Rick Merrill Talks Gibson

The Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal CityWalk has been a part of the Los Angeles landscape since 1972, when it opened as the Universal Amphitheatre next to the Universal Studios theme park. It kicked off with a run of “Jesus Christ: Superstar” that only ended because winter was setting in.

It has become part of the city’s lore but is about to fade into history. By all accounts, Universal is replacing it with a Harry Potter ride, and the venue’s doors will shutter in September. The facility – which became Gibson Amphitheatre in 2005 when Gibson Guitar Corporation bought naming rights – has actually been enclosed for decades, although it maintains the same seating structure as an when it was outdoors. With a capacity of 6,021, the Gibson Amphitheatre is one of the largest mid-sized facilities in the Los Angeles area.

Rick Merrill, longtime GM, talked to Pollstar about the venue’s past and present.

Any thoughts in general, looking back on 20 years of the venue?

Universal-slash-Gibson Amphitheatre was one of the first amphitheatres of its time. They put the roof on it in 1982. I got here in 1993. There’s been so many events, not even counting the traditional touring shows that we’ve done but things like the Jimmy Buffett millenium show, awards shows like MTV Video Music Awards, Academy of Country Music Awards and Teen Choice Awards. Events like the “American Idol” finale with Ruben and Clay  not to mention Britney Spears  *Nsync, Backstreet Boys and Jonas Brothers  All of the New Year shows we’ve done like with Barry Manilow and George Lopez  There were radio shows like KROQ Acoustic Christmas, KCRW and Power 106 Christmas shows.

I’ve probably been here for 2,500 performances: Clapton  Rush  Guns N’ Roses  Mana  Sting  Prince  Jane’s Addiction  David Gilmour  Pearl Jam Lil’ WayneStevie Wonder and not to mention the artists who come back year after year, like Vicente Fernandez and No Doubt  In 1994 The Who’  “Tommy” came here with some of the first computerized staging.

Then there are the special events like AIDS Project Los Angeles that we did for many years. Corporate events like Herbalife, Scientology, Dreamworks’ town hall meeting, NBC Universal’s town hall meetings. Probably over 30 movie premieres that we’ve done here like “Blues Brothers 2000,” “Austin Powers 2,” “Nutty Professor,” “The Mummy,” “Jurassic Park,” “Scorpion King,” and “Meet the Fockers.”

And then some of the special moments like when theJonas Brothers were just erupting and decided to do an onsale, and they climbed on the roof of our remote boxoffice in the parking lot with thousands of screaming girls, with police and security freaking out. MTV Movie Awards one year was the same day as when we had a fire on the lower lot of Universal and we almost canceled. I just begged and pleaded with the Universal execs and the fire officials to let the event go on, and the after party was outdoors. There was smoke in the air, but they finally approved it and it worked out great.

Silly things like bomb threats at a Wiggles show when Jake Berry was the tour manager.  A comedy show where we had to separate Master P and Snoop Dogg because of the rivalries.

Mostly, though, the loyalty the staff has had. I couldn’t have done it without my right-hand man, production manager Mark Sidlow, and John Valenzuela in our box office. There have been ushers and bartenders that have been here as long as I have, or longer.

Also, the dozen or so Pollstar awards.

Jake Berry. Wiggles. Bomb Scare.  That sounds like the recipe for a good story.

It’s absolutely worth mentioning. There were probably 500 strollers here. It was when The Wiggles were at their peak and they were doing multiple shows. They were here for two or three days, we got this threat and I got notified. I went down to tell Jake and the look on his face was just priceless, knowing all those diaper bags and strollers were around – it was almost comical. What do you do? Do you announce this? Evacuate the building? Or do you just roll the dice and keep going. And Jake’s looking at me like, “What do you want do to, Rick?”  And I’m looking at the strollers. We’re laughing, but still serious.

I had toured with Stevie Wonder. I was a lighting designer/production manager before I got into the facility business. We had several bomb threats, so it wasn’t unique to me, but it might have been to Jake, in that situation.

