Putting Heads in Beds and Rears on Seats
How Calvert Marine Museum puts the groove in Southern Maryland
by Margaret Tearman
Here’s a riddle. What do all these scenes have in common?
- Thousands of screaming fans pumping their fists to the beat of hard-driving music;
- A giant shark skeleton hovering above a group of children, who giggle as they wonder will it bite?
- An internationally recognized actor and comedian starring in a one-man show;
- River otters frolicking in their man-made habitat to the delight of onlookers of all ages;
- Three middle-aged rockers, still in perfect harmony, returning their audience to the days of peace, love and Woodstock.
All are part of this summer’s entertainment line-up at Calvert Marine Museum on tiny Solomon’s Island.
A marine museum? A country rock band? Peace, love and Woodstock? On Solomon’s Island? All in one place?
Perhaps by accident, Calvert Marine Museum has become more than a place where modern visitors meet life on the water over the eons. With the success of its Waterside Concert Series, the 35-year-old Calvert County-owned museum has become an unexpected stop on the East Coast’s outdoor summer-concert circuit, drawing many of the same top-notch acts that regularly play at our region’s better-known venues, Wolftrap and Merriweather Post Pavilion. Performers who have shaken the museum’s homey wooden stage include Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, the Neville Brothers, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Martina McBride, Travis Tritt and Montgomery-Gentry. Soon to come are the uber-cool Crosby, Stills and Nash, the final act in this year’s series, booked on August 14.
Locals have long known about the museum’s musical sideline. Now the news is spreading wide. From the license plates in the parking lot on concert day, it’s plain to see Calvert’s little museum has become known as a bona-fide concert venue in an area with no other. Fans travel from as far south as Fredricksburg and from as far north as Hagerstown. The summer concerts have become a big block party with a growing number of out-of-town guests.
How did music find its way to the southernmost tip of the peninsula? How are the big stars lured to a wooden stage in front of an old lighthouse? How is a parking lot transformed into prime seating for audiences of fewer than 5,000?
It has been an odd journey for the staff of an unassuming marine museum just trying to raise a little money.
From Chanters to Carousers
|Real-life performer Bonnie Raitt ogles a prehistoric shark at one of Calvert Marine Museum’s many exhibits.
Calvert Marine Museum’s concert gig didn’t start out with the big stars. Eighteen years ago, Lee Ann Wright, then the museum’s director of development, was told to increase visitors and income. Calvert County, which owns and operates the museum, pays 60 percent of the freight. The museum struggled to raise the rest of the money to fund its educational programs and exhibits. Wright hit on live music as one way to bring in some of those dollars.
“The very first performance was a group of sea chanters,” Wright told Bay Weekly. “They performed under the lighthouse to an audience of just a couple hundred museum members.” The small but enthusiastic audience wanted more.
“The first acts were mainly folk music, all acoustic,” Wright recalled. But the self-professed “old rock-and-roller” wanted to take it further. “I had a baby-boomer dream to bring in some rock and roll,” Wright said. “So I got Los Lobos to come and perform in May, 1995.”
Members who were regulars to the music series bought tickets to the show, expecting a typically quiet, acoustic performance. “When the lights came on and Los Lobos ran on to stage and began to play, people in the first couple of rows were almost blown away by just the volume,” Wright said. “A few put their hands over their ears, and a few moved away from the stage. But everyone else was on their feet, having a great time.”
When Los Lobos added almost $10,000 post-expenses to museum coffers, Wright says the museum realized that “rock and roll, R&B or contemporary music would bring in the most money.” Thus the series evolved from acoustic performances on the boardwalk to big-name, on-stage blasts.
Singing for Skates, Rays and Otters
Soon James Brown was shouting, I feel good! and the museum knew it had struck gold. When country music’s superstar Travis Tritt took to the stage in 2002, the concert was the first quick sellout. All 4,500 tickets sold in just six days.
Tritt’s appearance, together with a sold-out performance that same year by 1970s pop-icon Chicago, more than tripled the museum’s concert series revenue from the days of Los Lobos. “Today our big concerts each net the museum between $80,000 and $100,000,” said Doug Alves, the museum’s director. “The concerts have put us over the hump. They’ve been a very successful fundraising tool for the museum.”
Live and lively music butters the bread of the Marine Museum. The popular otter house and the skates and rays exhibits — both starring live animals — were paid for by concerts. Three hundred and sixty-three days of the year, the stage is dark and Calvert Marine Museum is just that: a museum.
