the bill was a live presentation of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion and the premiere American performance by the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba.
When the concert season ended, the venue was transformed into a winter wonderland featuring an Elf Village with an ice slide, skating and an elf train.
Incredibly, none of these performances would have been possible without Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. In 1965, playwright Paul Green marked the 400th anniversary of St. Augustine’s founding by creating Cross and Sword, a drama of de Avilés’s settlement of the city and ensuing battles with the French Huguenots at Fort Caroline. By 1973, Cross and Sword was named Florida’s State Play, but by 1996 the show had run its course and left an empty amphitheater in its wake.
But the shell of a bare concert stage languishing inside a state park didn’t sit well with some St. Augustinians so, in 2002, county administrators and members of the arts community decided that rather than present a single show every 30 years, they would create a way to stage 30 (or more) shows every single year.
By August 2007 the restored venue was open for business and today the St. Johns County Cultural Events Division employs a staff of eight full-time employees staging performances at the Amphitheatre.
Touring Performers as Florida Tourists
In the soft light of the late afternoon, a motorcade of Devo and Blondie fans turns off A1A and slips into the park entrance. The solid slam of car doors ricochets across Anastasia, to be replaced by New Wave tunes played in the plaza by a D.J.
At a 1980s-style high school prom, camouflaged among guests hoisting beers and sporting Devo-style jumpsuits and Debbie Harry-inspired leather dresses, are staff members decked out in thin ties and wraparound shades. Pre-show plaza parties like this are one way the Amphitheatre’s staff and 300 volunteers work to make each concert experience unique for the audience, just as they work to make each appearance unforgettable for the performers.
“Artists love the way we take care of them,” says Ryan Murphy, the venue’s 36-year-old general manager. “Before the show we can take them to the beach or to the St. Augustine Lighthouse or to Ripley’s museum or into the historic district. Afterward they tell us this is one of the best places they’ve played and how enthusiastic our audiences are. They love the way the stage and seating is arranged. Even though it’s a large venue, it’s intimate.
“And because artists and people in the industry talk to each other and because performers love it here, other performers already know all about us. They know that this is a beautiful venue in a beautiful state park in a beautiful city beside the Atlantic Ocean.”
As the plaza party is winding down, the audience in the amphitheater is getting wound up. By the time the band takes the stage, a collective energy surges through the theater. Whether in the canopy-sheltered section beside the stage known as ‘The Pit’ or at the upper level where seating is under the stars, the ingeniously simple design provides excellent sight lines and acoustics no matter where you sit.
And whether the performer is Bill Clinton, Tony Bennett or Blondie, the best view may not be when you’re looking at the stage. It’s when you see 4,000 people enjoying the unique pleasures of a Florida state park.
If You Go
St. Augustine Amphitheatre
1340C A1A South, St. Augustine