Music

How the Hatch Shell Went From a Summer Hotspot to Boston’s Most Underused Venue

When Boston’s tourists and residents decide to spend time enjoying arts and culture outside, their first thought may be to head over to the Edward A. Hatch Memorial Concertium, or the DCR Hatch Shell as it is known today, to catch a show. It is a perfect spot that mixes natural and architectural beauty with entertainment and performance, at least that’s what the guidebooks infer when they tell you it’s not to be missed.

Sure, the view is amazing standing on the grass in front of the amphitheater, but there is a serious drought in arts and culture by the Charles River. As events and even the building itself have been plagued by little funding over the decades, it comes as no surprise that while some organizations are constantly fundraising due to higher costs, some have considered cancelling their events altogether.

Time continues to pass in the long declining history of the Hatch Shell.

Developed in 1903 by the Charles River Basin Commission, the Esplanade has had public concerts as far back as 1910. However, it was really Arthur Fiedler who popularized them when he started to conduct the outdoor concerts in 1929, continuing to do so until his 50th season. He sadly passed away shortly after. During this time, he became a household name and one of Boston’s most prestigious citizens, while putting the Hatch Shell in the national spotlight year after year.

Early on, the stages used for his concerts were made out of wood and were to be taken apart and reassembled at the beginning and end of every single show. In the late 1930s, Attorney General Paul Dever discovered the will of Maria E. Hatch which set aside $300,000 to be used for a “public need for a beauty spot,” in memory of her brother Edward Hatch. The deed barred any “sectarian, political, or controversial” use. In 1941, Fiedler was called in to work with the state to build the Hatch Shell that stands today.

Safety

On April 15, 2013, everything about public space in Boston changed. As a Boston institution went from inspirational and innocent to devastated, the security industry in Boston saw opportunity. In addition to the cameras and regulations already in place, new technologies were tested and adapted by the Boston Police Department and Massachusetts State Police. Former Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis went to Capitol Hill to vouch for similar programs across the nation, while also adding that they must go forward in a Constitutional matter. In his written testimony, Davis said, “I do not endorse actions that move Boston and our nation into a police state mentality, with surveillance cameras attached to every light pole in the city.”

Citizens of Boston questioned everything from the high level of surveillance in public to the type of art allowed in public areas. The checkpoints and ban on bags would make lines longer while the highest level of security continues to be seen at every large event in the city. Still, it is a given that most would rather feel safe than feel there’s the slightest chance that their expectations of recreation could be met with terror.

Last July, after planning on once again holding its annual India Independence Day festival at the Hatch Shell, the India Association of Greater Boston (IAGB) announced that the festival, set for August, had been moved to Andover High School. An article in India New England earlier this year stated that, “This year's event may cost the non-profit organization up to $60,000 as compared with approximately $25,000 in past years. IAGB has raised funds in the past through advertising, sponsorships and selling booths at Hatch Shell.” The article continued, “After the Boston Marathon bombing last year, the rules and regulations for holding large public events in Boston have changed with new requirements for additional costs for added security.” According to a survey, which went out last month in the newspaper asking readers and members of the community to decide the fate of this year’s celebration, 67 percent preferred the event stay at the Hatch Shell. Of those who answered the survey, 29 percent would give donations. The event is still about a month away, set for Aug. 17, and a decision should be expected soon.

This year’s calendar sees few events at the Hatch Shell that actually use the venue. The “Free Friday Flicks” series continues this summer with films such as “Beetlejuice” and “The Goonies.” Other than “Zumba on the Esplanade,” the only continuing event this year is the Boston Landmarks Orchestra series which has seven dates this summer.

“Every Wednesday night at 7:00 p.m. starting July 16 and going through August 27,” according to Harron Ellenson, Executive Director of the Landmarks Orchestra. “We are totally free. Even though they are free to the audience they are not free to produce. They're funded by foundations and corporations and individuals. We are constantly in fundraising mode in order to raise enough money to produce a really fabulous event at the Hatch Shell,” she said.

