The History Of A Dream
The Australian Aborigines believe in two interconnected worlds. One is the world in which they live in; a world of the physical. The other is the world of Dreamtime, where their reality is created. In essence, the Dreamtime follows no linear rules of time; all times exists at once and folds in on one another. The Dreamtime is where creation takes place and, when one comes back to reality, the thoughts become a tangible reality. There are rare occasions where everything aligns and certain groups of people gather together, envisioning a concept or a direction and their dreams become a reality. The Fraze Pavilion seems to be one of these places conceived during this Dreamtime.
In October of 1983, a tract of land that abutted the City of Kettering’s governmental buildings was purchased from the heirs of the original landowner, W.D. ‘Doc’ Johnson, for $1.5 million…yet the story goes back much farther back than that.
“Actually, the area had been platted right before the Depression into single family plots, but it had never been developed except maybe one or two parcels.” said Peter Horan, former City of Kettering Planner and Assistant City Manager. He went on to talk about the Johnson property itself. “‘Doc’ Johnson’s place had been quite a controversial property for a while. Right after Kettering was incorporated in the early fifties, ‘Doc’ wanted to build a downtown Kettering there. The City Council back then said, ‘We’re not rezoning it for that. We just approved Town & Country Shopping Center.’ ‘Doc’ was mad about that for years. He kept coming in with proposals to build something on it, but nothing ever worked out. So, when ‘Doc’ died, that’s when the family wanted to do some things with the property and that’s also the same time that the City started putting together a concept plan about a multi-use area that would become Lincoln Park. We took that concept to the neighborhood, the City Planning Commission and the City Council and the concept was very well received.”
Jerry Busch, Mayor of Kettering from 1981 through 1989 echoed Horan’s description, saying, “It pretty much started with a vacant piece of land that we got from ‘Doc’ Johnson and developed it from there. The planning department came up with the sketched plan for Lincoln Park Commons and we came up with it from that basis, the Fraze was brought in about halfway through. Originally, we talked about having a kind of bandstand with some wooden benches…and it grew from there. With the help of Pete Horan, we talked to some of the performing arts people in town and got an idea of what their requirements were.”
The creation of the park, the office park, the residential concept and the Fraze Pavilion itself was a multi-tiered project that seemingly advanced hand in hand, developing and maturing with each additional facet that was added.
“Originally, we did all the park design, and that was before the Pavilion was even in, and then once the park was finished, we began the effort of trying to get the Fraze Pavilion itself built.” James Garges, City of Kettering Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Director said about the planning process. “So, for a while, almost a year or two years, all you really had there was a grassy knoll in the park and we had a little programming in the park and so forth, but the plan to have an amphitheater was there from the start. When we went into actual park design and that whole hundred acres there became developed. It’s a pretty interesting project from that perspective.”
Many times, we see public facilities in a constant state of construction, wherein the structure is being changed, augmented, repaired or completely redesigned due to lack of planning or poor oversight. With the Lincoln Park project, one gets the sense that there was a fully operational plan in place that took into account the various elements and how they would work together, not only at that moment, but also on into the future.
“When you do it right, everything flows together right. If we tried to take the Fraze and plop it down into the existing park, it wouldn’t be the same facility, so that’s why it flows so well. Again, if you have the foresight to do really good design and planning for a park and you have a good idea of what is going to be in the park in the future, you may not be able to do everything at once, but whatever you do as the first phase just fits right in with the second phase.” Said Garges. “So, the master planning from the park perspective becomes a very, very critical element to the success of everything that will eventually be in the park. The Fraze Pavilion itself was actually the last piece of the park that fit and that last piece of the puzzle fit perfectly. We had a very good team. At that time, it was NBBJ, which was an architectural firm out of Columbus and Al (Alfred E. Berthold) was the lead architect of the project. It was myself, Pete Horan and Al Berthold; we were three of the key folks that worked together on it from a facility/design perspective. Al did a great job, he really did. Joe Roller was another landscape architect that was on board with the Parks and Recreation department and the planning department forKettering. Joe, from an in-house perspective, working with Al Berthold, was also very helpful. So, you see, we had a really nice team of landscape architects, park folk and Pete Horan, who I would call almost like the Minister of Taste. Pete’s good at that stuff!”
Many municipalities have taken on a major undertaking only to have the process drag on, hampered by constant infighting, indecisiveness and a general sense of poor planning. With the whole of the Lincoln Park project, it seemed as if all the key elements worked together in unison to realize a shared vision.
“From my personal point of view, it was a really unique opportunity, and it was a challenge, but it was also extremely gratifying to see it all come together and work.” Said then City Manager Bob Walker, before adding, “Like anything, it was a team effort. A lot of people put in a lot of effort, and it paid off. The whole City Council, if you think about it, it was courageous on their part too. They were all sticking their neck out a little bit, and I’ve always given them tremendous credit, particularly Jerry Busch the Mayor. He just provided that political leadership that’s very necessary to see something like that through. He did an absolutely marvelous job.”
This is not to say that the project itself did not have a few people that were uncertain or unable to make this leap of faith…
“I will never forget…there were a few Council members that were still a little nervous and Jerry Busch had this huge banner in the council chambers that said, ‘If We Build It, They Will Come!’” Pete Horan said before complimenting Busch’s unwavering belief in the project. “Jerry was a driving force, politically and in getting support from the community and the Council. Right after it was built, Dick Hartmann was the Mayor and he was a strong supporter as well.”