Wearing its usual hat, the non-profit museum has the job of collecting, preserving, reseaching and interpreting the natural history of Sourthern Maryland. Exhibits expose the hidden life of the tidal Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay and the secrets fossilized into the Calvert Cliffs. Using video and interactive maps alongside rare historical objects, the museum tells Calvert’s history, including how the British advanced up the Patuxent to burn down Washington in the War of 1812.
It takes money to tell even good stories, not to mention finding and preserving lighthouses and rare fossils and feeding otters. Here’s where the music hit the high note. The revenue generated by the concerts brings history to life in the museum. Without the sound of music, there might not be the sounds of splashing otters.
The concerts have also boosted revenue from other sources. Memberships, a traditional income source for museums, had stalled at Calvert — until members were offered a deal on the museum’s new untraditional exhibit.
“Our membership had been level for five years,” said Vanessa Gill, the museum’s current director of development. “But when we offered members the opportunity to buy concert tickets before they go on sale to the general public, our membership grew from 2,100 to 3,200 in just two years.”
When Bob Dylan’s 2003 concert was announced, 350 museum memberships were sold in just two weeks — and not just locally. The museum now boasts members in New York, Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco.
“Somebody in San Diego bought a membership just to get advance tickets for Dylan,” Alves said. “Which means that same person bought a plane ticket, rented a car, stayed in a hotel and ate in restaurants. We’re not an isolated little place. We’re part of a package deal in the community. We’re an economic engine. We help put heads in beds and rears on seats.”
People are lured by music. When they get here, they find a lot more to like.
“Some people come to the museum and expect to see a bunch of dusty old boats,” Alves said. “Instead they find a wonderful place and a first-rate museum, one that I’d be proud to put up against the Smithsonian museums any day.”
Of course you’d expect the museum’s director to say that. But he’s not alone among professionals in his high estimate of Calvert’s little museum.
“They’ve done a great job with the exhibits here. It’s more fun for the visitor than most of what you’d see at the Smithsonian today,” said Tom Tearman, former chief of audio-visual exhibits at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.
Calvert Marine’s Hip New Gig
Beyond Baltimore and Washington there’s no place, not even Annapolis, where you can get so much local culture with your music as Calvert Marine Museum on a Waterside concert day.
Drive to Solomons, park the car and spend the afternoon exploring the museum. Stay for dinner. At the pre-concert festival, local chefs sell affordable local fare (and drink) on the museum’s bucolic waterfront. When the sun goes down, get ready to rock as the museum’s stage lights up with some of the biggest names in music. And, one of the best parts of the package, you don’t have to sing the Beltway Blues to get there.
How do big-name performers find their way to Calvert Marine Museum?
|Roadies set up for Montgomery-Gentry at the Marine Museum’s permanent Washington Gas Pavilion stage.
The Birchmere, Alexandria’s well-known and highly respected music club, helped the museum grow into the live-music capital of the Southern Maryland provinces.
“When we started out, we had no idea what to do or how to do it,” said Wright. “But starting with Emmylou Harris in 1996, the Birchmere basically taught me the ropes.”
Wright knew they’d done the job right when Pollstar, a concert-industry trade publication, included Calvert Marine Museum as a venue. “I was shocked when agents actually started answering our calls,” Wright said. “I knew we made it when an agent actually called us first.”
Typically, the museum starts negotiations. “The museum polls our members throughout the year, asking them who they’d like to see perform. And we also make a list of who we’d like to see,” Gill explained. “Then we look at the artist’s tour history. How many tickets does the act usually sell, and the kind of venue they usually perform at.” The performers they bid on will play smaller venues.
“We would love to have Rod Stewart,” said Gill, “but he plays to 20,000 fans, not 4,600.”
Tour schedules also play into bookings. Because the museum is close to both Wolftrap and Merriweather Post Pavilion, sometimes an act booked into those larger venues is willing to play on a smaller stage. Crosby, Stills and Nash is one of those acts. “They were booked at Wolftrap and had three days down before their next stop,” explained Gill. “So we fit right into their schedule.”
One of today’s enduring stars, Sting, was an “almost booking,” says Gill. “He decided to play smaller venues, so we had a good shot at getting him. As hard as we tried and in spite of his interest in us, we just couldn’t make the dates work. But we’ll keep on trying.”
It’s reputation rather than size that seals the booking deal. Reputation is built on how the artists are treated while they’re in town. At the museum, the performers — plus sometimes their families — get red-carpet treatment a la Chesapeake Bay.
Red-carpet treatment begins with satisfying each artist’s contract rider, which details special requirements from staging to perks to menus.
Ordinary museum meals satisfy the tastes of stingrays and otters. To satisfy the demands of stars, the museum calls in Trish Weaver, owner of Mom’s In The Kitchen, one of the Calvert businesses that help the museum pull off its summer-monthly transformation.