Ellenson and her colleagues have sought to unite diverse Boston with “the common language of music,” by holding some of the few free to-the-public music events in the city that don’t take place in Allston basements or in MBTA stations. A real, live orchestra in a beautiful setting is exactly what Maria Hatch had in mind when she wanted a public beauty spot. However, the need for security today may be overshadowing the need of 1930s Boston.

We have a promise from our government to keep us safe.

In the past, before the marathon bombing, our security costs were only under $2000 a concert,” said Ellenson. “Now they run, with all the extra things that you have to do because of it, around $12,000.” She described some of the apparent changes such as the addition of around twenty bag-checkers, additional state police detail, and funds for the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to put up fencing around the area.

Renovation
Perhaps a lack of events could also be contributed to the current state of the property? Large-scale events do wear down landscaping and structures after decades of use. The lack of events and high security costs could potentially also be attributed to safety for the venue itself.

In October 2013, the Esplanade Association started a capital campaign to try to raise $4 million for renovations to the Hatch Shell. Santander Bank kicked it off with a donation of $100,000. The renovation project will “occur in three phases and includes plans to overhaul the Hatch Shell grounds, modernize its sound and lighting systems, and enhance and rebuild its structural elements in conjunction with the DCR,” according to their website. Beginning next Fall, the renovations should make the Hatch Shell available for a multitude of productions. But that’s only if there is any interest to fund them, and given the history of events there, a higher security cost will only perpetuate disinterest.

By the late 1950s, the Hatch Shell had already fallen into disrepair. A 20-year-old’s letter to the editor of the Globe called for a campaign because interior wood was deteriorating and they wanted to save the venue. On March 23, 1961, Fiedler called the state of the Hatch Shell a disgrace because of a report that came out which said that its condition was so bad, it might collapse under the orchestra during the season’s first show. It was around this time the building was renovated for the first time.

According to a 1966 Globe article by Gregory MacDonald, “MDC Policy prohibits the charging of the public for access to, or use of, land owned by the public. Ironically, therefore, although the public is charged for parking on its own streets, parking under its own Common, and traveling along its own highways, no charge can be made for a performance at the Hatch Shell.” He explained the trouble some groups had raising the money to hold events at the Hatch Shell, and that was decades ago. “Therefore,” he continued, “any performance at the Hatch Shell must be donated, or subsidized, by public or private funds. A Women’s Symphony Orchestra applied for, and received permission to use the Shell during the month of August, 1965, but unfortunately could not develop the necessary financing to see the plan through.”

MacDonald realizes that very few people will take the steps to create programming at the Hatch Shell. “Whoever takes the initiative is going to have the problem of attracting performers, not very inferior to the Boston Symphony Orchestra in professional standing, willing to donate their services, and, indifferent to the extent to which they are heard,” he wrote.

Limited Use

In the late 60’s, the question was brought up about limited use of the Hatch Shell.

After an anti-war rally was denied use because of Maria Hatch’s ban on political or controversial events, an opinion piece ran in the Globe in 1966 titled “Why is the Hatch Shell used only 11 nights a year?”

In 1968, according to a Boston Globe article titled “MDC Refuses Hatch Shell For Hippie Rock Concerts”, “A request made by the Boston Parks Department to allow hippies to use the Hatch Memorial Shell on Storrow Drive for rock concerts has been turned down by the Metropolitan District Commission.” It had been suggested as a venue for shows because “it is used little most of the year.” Unfortunately, the commissioner of the MDC, Howard Whitmore, “had rejected the request because the Hatch Shell could not accommodate the large crowds involved with ‘rock ‘n roll sessions.’”

Rock concerts were suspended by a sponsor of Hatch Shell events after the sizes of crowds became too large. Law enforcement had bottles thrown at them while trying to put out fires. One of the attendees of one of these 1971 concerts, according to Globe writer Robert A. Jordan, was Mayor Kevin White, who said in response to the suspension that “the right of public assembly is a constitutional right, and the right of public assembly in creative arts cannot be denied. But when it is abused, it has to be temporarily withdrawn. That’s how I feel.” He also added that it was “the worst I’ve ever seen in Boston.”

