Amplified music revisited at Bidwell Bowl
Richard Elsom comes across as part hopeless nostalgic, part visionary as he sits in Bidwell Bowl, talking about his plans to return amplified music to the outdoor theater that dates back to 1938, when it was constructed as part of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration projects.
He waxes poetic about Big Chico Creek. ("As the leaves change, this place is just magical.") He frets about footprints on the benches, freshly painted by Chico High School volunteers. In contrast, high schoolers cutting class shout at us and threaten a newspaper photographer.
“This is what this place has become,” said Elsom—rowdy kids vying for position among creekside sack lunch-eaters, romantics and book readers. As for entertainment, “There’s 30 or 40 weddings a year and not much else.”
Elsom, who coordinates events under the umbrella of Celebrations of People, Inc., hopes to convince the city of Chico to allow longer, perhaps even louder, amplified events.
He envisions concerts, plays, movies and more taking place at the Bowl, returning it to its glory as a center of Chico culture that it enjoyed in the 1940s and ‘50s. The performances would raise money for a variety of local nonprofits.
In the meantime, event organizers are sticking to the existing rule of no more than 20 minutes of amplified music per night.
“We’re going to do whatever we can do in here legally while kind of on a slow track [with the city],” Elsom said. “I’m not going to be pushing it.”
A five-week series of events kicks off this Friday, Oct. 14 at 5 p.m. with 20 minutes of amplified music followed by some sound checks.
What’s good for Chico cultural events could be bad for the surrounding Mansion Park neighborhood, whose residents are up in arms over the attempt to revisit the idea of allowing amplified music at Bidwell Bowl. In 1997, after neighbors’ complaints, the then-council changed the city’s Municipal Code to allow only 20 minutes of amplified music per event.
Bob and Christina Aranguren, who live on Legion Avenue, thought this issue was settled years ago.
Having moved to the neighborhood in 1979, the Arangurens watched as concerts in the University Rose Garden and at the Whitney Hall dorms, Heat and Outlaws baseball games and loud music carrying over from downtown invaded their evenings.
“It’s not the fact that they’re opening up the venue; it’s the noise,” said Christina Aranguren. “People who move in here don’t realize that they’re going to be hit from all these venues. You can hear Madison Bear Garden calling for its Jello shots at 2 in the morning. You’re closing your windows on beautiful nights.
“If it was just Bidwell Bowl, I don’t think you’d hear from the neighbors,” she said. “It’s the cumulative effect.”
And it’s not as if the concerned neighbors are uptight about the rock ‘n’ roll. “By the time the sound reaches us, you’re not hearing music,” said Bob Aranguren. “You’re hearing frequencies—loud bass.
“We’ll probably attend some of the events,” he conceded. “I like the idea. I don’t want to hear it from my back yard or in my bed.”
Traffic, too, could be a problem: hundreds of concertgoers trying to park or drop people off on the tiny road that runs between Bidwell Mansion and the creek.
Elsom has a long history with Bidwell Bowl. In the early 1990s, he used to put on concerts there on behalf of the Progressive Student Union.
“I did about 100 shows there. Fridays at 5 was the tradition,” he said. “No one ever complained about the noise.”
After the city changed the rules in the mid-1990s, Elsom unsuccessfully brought the matter before the council again in 2001. This September, the council referred the matter back to the Internal Affairs Committee, which met Oct. 12 and once again sent it to the City Council, with two members opposing sound tests or extending amplified hours and one in favor of examining it further.
“To me, it’s opening up Pandora’s Box,” Dan Herbert said. “We’ve addressed this before, we’ve debated it.”
Ann Schwab said, “I think that there are plenty of venues in Chico. I think the loss outweighs the benefits that could possibly be derived.”
But Andy Holcombe opined: “I’d like to gain Bidwell Bowl back. It would add to the community, if it doesn’t add noise to the community.”
Now, Elsom is trying to find out, through the use of decibel meters and walking the neighborhood during events, what is causing the sounds to reverberate throughout the neighborhood. For one thing, he said, there’s nothing to encase bands’ sound systems. Also, sound is probably bouncing off of the university’s physical science building, which wasn’t there when Bidwell Bowl was constructed.
Elsom said he sympathizes with the neighbors, but believes only about a dozen houses are significantly impacted. Even those residents, he said, could do well to recognize the greater good of supporting amplified activities in Bidwell Bowl.
“It was thinking of showing a silent film,” he said, somewhat sardonically. “One person can’t hear Jeopardy without turning the TV up, they call the police and 500 people are denied their entertainment.”