“One performer demanded organic carrot juice, organic celery juice and a combination of both before she would go on stage,” Weaver recalled. “Do you know how long it takes to get juice out of celery? It took hours and hours, but the performer got her juice and the show went on.”
Weaver likes to add a taste of Southern Maryland to the menu, so she almost always includes crab cakes. “I’ve had five marriage proposals from performers because of those crab cakes,” she said. “When B.B. King came back to perform a second time, he said I remember you. You’re the crab cake lady.”
James Brown had other requirements before urging Calvert’s audience to Get up offa that thing! He asked for a lady’s hairdryer, the old-fashioned model you sit under, and a massage table. It took some searching, but Gill found both.
“I don’t know if he used the hairdryer,” she said, “but he did autograph the massage table with ‘I feel good!’ It was a great souvenir for the local masseuse who loaned us the table.”
Some performers are concerned about security, and their riders ensure their safety and privacy. One demanded that his meals be served on his bus because he was fearful for his life.
Travis Tritt requested curtains be rigged between his tour bus and the stage so he could not be seen getting off the bus. Turns out Tritt didn’t choose so much privacy. “Before the concert, he just walked off his bus, went up to a beer vendor and bought himself a beer,” Gill remembered. “People were just staring with their mouths hanging open, saying That’s Travis Tritt!”
Riders sometimes request specific activities for the performers in the down-time before a show. Montgomery-Gentry’s rider included a section titled Attitude Enhancements, which raised a few eyebrows until it was realized that the duo were only asking for some wholesome recreation such as hunting, fishing or use of a local gym.
Troy Gentry took advantage of the Marine Museum’s waterfront location to go fishing before performing. The museum booked a charter on the day of the concert. “They spent an hour getting out to the fish,” said Gill, “and spent one hour fishing. Then another hour to come back. Three hours total, but they caught 40 fish, and everyone was smiling.”
The museum goes beyond what’s required to give artists a satisfying experience. Always offered is a water-taxi ride to the stage from their hotel across the creek. Bonnie Raitt took the taxi.
“When the concert was over, we took her back to the hotel in the boat,” recalled Gill. “When we pulled up to the dock, she didn’t want to get out. She sat there relaxing, staring up at the stars. When she finally got up to leave, she gave us a hug and thanked us, saying she had never taken a boat to one of her performances. It was a very cool experience for her.”
When Martina McBride came to town for her concert, she brought along her two young daughters, who were treated to an after-hours, behind-the-scenes tour of the museum’s river otter exhibit. “The girls loved meeting the otters up close and personal,” said Gill. “They told us they never did anything like that before, and they had a great time.”
This down-home approach polishes the museum’s reputation.
“We go out of our way to make the performers feel at home,” said Gill. “We knew the word was out, we knew we’d made it when Merle Haggard called us and asked us if he could perform here. He said he’d heard about us and thought it would be a ‘good place to play.’ Our reputation had preceded us.”
Designing a 5,000-Person Live Exhibit
“It took us 18 years to get to this point,” reflected museum director Alves. “There were times I wondered if it was worth it. It takes a lot of work to put on a big concert.”
The original stage was small and mobile, designed by Alan Manuel, then the museum’s chief cabinet and exhibit maker. It had to be set up for every performance, then dismantled and stored. To entice the bigger acts, the museum had to improve its staging.
“In the fall of 1997, I sent Washington Gas a letter asking their interest in sponsoring a new stage,” Wright remembered. “I was shocked when they said, ‘yes, we’ll pay for it,’ on the same day they received our proposal.”
In 1998, blues legend B.B. King inaugurated the new, permanent stage, christened the Washington Gas Pavilion. Next to the restored Drum Point Lighthouse, the stage stands all year long, reminding visitors that there’s more happening here than maritime history.
|Troy Gentry, center, spent the day fishing before the Montgomery-Gentry concert.
The rest of the transformation from marine museum (and parking lot) into a concert venue is done and undone for each Waterside Music Festival. To do that job, an army of 150 volunteers is mustered.
“Our volunteers are a rare commodity,” Gill says. “They’re a trained but unpaid staff, willing to do anything.” Together, volunteers contribute some 20,000 unpaid hours to marine projects each year.
At concert time, the march begins with ticketing. Unlike Ticketmaster, with everything computerized, the museum’s ticketing is all hands-on. “The volunteers come in weekly and go through all the orders, pull tickets out of boxes, put them in envelopes, mail them off,” explained Gill. “There are volunteers’ hands touching everything that goes on with our concerts.”
