If you’re in the mood for world-class entertainment on the First Coast, The Amp St. Augustine is the place to be. From Alan Jackson to Aretha Franklin, Matchbox Twenty to Willie Nelson, impressive performers have packed the house over the years. Shoppers flock to the artsy farmer’s market each Saturday, or gather to check out local wares while enjoying trendy dining options at the Night Market. The Amp St. Augustine is truly a one-of-a-kind community gathering place.
Resting atop sixteen acres of Anastasia State Park, The Amp’s grounds offer visitors a glimpse of remnants of the area’s coquina quarries used to construct the Castillo de San Marcos and many other historic structures. One of two monuments built in 1965 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles’ founding of St. Augustine (the Great Cross at the Mission Nombre de Dios was the other), The St. Augustine Amphitheatre served as the stage and setting for the long-running musical outdoor drama Cross and Sword, written by Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Paul Green, that told the story of the arrival of the Spanish and the founding of the Ancient City.
“Paul Green’s outdoor historical dramas are very popular wherever they are presented. Some people plan their vacation around going to see a Paul Green play,
whether it’s The Lost Colony, in Manteo, NC, Texas, in the Palo Duro Canyon, The Stephen Foster Story, in Bardstown, KY, or Ohio’s Trumpet in the Land,” says Charles Tingley, senior research librarian at the St. Augustine Historical Society. “The Lost Colony, for instance, has played every year since 1937, apart from four seasons during World War II.”
Wayne Sims points out that many don’t recognize this playwright’s significance. “Paul Green was the king of that type of writing,” he says. Sims served on the St. Augustine Amphitheatre’s board of directors for many years before becoming the interim general manager in the 1980s and the memory of the venue’s storied past still moves him: “Of all the theaters that I have visited, I don’t know of one that would really knock me over like the old St. Augustine Amphitheatre. The folks who had the pleasure of having attended one of the shows probably always remembered it because the dynamics of it were that entrenching.”
Cross and Sword maintained popularity for three decades, a rite-of-passage among aspiring thespians and a treasured experience for generations of Floridians and visitors. “It sort of faded out and that’s unfortunate,” Sims says. “It didn’t go out with a bang like it should have. At one time, before we got to be a mega-attraction city, Cross and Sword was one of the significant drawing points to Northeast Florida
and it was supported by the people around the region, not just St. Augustine and tourists. It was named The Official State Play by the legislature, and that brought a lot of respect to the city. I was sorry to watch it go.” There were financial problems, and thirty-two years of performances – nightly productions for ten weeks each summer – took a heavy toll on the amphitheatre: by its final curtain call in 1997, $3 million in repairs were required to restore the dilapidated venue.
The St. Augustine Amphitheatre’s board of directors asked St. Johns County to assume control of the site and major planning and renovations commenced. A master plan by Fred Halback and Les Thomas was approved in 2001. After several years of construction, the facility emerged renewed, with more seating, a large plaza, revamped concession stands, and nature areas. “I’m overwhelmed with delight with what they did with the new amphitheatre,” Sims says. “They did a magnificent job. I think it’s also a beautiful continuation of what we started.”
Now a state-of-the-art performance venue run by the St. Johns County Cultural Division, the amphitheatre continues to evolve today. “When we reopened, we only had fifteen different concert events, and then from there we just kept growing through the hard work and dedication of our team,” says Dianya Markovits, public relations and partnership manager for The Amp St. Augustine. “We’ve gone from fifteen shows to fifty plus [annually], plus the farmer’s market, bi-weekly night market, and movie nights. We’ve had people do yoga here. We’ve had people get married here. We’ve had fundraisers, memorial services, graduations, political talks. We view The Amp as a community space. It is a gathering space for colleges and high schools for graduation. We have Friends of St. Augustine Amphitheatre, a non-profit organization. They hold art and music camps here. We do free movie nights with Community First Credit Union throughout the summer. There’s the Sing Out Loud Festival. We feel that has created a sense of public space for our community. You don’t have to have a concert ticket to come through our doors.”