The Woodlands’ open-air stage celebrates a milestone with Jimmy Buffett, Il Divo and Kings of Leon.
This article first appeared in the June 21st issue of Billboard Magazine.
In the scenic township of The Woodlands, Texas, just north of Houston, The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion rises above a grassy lawn, welcoming superstars and fans to its 25th season as one of the nation’s premier outdoor venues.
The Pavilion is named for the wife of George Mitchell, the businessman, real estate developer and philanthropist who created the surrounding town, which one historian in 2007 described as “the best-planned, environmentally sensitive large development in the country.”
The Mitchells’ youngest son, Grant Mitchell, 51, who is a board member of the venue’s nonprofit foundation, describes the shared vision of his father, who died in 2013 at the age of 94, and his mother, Cynthia Woods Mitchell, who died in 2009.
“My father didn’t want residents to have to commute to Houston to work -- or to enjoy the arts and musical entertainment either,” he says, while his mother believed in the “transformative power” of the arts.
As an outdoor venue in a notoriously hot and humid market, the success of the Pavilion was never guaranteed. “So to look at where it is now is really gratifying,” says Mitchell, “because it validates my parents’ vision and tenacity.”
The Pavilion opened April 27, 1990 with the Houston Symphony, which still calls the venue its summer home, along with the Houston Ballet. Paid attendance for contemporary music totaled 477,244 in 2013 (according to the Pavilion), including 16 sold-out concerts. With free seating at performing arts events included, more than 525,000 fans passed through the Pavilion’s turnstiles in 2013. Since 1990, the venue has reported grosses totaling $201,591,801 from 6,758,304 attendees to 689 concerts.
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“For our 25th season I got together with Bob Roux [Live Nation co-president, North American Concerts] and Randy McElrath [Live Nation vp booking], and we all agreed that we really wanted to knock it out of the park on our bookings this year,” says Jerry MacDonald, president/CEO of The Center for the Performing Arts at The Woodlands, the nonprofit entity that runs the Pavilion.
The venue has a long-term booking agreement with Live Nation that dates back to the era before consolidation of the concert promotion business and the heyday of Houston-based PACE Concerts. James Taylor, Spyro Gyra, Lee Ritenour, Steve Miller Band and Jimmy Buffett are some of the acts who played the Pavilion in 1990 and are returning this year. (This will be Buffett’s 20th performance at the venue.)
While McElrath oversees day-to-day booking duties, Houston-based Roux still has a hand in programming the facility for certain clients, including Buffett, Dave Matthews Band (which is beginning its tour there for the third year) and, this year, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band.
Roux has booked acts at the Pavilion since he started at PACE in 1991. He calls the amphitheater “one of the greatest open-air performance venues in the world, from both the artists’ and the fans’ standpoints.”
The venue boasts “a terrific and well-tenured staff at each and every position in the building, from Jerry MacDonald to [vp operations] Jeff Young, to the people working backstage and front-of-house,” says Roux. “They really provide a great experience for the artists. The way the fans and the bands are treated there, the attributes of the building itself and the surrounding community add a lot to the artist and the fan experience.”
The venue will host 45 contemporary music shows in 2014, compared with 22 for its opening season. Already the Pavilion has hosted Kings of Leon, Casting Crowns, Il Divo, Steve Miller/Journey and a first-ever-performance by Springsteen and his band in a rare, amphitheater outing.
The Pavilion opened with a capacity of 10,000 and, three renovations (one resulting from a direct hit by Hurricane Ike on Sept. 13, 2008) and $50 million in capital investments later, the venue now boasts 16,500 total capacity. During the Ike renovations, covered seating capacity was expanded from 2,700 to 6,500.
The Pavilion always has looked and sounded great, which also makes it a preferred stop for touring artists. “They have a very special roof design, which makes for amazing acoustics for both artist and audience,” says Roux. The Pavilion recently completed a $2 million state-of-the-art LED screen installation, creating screens that are viewable even in direct sunlight.
The surrounding area also has grown to encompass 8 million square feet of shopping and dining space. This season brings an expanded, presenting sponsor relationship with the Huntsman Corporation, which brings in supplemental funding for performing arts events and educational outreach.
In addition to Houston’s own acclaimed arts organizations -- the Houston Symphony, the Houston Ballet and the Houston Grand Opera -- past performers include Frank Sinatra, Bette Midler, Tina Turner, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Roger Waters, Radiohead, Neil Young and Sting. Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Linkin Park, Aerosmith, John Mayer, Gwen Stefani and Cher, among others, have enjoyed multiple sellouts at the Pavilion.
For his part, Grant Mitchell has fond memories of attending concerts at the Pavilion with his mother, who often eschewed the family’s box seats for the lawn.
“From there,” he says, “she could take it all in, watch the people and draw deep satisfaction from witnessing the joy she saw in their faces.”