St. Clair College's Griffin Hollow Amphitheatre
Temporary Stage for Many Stars of the 1970's...
Now Home to Students on the South Windsor Campus
Bill Totten gripped the steering wheel of his vehicle with sweaty palms as he drove toward the inspection station on the American side of the Canada-United States border on his way from Windsor to Detroit. In those pre 9-11 days...the 1970s...one could get into the U.S.A. with the most modest of identification (usually even a document without a photograph) but Bill wasn't just an ordinary commuter out for a casual evening "over the river". He was representing Windsor's St. Clair Community College and he was on his way to meet one of the most storied blues musicians of this or any other age: Riley B. (we know him as B.B.) King. What the U.S. Customs and Immigration inspectors didn't know and weren't told, was that in the trunk of Bill's car were paper grocery bags full of small denomination currency: roughly $6,000 dollars' worth of it. And this money was going to be used to entice B.B. King to come that evening to the St. Clair College's Griffin Hollow Amphitheatre and entertain the thousands of fans who were waiting for him. Would he succeed?
St. Clair College came into being as a result of a decision by the Government of Ontario in 1966 to replace a modest network of what were then called Institutes of Technology with instead, instructional establishments which could be educational bridges between high school and university.
The new institutions were to be called Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology or more commonly, Community Colleges, and they would offer a choice for high school graduates between going on to university or being trained in practical skills, making them almost immediately suited for an increasingly diverse variety of work opportunities.
Windsor already had experience with this philosophy: the Ford Trade School. For years, it had given young people instruction in the practical side of the automotive industry. That was when Ford had its Canadian headquarters in the city, along with its major manufacturing and assembly installations. The city also had the Western Ontario Institute of Technology (WOIT), housed in a rickety old former grade school building on Mercer St., along with several portable classrooms. But the WOIT facilities were far from satisfactory. In one instance, ceiling plaster tumbled down on a classroom of startled Economics students.
Being ever enterprising, after a minor safety protest they strolled to the nearby Windsor Utilities yard, acquired some discarded hard hats and wore them to their next class.
One rather tongue in cheek report in 1968 estimated that the old Mercer St. building was actually sinking into the ground at the rate of three inches every 12 months, so the structure would be entirely swallowed up by the year 2108. Well...at least this afforded plenty of time to do something about it.
That something turned out to be the St. Clair College of today, even though its resemblance now to its modest layout at first is dramatically different.
46 years ago in the spring of 1967, the College acquired 93 acres of land, at and around its present location south of Cabana Rd. in South Windsor, and there were ambitious plans for the programs it would offer and the physical expansions it would undergo in the future.
At first, St. Clair proposed to teach courses in business administration, applied arts and various other technologies in varied locations. The College planned a main building which would accommodate some 3,000 students. It now has at least ten times that number in its Windsor, Chatham and other locations.
But even almost half a century ago, plans for the Windsor campus were ambitious. There were even discussions about building an 800 seat auditorium, along with an arena and recreation complex.
Organizations such as the Windsor Symphony Orchestra and the Windsor Light Opera Association...now Windsor Light Music Theatre...were approached.
But there was another school of thought, too. How about an outdoor entertainment centre...one which could attract an audience not only from the immediate region but internationally, and featuring international attractions?
Thus came visionary concepts, inspired by the fact that when new buildings are constructed, excavations have to occur and the earthen diggings have to go, well, someplace.
In the early 1970s, the newly minted Alumni Association of St. Clair College decided it wanted to contribute to what Alumni Director and Registrar Bill Totten (the man who had those $6,000 in small bills in the trunk of his car) calls a "bricks and mortar" project. He remembers meetings in 1971 involving himself, Roland Deschamps, who was then president of the Alumni Association, past Alumni president Donald Yates, Bill Geraedts, the Dean of Technical Arts and Trades, and others.
"We were given choices," Bill recalls now. "The Alumni group considered a quadrangle, some elaborate landscaping...and an amphitheatre. We chose the amphitheatre, and not only because the construction work on the new buildings meant that the excavated earth had to go somewhere, but that it could be put to good use right there on campus."
None of this would be inexpensive. "We applied for a Winter Works grant but we were turned down," he remembers. "Still, we went ahead and some 100,000 cubic feet of earth was moved to shape a 30 foot high outdoor bowl."
The first part of the project cost the fledgling Alumni Association more than $36,000, and that was for planning and site preparation and servicing (water and electricity) and basic shaping of what amounted to a large outdoor theatre. Then there were topsoil and sodding. This cost an additional $20,000.
And, oh, yes: the need for a large stage and sound equipment and lighting and dressing room areas and all the other necessities which go toward attracting big or even modest reputation entertainers.
There were hopes that the facility, eventually named the Griffin Hollow Amphitheatre after St. Clair College's mascot, the mythical part-eagle-part-lion creature of mythology, would eventually attract crowds rivaling those attending the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. Besides this, in the early 1970s, the amphitheatre's 30 feet altitude was the highest earthen elevation in Essex County and there was talk, eventually to become only too prophetic, that its slopes would make excellent toboggan slides.
