THE GATHERING PLACE
From town squares to modern-day stadiums, communal venues are cultural staples
By John M. Bernardoni
Question: What do Stonehenge, Teotihuacan, the Greek “agora” and Madison Square Garden have in common? Answer: They are all “gathering places.” As such, they are critically important cultural venues that shaped our history.
Before the world began to create fantastical billion-dollar stadiums for sports events, concerts, trade shows and political events — with more bells and whistles than an eye-popping George Lucas movie — humans came together in many kinds of places. The “rock stars” who took the stage millennia ago were rulers waxing poetic about the coming harvest and rain, celestial events, what it is to be king to their subjects, and what it means to be a loyal follower. In fact, the first method for delivering tributes to the kings from their subjects might be considered the forerunner of Ticketmaster. Just sayin’!
There would, in fact, be no communal congregations without gathering places. The historical evolution of events utilizing these buildings and sites led to the inter-connectivity of myriad media on many planes. Let’s rewind through the last 100 or so years to explore some of these venues:
Town Squares, both great and small all over the world, provided a community home for neighbors and travelers to come together to trade wares, buy fruits and vegetables, quibble over political leaders, and discuss current events, from wars to prize fighting and other sports.
World Fairs, which included the Olympic Games in the early 20th century, were hugely impactful on national, state and local coffers. The St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 alone drew 21 million people in a four-month span.
Circuses and their “big tops,” courtesy of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, defined a new kind of movable venue. A perennial crowd pleaser, their shows astounded children and their parents with death-defying trapeze artists, clowns, elephants, and lions and tigers. Sadly, The Greatest Show on Earth closed this May after 146 years in operation, but smaller-scale traditional circuses continue, as well as non-traditional ones such as Cirque du Soleil.
Movie Theaters began to play host to an explosion of silent films, giving birth to a totally different kind of gathering place during WWI America in the form of fantastical movie palaces. Hollywood movie factories churned out a virtual tidal wave of westerns, epics, musical extravaganzas and love stories. For
10 cents, a man could get out of the cold and away from the Great Depression to lose himself in the make-believe world of atmospheric theaters such as the Fox in Atlanta, the Majestic in San Antonio and the Pantages in Hollywood.
Radio Drama and Comedy began to take over living rooms, a time-honored gathering place for families, in the 1930s and 1940s. People were glued to their Philco’s while reveling in programs like The Shadow, Flash Gordon, The Lone Ranger and the Colgate Comedy Hour. Radio shows had their own theater studios that were jammed to the rafters with fans doubling over in laughter at Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Abbott and Costello.
Football and Baseball Stadiums throughout the country began springing up via FDR’s “New Deal” based on the 3 R’s: Relief, Recovery and Reform. Programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Work Progress Administration were designed to get Americans off relief and back to work to heal the country. The byproduct was millions of fans attending college and professional football games. No less than the vaunted Yankee Stadium made rock ‘n’ roll history when The Beatles performed there during their 1964 Ed Sullivan Show tapings. Over 50,000 female fans and 1,000 boys screamed their brains out at what would be a harbinger of things to come in the marriage of stadiums, ballparks, concerts, motocrosses and a lot more.
Broadway was flexing its own muscle, and had been for decades. The Shubert and Nederlander dynasties dominated the Great White Way, with a few dozen theaters hosting the world’s greatest plays and musicals featuring the biggest names in entertainment. Today, a new theatrical device called the “Jukebox Musical” has captured a younger audience of theatergoers with musicals based on the songbook of both rock and pop stars. So hungry is the public for this uniquely American art form that national touring editions of Broadway musicals are now generating deep six- and even seven-figure grosses. We wouldn’t be surprised to see mega Broadway musicals with Olympic stadium-sized production featured in arenas one day, providing a new source of revenues and blockbuster programming. I would add that while television caused many theater operators to fear “The End Has Come,” it never did. Instead, this sensational new invention created a “cross-pollination” between the various arts — both live and film.
Smartphones, while not a gathering place per se, have created an audience of billions with yet another delivery system for tapping into entertainment of every variety, particularly in countries where access to traditional sports and entertainment is virtually impossible. One must recognize that these users are often engaged with their live audience counterparts at concerts and sporting events. In the digital age, one hundred million iPhones do not even have to be on the same continent for there to be a “community,” and so the boundaries of the live event venue have effectively become blurred.
In an age when face-to-face connections are often eschewed in favor of virtual connections, our need to come together for a communal experience has taken on a profound and visceral dimension. It is this need that truly makes us human, and ensures that physical gathering places will continue to play vital cultural roles.
John Bernardoni is the owner of Austin, TX-based The John Bernardoni Production Group. Since 1985, he has worked as an independent producer in the live entertainment industry, producing hundreds of major concert touring stars throughout the U.S. and abroad. He is also a writer who penned a Broadway musical about the life of the legendary Hollywood musical film director Busby Berkeley, which was optioned by Radio City Music Hall. Bernardoni has served on a distinguished entertainment panel with Ray Bradbury for The President’s Commission on Moon, Mars & Beyond, a project to redefine NASA’s future space program initiatives. For headliner bookings and arena quality production please call 512-263-5544. www.bernardoni.com.