In 1950, it was dedicated with a theatrical extravaganza titled "Faith of Our Fathers." Somewhere in the 100-plus cast was a 16-year-old walk-on in the chorus named Willard Scott.
Today, the Carton Barron, which is owned by the National Park Service, begins its 30th anniversary season by returning -- after a decade of emphasis on youth-oriented pop acts -- to the family-entertainment concept with which it began.
By attracting the older, suburban audience, black and white, that was lost in the '60s, Carter Barron's director of marketing, Paul Holland, is hoping to go into October's Park Service budget hearings with enough ammunition to expand the season in 1981. "It's strange" says Holland, "that after 30 years, we're the new kid on the block."
By moving away from the soul and rock domination of the last six years, during which a series of outside promoters failed to catch the pulse of the 4,200-seat outdoor amphitheater in Rock Creek Park just off of 16th Street NW, Carter Barron is hoping to regain the public trust that made it a success during its first two decades.
Bookings for the 1980 Summer Season, which begins tonight with The Spinners and local disco phenomenon Stacy Lattisaw, are being handled by the Park Service itself.
"It's the first time since 1974 that we've had this kind of season. The success of the entire season will influence the decision about next year," Holland says. He points out that because the Park Service is booking the facility, it can place less emphasis on the profit motive since "we don't need those extra couple of dollars."
As a result, ticket prices will be lower than in recent years. Because of conservative spending policies within the Park Service ("We can't really risk public money," says Holland), Carter Barron can't compete with other outdoor facilities like Wolf Trap and the Merriweather Post Pavilion for the high-priced acts.
Wolf Trap, which is run but not booked by the Park Service, does give Carter Barron some competition, however. Before the Vienna, Va., facility opened 10 years ago, Carter Barron was Washington's major summer dance facility. The National Ballet of Canada was the first major international ballet to play there, in 1955; they return next Monday for a six-day run. The American Ballet Theatre held the world premiere of David Blair's "swan Lake" there in 1967.
But from 1968 to 1976, no dance companies were featured at Carter Barron. While the facility has since resumed introducing new companies to Washingon (such as the Pennsylvania and Houston Ballets), those companies have been snapped up in subsequent seasons by the wealthier Wolf Trap. This year's dance discovery at Carter Barron is the Connecticut Ballet, which will present the Washington premiere of "Dracula" July 17-19.
"We're trying to establish an in-town forum and fulfill our mandate while keeping prices low," says Holland. The concept of broad-based family entertainment was originally developed by Feld Brothers' Super Attractions Inc., which assumed bookings in 1952. The 1950 and 1951 seasons at what was then called the Sesquicentennial Theater had been occupied with Paul Green's "Faith of Our Fathers," whose cast of hundreds included, in addition to eventual weatherman Scott, a few live horses as well. President Harry Truman presided at the opening ceremonies, along with Carter Tate Barron, a close personal friend of the president and a Washington businessman actively involved in promoting the arts. He died in 1951, and the next year the facility was rededicated in his name.
In 1952, a nine-day stand by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was the only professional engagement at Carter Barron. The following year, actress Constance Bennett produced a 12-week seasons of musicals. In the mid-to-late '50s, the facility became more of a variety showcase, featuring jazz, comedy, popular singers and instrumentalists. In the late '60s, it became the summer spot for family-oriented black entertainment.
In 1973, the Felds called it quits and the next six seasons rode a rollercoastger of success and failure under a series of outside promoters. Among the major developments was a shifting demographic pattern that saw the Carter Barron's basic audience change as families moved to the suburbs and the crowd became increasingly young.
The various promoters were simply not ready to serve that young audience, despite a ticket subsidy program that started in 1971 with the Park Service purchasing $500,000 worth of tickets for distribution to needy children and inner-city youth. By 1975, that figure had dropped to $130,000; in 1978, it was $33,000. This year, according to Holland, there will be no subsidized ticket program, though some arrangement is being worked out with the USO, Walter Reed Hospital; Mayor Barry's office and the D.c. Recreation Department. There will also be no free community programs, which had been ill-attended in recent years.
Shows this year will range from the Earl Hines Jazz Festival, Alberta Hunter and Grand Carter Barron Philharmonic Pops Symphony Orchestra to country singer Tom T. Hall and pop vocalist Jose Feliciano, as well as a few dashes up and down the variety scale with stops for musicals, gospel, a cappella vocals, classic blues vocalists and blues bands.