The one striking thing that is almost imperceptible to most is the layout of the facility. While other entertainment venues take on a ‘cattle herding’ mentality, trying to get customers in and out of the facility as quickly as possible, the Fraze takes the exact opposite approach, forcing the patrons to meander lazily past beautifully landscaped flower beds, statuaries and ponds. This adds to the relaxed atmosphere of the evening.
“The beauty of the Fraze is actually the beauty of the Fraze, not only with the programming that comes out of the facility, but also the environment in which it’s located.” said Mary Beth Thaman, current City Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Director. “The grand vision of Fraze was to put the Pavilion in an incredible environment, which is a park and that the way that you access the Pavilion is so pedestrian friendly. The landscaping enhances your experience. I think the beauty of the project, holistically, is really how it is treated and the experience that you have there, even outside of the music.”
It is easy to take for granted the beauty of the Lincoln Park project as a whole when one is focused on the overshadowing prospects of stars and nationally known entertainers. It is just as easy to stop for a moment to take in the subtle grandeur of the grounds. To appreciate the maintained and manicured grounds and flora. To see the still water that reflect the public sculptures. So what is the most important aspect of the project?
“I would say that it is using the park to walk, to sit, to relax, to play your guitar and it’s WiFi, so they can bring their computer if they want. The park has a lot of walkers and a lot of people that use the park as an activity for themselves.” Alluding to the calm before the storm, Thaman went on to say that, “Again, within three hours, it is transformed into a music venue. So, I think that it offers, in terms of an outdoor summer experience, such a variety. It really is a focal point for Kettering because we don’t have a downtown area per se, but it is the place, when you have concerts and festivals, to be and be seen.”
Having travelled down all of the paths, from concept to creation, from landscaping, developing, construction and landscaping, there is still one facet left to be discovered; programming. Without the music and the arts that make the facility such a vibrant destination, it would still be a beautiful facility…but a very empty beautiful facility.
“You know, anytime you tackle something like that, you can do surveys and all kinds of things, and we did some of those, trying to figure out what people would be interested in.” Bob Walker said. “Then, of course, sometimes, it works out a little bit better than what you thought.”
The person who was placed in charge of building the foundation of Fraze eclectic programming was found through a national search for a suitable General Manager. Rudi Schlegel seemed to fit the bill, having worked at Boston’s Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts (now the Tweeter Center). Schlegel’s long list of credentials and longer list of contacts would prove to be a deciding factor in how well the Fraze would succeed. With the building only half completed when he arrived, Schlegel’s work was cut out for him.
“Actually, the initial challenge was the balance of programming, which, at the time, skewed heavily towards community events and Dayton Arts events, which engendered substantial losses.” Schlegel revealed. “That idealism is great for driving a lofty vision, but there was a fundamental disconnect between the scope of the programming and the design of the building and what, in fact, was going to be viable financially. So, that had to be reconciled.”
Another thing that had to be reconciled was the seating capacity of the venue, which had to be increased to handle four thousand patrons in order to accommodate pop acts. Schlegel was able to attract the attention of some of the best popular entertainers, culled from his previously held connections, drawing in such diverse acts as Ray Charles, Gallagher and Yanni, among others. Such success is no accident though and much is owed to the foundation that was created during those early years.
“Opening a venue is comparable to putting a satellite into orbit. You have to have the trajectory right and you have to have the thrust right. To get it into orbit, you really only get one shot.” Schlegel added to the metaphor by saying, “The worst thing that could happen is you don’t hit the trajectory right or you don’t aim high enough.”
In other organizations, associations and venues, when a new director is appointed, they usually set out immediately to eradicate their predecessors work to make their own mark. The Fraze faculty seems to have the wisdom to build upon the strong foundation that was originally built, replacing only those key elements that have become worn or outdated, replacing them with more functionally sturdy materials. This approach has made the Fraze a nationally recognized amphitheater and one that artists and concertgoers alike feel a comfortable relationship with. While there have been changes over the years, the current General Manager, Karen Durham, has been lauded with bringing the Fraze into a new age, creating a season filled with national acts balanced with local artists as well, without sacrificing the traditions that people have come to expect.
“As we saw audiences change, we also tried new things and, over the past ten years, we’ve really clicked on some hot trends, like the five dollar shows, the two dollar shows.” Karen Durham, current General Manager of the Fraze said. “Our festivals have grown and we’ve gotten to the point that we’ve gotten some solid, signature festivals. Swamp Romp, is what Mark (the facility’s second General Manager) started and that kind of laid the groundwork for the blues and the wine and jazz festivals.”
With all the well known acts and beloved artists that have graced the Fraze’s stage, I wondered if Durham had her own personal favorite…a memorable moment…
“Oh! Well, I don’t know why I would have even hesitated. Ringo! Without a doubt! Having a former Beatle on our stage was just…” Karen ended, at a loss for words. She went on by saying, “Having Sheryl Crow record her DVD here is 2003 is another great memory. Whatever happens in the next twenty years, we will always have this moment of time immortalized, recorded with her music.”