In 1998, the city of Martinez and the Willows Theatre Company began exploring opportunities to bring live theater to the Martinez community.

The Willows was a well-established community theater operating a main stage production facility at the Willows Shopping Center in Concord. They had a solid reputation for quality theater and creative productions, having received many Shellie Awards over decades of productions.

When the idea of live theater in Martinez was brought to the City Council, all of us were very excited with the possibility, hoping to enhance the arts in our community and to bring people from all over the Bay Area to Martinez.

The Willows saw the potential of Martinez as a different kind of venue than their traditional main stage. The Willows wanted to try something different and they wanted to do it in Martinez.

A contingent of representatives from the Willows and the city of Martinez traveled to Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We wanted to see firsthand how they produced this amazingly successful series, and to explore the economic benefit to the region in and around Ashland.

It was from this trip that the seeds of the John Muir Amphitheatre were sown.


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Within a few short months, a site for the new amphitheater was selected and city crews and community volunteers went to work grading, pouring concrete, extending utilities and assembling the bones of what became the new John Muir Amphitheatre. Its construction was truly a community effort, with much help from the employees -- past and present -- of Shell Oil.

The first performance of "John Muir Mountain Days" was held in July 2000, and several more seasons followed.

Since those performances, the amphitheater has been used as a venue for many different types of performances, including live musical concerts and the annual graduation ceremonies for Vicente Martinez High School and Briones School.

Although the John Muir Amphitheatre is a lovely waterfront setting looking out over the Carquinez Strait, it does have several deficiencies that hold it back from being a truly active artistic venue.

It lacks permanent lighting, seating, windscreens, dressing rooms and the seating capacity needs to be expanded to accommodate more popular performances. It needs to be improved to be a "turnkey" venue that is ready to host an event with just a few days' notice.

Some funding is available to the city through the East Bay Regional Park Measure WW, which was approved a few years ago. There has been discussion of using at least a portion of those funds to make improvements to the amphitheater and to the waterfront area in general.

At the recent City Council retreat, one of the goals and objectives for the coming year was a strong interest in better utilization of the John Muir Amphitheatre. As a result, the city staff opened discussion with Prime Time Entertainment regarding the possibility of offering a fall concert series.

Prime Time Entertainment is a well-known promoter in the San Francisco Bay Area and has produced events for wineries, corporations and major hotels. They have also worked with a number of cities to organize, promote and execute small and large concert events.

On a smaller scale, Councilman Howard Geller of Clayton has been assisting that city in its successful Concert in the Grove series. This very popular musical community event attracts people from all over Contra Costa County to Clayton during the warm summer evenings.

The Martinez City Council will soon be considering these two different types of concerts at the John Muir Amphitheatre, and it is entirely possible that a mix of both the large and small events will be successful.

No matter what events are held at the amphitheater, what is important is that it is being utilized and the public is enjoying the wonderful Martinez waterfront. It is an asset like no other in any Central Contra Costa County community.

Schroder is the mayor of Martinez. Email him at columns@bayareanewsgroup.com.