But then came the '80s. A decade-and-a-half of arts and culture events at the Hatch Shell without much problem. Programming was flourishing, whether it be video art from local students projected on the big screen outside to the 84 free events the MDC planned during the 1987 season. In the Globe article “Esplanade Exploding With Entertainment,” writer Jeff McLaughlin mentions that there will be shows “every day of the week.” The article also includes a good quote by then-head of the MDC William J Geary.

"When I was growing up in Roxbury and Dorchester," said Geary,  "I would jump on the subway and come down here for Pops concerts with Arthur Fiedler conducting, and thought that these free concerts -- they went on for weeks, it seemed -- were part of what made Boston special. But when I was appointed to head the MDC in 1983, there were just 13 concerts of any kind and the Hatch Shell was fading in the public's eye as a place to go -- the candle was barely flickering. We've turned that around."

Do You Have The Time To Listen To Me Whine?

WFNX and the Boston Phoenix had sponsored rock concerts since the mid-80s, but on Sept. 9, 1994, their welcome-back concert featured Green Day and “an unruly mob of teen-agers and 20-somethings [who] had body-surfed and body-slammed,” as Globe writer Michael Grunwald wrote in “For fans young and old, a scary night on Esplanade.” After telling the media a few days before that they had enough security for the crowd anticipated, the band’s set was shut down by the authorities less than 20 minutes into the set. The article quotes 14-year-old Kevin Meehan of BC High saying that his father saw a “mini-stampede” and a brawl where a man on crutches was knocked down while a crowd-surfer landed next to him. "I told him what it would be like, but I don't think he understood," Kevin said. "It was a war zone out there."

Green Day’s Esplanade concert obviously trumps Mayor White’s “worst I’ve ever seen.” This, of course, was to be used as an example against programming for all. For the next two years the Phoenix butted heads with members of the Beacon Hill Civic Association, City Hall, and the state over large-scale rock concerts at the Hatch Shell. It became apparent that anything outside of the norm seemed too aggressive to hold on the Esplanade, large-scale or not.

In the past decade, rock music has had no place on the Esplanade, despite the contributions our city’s artists have made to rock in the past. If Maria Hatch was alive today, wouldn’t she think it was great if local bands such as Guerilla Toss, Fleabite, or Pile played in the Hatch Shell for an evening audience? Bands that capture the spirit of our city’s young adults, yet are hardly ever exposed to anyone who isn’t already “in-the-know?” There were times when local bands played at the Hatch Shell, but it seems like that time has been forgotten. Local promoters would definitely never be able to pay the cost to hold an event there if it was even approved in the first place.

Back On Track
Safety should always be the number one concern for any event, but is there a point where safety starts to be the reason events can’t be put on in the first place? Public support must grow for events such as the Landmarks Orchestra to continue and inspire others to create events themselves. If Boston could get back to the mid-eighties and have as many different events and cultures represented at the Hatch Shell, well, that would be shocking from the current state of things.

Perhaps the Hatch Shell is destined for limited use with spurts here and there of what it could have become if the people of Boston supported programming all season. In that case, we really need to give thanks to those who have put on events and continue to put on events despite how much harder it gets to fund them. We even have to thank the corporations that allow large-scale events at the Hatch Shell because without them, there wouldn’t be any events.

Perhaps the cost will go down again after the renovations are finished? Perhaps the State Police will go through their numbers and cut as much as they can while still providing the level of safety citizens expect? Maybe one day a group of twenty-somethings will be able to play their abrasive noise, emanating the same amount of creativity and passion that Arthur Fiedler did on that spot almost a century ago?

One day the Hatch Shell will be a public beauty spot for arts and culture once again, but for that to happen the residents must want it and must be willing to help support it.

Boston Landmarks Orchestra 2014 Schedule



August 6, 2014 - Boston Lyric Opera

August 13, 2014 - From the New World: The Legacy of the Spirituals

August 20, 2014 - Rhapsody in Green

August 27, 2014  - O’er the Land of the Free: Bicentennial of The Star-Spangled Banner

Posted to BDCWire, Boston, Music