James Taylor, a look of amazement on his face as he marveled at the fans enduring a pouring rain for his sake.
Dave Matthews, sending the sounds of “Satellite” into the summer night’s sky.
Bruce Springsteen, up close and personal from down in the pit, bodysurfing the crowd just a few feet away from us.
Hersheypark Stadium can haul off its 22-year-old stage to make way for a new one, but they can’t haul off my memories. The old stage had its day in the sun—and wind and rain and hail. This summer, a new stage brings state-of-the-art capabilities, in hopes of attracting more of today’s technology-driven, top-tier acts.
“The tours have become more entertainment-focused,” said Heather Storm, Hershey Entertainment’s director of event programming and execution. “It’s not just the person that gets up and sings or plays a guitar. It’s actually focused on the entertainment, the different kind of theatrical aspects. Obviously, when you have a stage that’s almost 30 years old, some of that equipment doesn’t even hang well.”
So, the stage that was good enough for Rod Stewart on May 18, 1996 (the old stage’s first concert) was hauled away in early April, and construction began on the new stage. On a sunny day in May, crews working four hydraulic lifts raised the quarter-ton roof of the new Mountain HD+ Staging System. The same design, the flagship of Wilkes-Barre-based Mountain Productions, has been underfoot for acts at Lollapalooza and for the 2017 NFL draft.
The new stage is capable of holding up to 500,000 pounds of equipment, up from the 100,000-pound range. At 80-feet wide in performance area, with 40-foot wings, it’s wider, deeper and higher than the old stage. A four-foot overhang protects the artists—and their pricey equipment—from sudden downpours. Lights can hang straight down in what’s called a “dead hang,” instead of requiring angled bridles. Items that used to take two riggers to hang will now need only one.
With the new stage, the artists are comfortable because the lighting and projections are consistent. The crew—artists’ roadies plus members of the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, Local 98—won’t be “getting creative” with riggings, Storm said.
And perhaps most important to Hershey Entertainment and its event partner, Live Nation, the stage will accommodate not just the hair bands and Disney-made sensations of the world but the Beyoncés and the Paul McCartneys.
But wait, you’re thinking: Beyoncé and Sir Paul have played at Hersheypark Stadium. You are correct, but they didn’t strut their stuff on that old stage. When you’re Queen B, your stage specs are specific and glitzy. Hershey, of course, wants the prestige acts, so the old stage would come down, and a rental upgrade would go up. After the concert, the process was reversed.
“It’s an undertaking,” Storm admitted. “The stages come in 15 to 17 trucks.”
Worse, the process would take several days or even a week, crossing off dates from the calendar that could have been booked by another act.
The new stage rang up at a “six-figure cost,” including installation, said Storm. Its versatility, capabilities and durability are “super important, because we knew the toll of loading and unloading,” she said.
A few acts will always require their own stages, “but we wanted to make sure we had a really, really good shot of letting anyone use this stage. We don’t want to jeopardize the dates or the wear and tear on the facility of loading the stage in and out.”
The old-stage roulette has even caused a bit of confusion. McCartney rocked the stadium on July 19, 2016. A few days later, the ever-popular Zac Brown Band trundled into town while the stage rented for Sir Paul still stood. Negotiating for the next year’s return, the Zac Brown people were surprised to learn that, no, Hershey hadn’t purchased a new stage. They just got the benefit of McCartney’s star power.
Zac Brown returned in 2017, though, and is re-returning on June 22 for his fourth straight year. Very few artists are fussy in their demands, Storm said. And those that might request such items as a competing company’s candy that melts in your mouth, not in your hands, are just trying to surround themselves with familiar comforts in a crazy life on the road—but the Zac Brown Band is an accommodating favorite.
“Zac Brown is amazing,” Storm said. “It’s an easy day. They’re easy people. No heavy-duty anything.”
The only challenge she anticipates is reeling in the artists for their 11 p.m. hard curfew because, after all, their sole purpose for being there is to play and do what they love.
Expected to perform first on the new stage is Journey and Def Leppard in a big-selling summer kickoff the Friday before Memorial Day. Storm said she’d be surprised if concertgoers “don’t notice a difference” from the old stage. For one thing, the controls will be lower and not as intrusive. And overall, “it’s so new and so fresh and so open. We’re working on it to make sure there’s an impact.”
The former stage went to Mountain Productions, perhaps for use at smaller events, so without even knowing it, you might catch our old friend hanging out with an indie band or up-and-coming country group.
Venues get a reputation among acts, from the summer’s first-class stages to the ones that make funny sounds when the wind blows. Hershey Entertainment officials hope that once favorable word starts getting out, the new stage will become a selling point to lure premier artists to Chocolate Town.
“That’s what we’re trying to do,” said Storm. “We’re trying to attract them here.”
Hersheypark Stadium is located at 100 W. Hersheypark Dr., Hershey. For more information, visit www.hersheyentertainment.com/hersheypark-stadium.