You’ve been nominated for Pollstar’s facility executive award several times and won it once. And you have a good reputation. Care to elaborate?

I’ve just been blessed to have toured in the first part of my career with Journey, Queen, Emmylou Harris, Stevie Wonder and many others as a lighting designer / production manager. I got into the facility business in 1984 at Pacific Amphitheatre as production manager and operations manager until 1990. I also worked for Disney and Jim Henson on a project that actually got scrapped because Jim Henson passed away. I was hired as production manager here in 1993, then promoted to general manager in 1994.

I’ve loved this job, loved the building, loved taking care of the artists, the agents, the crews that came in. I had an understanding what the need was for these groups that were coming through, whether it was making sure their day went smooth onstage or backstage, or the hospitality portion. I’ve done that with Mark Sidlow. I had an understanding from being abused in my touring days. I was happy to get the opportunity to host and take care of people in L.A. as opposed to being in Ireland when the equipment didn’t show up, and trying to find a steel guitar to do the show. So I knew what I wanted to do when I got here, and being allowed to do it has been great.

What are some of the compliments artists give the venue?

Sound is something that’s always been discussed. The intimacy of the seating area – no seat further than 150 feet from the front edge of the stage.  The convenience of the loading dock – again, this venue opened in 1982 and back then there were no models. This was state-of-the-art. This was Lew Wasserman’s baby. Lew ran Universal Studios for many years, and I inherited the building after 10 years. It was pristine.

The worst thing was, back in the day, it had a mid-stage fire curtain and it had a low overhang. As productions got larger, it got a little awkward trying to split the curtain. When we eliminated the curtain four years ago, it was the first building in the U.S. that had a renovation that eliminated a fire curtain-deluge system, or so we think. We spent $2 million and put a grid over it, and it solved all the problems. People who toured in the early days had to split their lighting trusses and set design because of it.  Those who came back in the last four years were ecstatic that Live Nation had approved its elimination.

This place is going to be sorely missed, as far as people in the business are concerned.

Just an off-hand question: Did artists visit the park clandestinely?

Absolutely. So many of the artists and the crews, the agents and the managers – we were literally across the driveway from the Universal Studios’ theme park so we were constantly asked to take people over there in the daytime. And as artists got older and had kids, they would come early and spend hours in the park, and we had a great relationship with Universal Studios, and they cooperated with us.

Sometimes there would be a few security issues, but the artist would pick the rides. And it was great for the people to see Gwen Stefani over there with her kids. In November, she played here seven nights, and she went over there four different times with her kids and rode Transformers. In the last year or two, the only thing Universal asked was that after the artists went on a ride they tweet they had a great time, and the artists were more than happy to do that.

Any moment, even if it is a small one, that stands out?

You know, I thought about this overnight because I knew that would be the ultimate question: What is your favorite event?  And it’s so hard to separate 20 years and 2,500 events with one that stood out. The artists – so many that I can’t even begin to mention – that graced the stage and had great shows.

L.A. is always a nervous play, and to have the sound crew be comfortable when they got here, hearing them tell their artist, “Wow, it’s been a great day.”  We’ve always had great shows, and the audience always had a great experience. It was easy for them to get in and out of the building, to get the food and beverage. It would be really hard to pick one thing.

Sure but any one anecdote that sticks in your brain?

One of the most magical, mystical moments for me was when I was in the audience one night probably 15 years ago. Billy Idol was invited out onstage and did “White Wedding,” and the building was just rocking. The audience, the sound system, it was just a phenomenal moment. 

Any idea on where you’re heading?

I have my hands full with the shows coming up. We have three Vicente Fernandez shows starting tonight (April 26). He’s retiring from touring. So that’s massive for us. Then we’re planning our grand finale run. So that will be my primary focus over the next four months. Plus we’re involved with a lot of other venues in the market and when we do major festival events, like Swedish House Mafia’s Masquerade Motel and Insomniac’s Beyond Wonderland, it’s all-hands-on-deck for Live Nation’s Southern California team. So I have plenty on my plate, and the future looks bright.

So we will be seeing you around?

Oh, absolutely.