The sunset over Irvine Thursday night will mark the proverbial fade to memory for Orange County's premier outdoor concert venue.
That's when Irvine Meadows Amphitheater begins its 35th and final season of musical performances before closing this fall.
The first of the final season of eclectic shows opens with an ethnic punk themed lineup featuring L.A. based Celtic rockers Flogging Molly. Filling out the marquee are Southern California ska/reggae band Hepcat and gypsy punk group Gogol Bordello.
Already announced shows include Fallout Boy, Journey with the Doobie Brothers and Dave Mason, Dave Matthews Band, Brad Paisley, Duran Duran and Def Leppard.
Over the years, the stage has hosted some of the biggest names in pop, rock and country, including Michael Jackson, Oingo Boingo, Ozzy Osbourne, Bob Dylan and Orange County's own No Doubt. Irvine Meadows also supported numerous groundbreaking musical festivals like Lollapalooza, Lilith Fair and the Christian Fishfest.
"One of the biggest events I can remember was when the Eagles reunited for their comeback 'Hell Freezes Over tour'" in 1994, said Irvine Meadows General Manager Matt Curto. "They played three sold-out shows here, and it was just really special."
FOR THE RECORD
March 24, 12:20 p.m.: An earlier version of this post gave an incorrect first name for the Irvine Meadows general manager. He is Matt Curto.
The same can be said for scores of superstar acts that performed under the stars. Jackson, at the pinnacle of his popularity, played three nights in November 1988 during his "Bad" tour. Jimmy Buffett has been bringing the parrot-heads out for years in a regular stop on his tour schedule, and the Grateful Dead played in Irvine 15 times — there was what police called a "near riot" at a 1989 show — before bandleader Jerry Garcia died in 1995.
"The parking lot was always fun, especially when the Grateful Dead showed up," said Stanton J. Beal, 56, remembering his treks to Irvine on several occasions in the '80's as a UCLA undergrad. "It was always like a carnival outside a carnival."
The amphitheater opened in 1981 on 50 acres of land owned by the Irvine Co. and leased to Live Nation concert promoters on a 35-year land-lease deal. The venue was known as the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, after its main sponsor, from 2000 to 2014.
That lease expires early next year, and the theater will be leveled soon after the final concert. The 60-acre parking lot will be developed in to Phase II of the Los Olivos residential development consisting of 1,950 apartment homes. Some 1,750 units have already been built in Phase I of the development on land where the Lion Country Safari wand Wild Rivers parks once operated.
Approved plans for the site where the 16,000-seat amphitheater now stands are not finalized, but call for a 60,000-square-foot "community facility," which could include a park, private school or other uses.
"This parcel of land was always meant to transition to a more-permanent use," the Irvine Co. stated in an email. "In 2006, we worked with the city and community on a land-use plan for this area that would ensure the city's long-term economic health by providing housing adjacent to the Irvine Spectrum business community."
Irvine city officials have made a new amphitheater a key component as part of the development of the Great Park Cultural Terrace, but any forward progress appears years away, as Great Park development has been slowed by a multitude of political and financial challenges. That venue would likely be smaller and more intimate than Irvine Meadows.
In the meantime, losing the county's largest dedicated outdoor concert venue (Angel Stadium hosts concerts but, of course, has another primary use) means established summer events will be looking for new homes.
The Pacific Symphony Orchestra has held its summer outdoor series at Irvine Meadows for more than 25 years and is considering other venues in Orange County for next year, including the Pacific Amphitheater in Costa Mesa. Rock radio station KROQ will hold its 23rd Weenie Roast at Irvine Meadows this summer and is searching for another outdoor site for future events. Fishfest will hold its 15th and final Irvine festival in June.
Gone are the wild animals and waterslides, and soon the concert stage too. What can't be razed are the memories of more than three decades of music and the collective soul of concertgoers who attended.
"I believe I saw the very first Lollapalooza there in '91 — Jane's Addiction, Siouxsie and the Banchees, Nine Inch Nails," said Tenby Wright, 50, of Fairfax, a community in Marin County. "I left Venice Beach, where I lived, and realized I didn't have any shoes on. I started asking people for spare shoes, people were cool and some guy gave me an old pair of men's flip-flops. They did not look good but I got in to see an awesome show!"