There was also speculation that the floor of the amphitheatre, which was some 90 feet wide, might be flooded in winter as a skating rink. That idea, too, proved to be ominous.
But the main purpose of the amphitheatre was entertainment: musical entertainment, and the list of headliners who appeared there is dazzling still.
Memories are made of this, and although time has perhaps blurred their accuracy in a few cases because some of the artists appeared not in the amphitheatre itself but later in the college cafeteria named "The Hangar".
Regardless, consider these:
- CHUCK BERRY (often called "The Grandfather of Rock 'n Roll". His opening act was the 1960s version of Justin Bieber (without the monkey)...BOBBY RYDELL.
- HARRY CHAPIN: American folk singer and songwriter.
- LIGHTHOUSE: Canadian rockers and Juno Award winners.
- BROWNSVILLE STATION: 1970s Michigan rockers.
- JOHN LEE HOOKER: American blues singer/songwriter.
- MAHOGANY RUSH: U.S. rockers, especially popular in the 70s.
- THE GREASEBALL BOOGIE BAND: Canadian rockers, one of whom, Duncan "King Grease" White, stripped down to...well...let's just let it go at that...
- WOLFMAN JACK: The gravelly voiced American DJ who intro'd acts and who was featured in the cult coming-of-age movie "American Graffiti".
- THE GUESS WHO: Winnipeg rockers who led to these:
- BACHMAN-TURNER OVERDRIVE: The Winnipeg based "Takin' Care Of Business" musicians.
- BURTON CUMMINGS: A frequent Randy Bachman collaborator. The "American Woman" guy.
- BOB SEGER: The "Silver Bullet Band" rock artist from Detroit. (There's some question as to whether Bob performed at the amphitheatre or indoors. But as the saying goes: "Whatever??" He was indeed at St. Clair.) And this (by no means complete) list brings us to:
- B.B. KING: Seemingly ageless (he's 87) performer of blues, composer of songs and renowned guitarist.
In 1974, the Griffin Hollow Amphitheatre hosted a four day event which became known as the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz In Exile Festival. Apparently the event had caused too much controversy for the city it was named after for it to take place there. The Michigan newspaper The Ann Arbor Sun published a full page advertising promotion for the event, even listing motels and campgrounds so people could stay as far away as Belle River and Wheatley. It also warned festival goers about coming into Canada: "Don't risk bringing a stash (of pot, naturally) across. Canadian friends are the only temporary solution – until we change the marijuana laws." Here's another quote from years later in the College's own newspaper The Saint: "One guy...…noted that the amphitheatre was akin to a giant chimney. If you were standing on top of one of the embankments, you could 'get a buzz on' just from the clouds of smoke rising up from the medicinal materials being smoked below."
The Alumni Association's Bill Totten again, recalling the circumstances which sent him across the Canada-U.S. border with a trunkful of cash in brown paper grocery bags:
"The Ann Arbor event was scheduled for Thursday through Sunday: four nights. People were camped all over the property but, because the American promoters had left the scene due to financial difficulties after the Thursday (first night!) performances, the Alumni Association was forced to renegotiate with each act before the performers would go on. Then we realized that we couldn't pay the headliner, B.B. King, what he'd contracted for. In a panic we called his manager (B.B. and his group were waiting in a mobile home in the Detroit area) and told the manager the situation. He said, 'How much can you pay?', so then we started counting all the small bills we could lay our hands on and said, 'About $6,000.' "The manager replied, 'Well, if you can bring us that – in cash – B.B. will do it.' So we packed all the small bills into paper bags and stuffed them into the trunk of my car and got over the border...no problem. B.B. and his group came to the Amphitheatre and put on the best show ever!"
So these are some of the adventures, in the early 1970s, at St. Clair College's Griffin Hollow Amphitheatre. But its fortunes were changing.
In the winters, the steep slope of the viewing areas were all too inviting to neighbourhood youngsters and many others. The "hills" were, as predicted years earlier, used as toboggan runs, but not always with real toboggans.
Another alumnus, Paul Allsop, says, "People were tearing plywood panels off the stage area and using them as slides. There was a lot of vandalism to the sound and electrical systems, too. And there were increasing concerns about liability and security if someone had been hurt."
The South Windsor Optimist Club, eventually teaming up with the Big Brothers organization, laid asphalt along the sloping walkways in order to hold their annual Soapbox Derby events at the amphitheatre. So instead of sleek and bumpy but snowy passage for toboggans or sheets of plywood ripped from the stage, the winter frolickers were stopped in their skids and sometimes thrown off by pathways made of pavement. Then a spring wind and rainstorm also hit and reduced what remained of the stage area almost to cordwood.
These and other factors were the beginning of the end for the Griffin Hollow Amphitheatre and its grand and promising dreams.
The area became overgrown with vegetation and was fenced off, except for a few cross country running events and some zany activities of the annual Challenge Cup contests to raise money for charity.
All of this was the beginning of the end.
On the former site of this potential outdoor rival to the Stratford Festival now stands the St. Clair College Windsor campus's Student Residence.
Yet still, there exists an aura of nostalgia about the place: a misty but exciting blend of hopes, efforts, excitement and no little controversy, along with a great many fond memories of what indeed had been...and what might yet have been.