The museum’s parking lot begins its transformation two days before the concert. Barricades, stage extensions, chairs, beer trucks, food vendors and porta-potties are all delivered. Then the army gets to work, setting up 4,600 folding chairs, in perfect, even rows.
“It used to take six to eight hours to set up the chairs,” Gill recalled. “But four years ago, one of our volunteers, Herb Moore, put together an amazing crew. They have it down to just two hours and 15 minutes.”
Turning the museum into a concert venue is a labor of love with heavy manual and mental components.
The seating for most concerts is reserved, which means ticket holders are assigned seats, requiring the seats to be identified. How to label rented folding chairs posed another challenge. The original labels stuck to the back of the chairs were too sticky, and the volunteers found themselves scraping labels from the backs of chairs at midnight after a concert. Another set of labels weren’t sticky enough and they blew away, leaving ticket holders unable to find their seats.
So staff and another group of inventive volunteers designed a Velcro seat jacket to hang over the back of the chairs. “The ladies who volunteered to sew these labels just kept tweaking the design until they got it just right,” Gill said. “It’s taken them two years, but today we have almost 5,000 custom-designed seat jackets perfect for the job.”
Back to the Garden
For the first time this summer, that army will be called upon three times to set up 4,600 chairs and turn marine museum into Waterside Festival stage.
The third performance was added specifically to provide revenue for long-term planning.
“People want to see a new building or a new animal,” explained Gill. “But raising money for planning is hard to do. By using the money from a third show to plan for our future, we won’t have to ask the community for money.”
Instead of a musical act, comedian and actor Bill Cosby was booked, varying the proven formula. But the show did not sell out, as most music headliners have. Cosby drew a good house with 3,452 tickets sold. Comedic monologue doesn’t fill the outdoors space with the energy that comes off a musical performance. But the mostly middle-aged crowd laughed hard and applauded long.
“The July concert was an experiment, something different,” said Alves. “It wasn’t as strong as we hoped, and at first blush we probably won’t be booking Seinfeld.” But with a laugh, he reconsidered. “Well, maybe.”
Ticket sales have been brisk with a sell-out expected for the final show in the 2005 summer concert series, Crosby, Stills and Nash, scheduled for August 14.
The pioneering folk-rock super-group formed out of the remnants of three 1960s’ bands: Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and the Hollies. Crosby, Stills and Nash are one of the few American groups that rivaled the Beatles in popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their songs are social commentary set to brilliant three- and four-part harmonies.
Their first album, Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969) influenced an enormous number of bands and musicians including the Eagles, Loggins & Messina and James Taylor. The debut album, with its hit single, “Marrakesh Express,” remained on the charts for more than two years and sold more than two million copies. Their second live performance was at Woodstock in August of 1969, where they were joined by Neil Young. The quartet’s first album, Déjà vu, released in March 1970, included the hits “Teach Your Children” and “Woodstock.”
The group soon dissolved over personal and artistic differences but reunited over the tragic events of May, 1970. Moved by the four Kent State University students killed by National Guardsmen during a Vietnam War protest on campus, Young penned “Ohio,” which the band recorded immediately. Released as a single within weeks of the shootings, the tune solidified the band’s role as representatives of their generation.
Early in the summer of 1970, the band members again went their separate ways. They enjoyed commercial and critical success as solo acts, but when they came together they generated a magic that transcended their individual resumes.
In 1989 Crosby, Stills & Nash reunited to perform at the removal of the Berlin Wall. The ensuing years brought the three members together off and on in the recording studio and on stage. Among the three of them — as a trio, duo or solo acts — they have released close to 40 albums.
Even after all the years, the harmonies still sound as sweet as that day back in 1969 when history was made on Yasgur’s farm.
When the three legendary performers leave the stage and the lights are turned off, so will end another summer at the Calvert Marine Museum. The folding chairs will be carted away, the Velcro seat jackets packed up for the year and cars will return to the parking lot. But the staff won’t be packing it in for the winter. Instead, they’ll pull out their wish list of performers and start the whole process all over again.
But you don’t have to think about that until the old memorable lines stop singing in your ears.
By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong,
and everywhere there was song and celebration.
And I dreamed I saw the bomber jet planes riding shotgun in the sky,
turning into butterflies above our nation.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are caught in the devil’s bargain,
and we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
|About the Author
Documentary filmmaker turned writer Margaret Tearman, who has lived in Calvert County for 20 years, bought a Calvert Marine Museum membership because she had such a good time at Bonnie Raitt’s 2004 concert. She last profiled Bill Cosby for Bay Weekly on June 30 (Vol. xiii, No 26).