After decades, Stanford’s Frost Amphitheater rocks again

Stanford's Frost Amphitheater opened in 1937 and hosted commencements and concerts until the university banned rock shows 1971. (Photo courtesy of Stanford Historical Photograph Collection)

In the late 1960s, Stanford’s Frost Auditorium was a giant on the Bay Area concert circuit. The Grateful Dead rocked there. So did Jefferson Airplane and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

But after a scuffle at a 1971 concert left several audience members bloodied, the university banned rock concerts in the amphitheater, which is nestled in the shadow of Stanford’s Hoover Tower. In the years since, Frost has hosted smaller concerts, usually folk or jazz artists, but rarely rock. (The main exception being Bay Area mainstays the Grateful Dead, who continued to perform at the venue throughout the 1980s.)

Now, on Saturday, the ampitheater seeks to recapture some of its past glory, when it hosts one of the biggest rock music festivals it’s had in four decades. A serendipitous alignment of student will and administrative support has led to the spring concert, which organizers hope will attract a wide Bay Area audience and lead to more concerts in the future.

“We’ve been working hard since last spring to reorganize, fundraise, and bring together various administrators from departments across campus,’’ said Alberto Aroeste, director of the Stanford Concert Network. “This year was our best chance to put on a concert in Frost.”

Frost Amphitheater will reopen Saturday, hosting its first concert in three decades. This 1999 photo shows the Frost Amphitheater with the old band shell, which was later removed. (Photo courtesy of Stanford University)

The lineup — which was chosen according to the results of a student survey — will feature English singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich and Utah-bred rock band Eyes Lips Eyes. The five-hour festival will culminate with a performance by headliner Modest Mouse – a Portland-based indie rock band.

The Stanford Concert Network, the event’s top sponsor, contributed $75,000 to the event. Secondary sponsors included the Associate Students of Stanford University, which is the primary representative of the student body, as well as Stanford’s Student Activities & Leadership office, and the Vice Provost for Student Affairs. Overall, organizers raised $111,000 for the show.

Tickets went on sale on April 23 and cost $20 for Stanford students and $40 for the general public.

The amphitheater, built in 1937, is named for John Laurence Frost of the Stanford class of ‘35, who died of polio just after graduation. His parents donated $90,000 (the equivalent of $1.45 million in today’s dollars) to build the memorial. The 20-acre amphitheater sits hidden among the trees, camouflaged from the hoards of students who bike past it daily.

Frost’s location has been a challenge to the planning committee. It is difficult to access from the main road and outfitting it with the requisite infrastructure is expensive. Staging equipment, sound systems, supplemental lighting, and additional restrooms will need to be brought in just for the weekend.

The concert is being advertised on the popular Bay-Area radio station Live 105.3. Promoters are also reaching out to other venues, universities, and high schools around the Bay Area to promote the event.

Ticket sales have been brisk — more than 2,500 tickets sold in the first week. “We’re very close to selling out a capacity of 5,400 for this year,” Aroeste said.

Historically, Frost attracted a wide off-campus audience. This year’s organizers expect to do the same. “Frost Amphitheater is important not only to Stanford, but to the greater Bay Area community,” Aroeste said.

As for the safety concerns that caused Frost’s initial closure, Stanford Events Manager Rachel Mizenko says there isn’t an elevated level of concern.

Stanford police will be on hand “to help make sure that everyone is able to have a fun, but also safe, experience,” she added.

Whether the Frost revival will lead to an annual concert remains an open-ended question. For the moment, concert organizers are focused on making the May 19 event a success.

“We want to make sure,” Aroeste said, “that every student, alumni, and affiliate of Stanford — even the general public can come together and help make this an event to remember.’’

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article omitted the fact that several non-rock musicians played shows at Frost Amphitheater after the 1971 rock show ban. The Grateful Dead also played at the venue several times in the 1980s.

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