SPAC Stories

SPAC Rocks

by Jess Lincoln

People are strange when you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly when you’re alone
Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted
Streets are uneven when you’re down

, The Doors

From The Doors in 1968 to Bush in 1997, rock performers at SPAC have attracted lawn-filling audiences who converge each summer to just relax and rock out. Historically listed as “Special Events,” SPAC’s non-residential and non-classical programming date to the Center’s early years, and have a colorful history of making SPAC and Saratoga Springs a home– if only for a night or two– to a diverse range of musical artists and the different communities who love to listen to, dance and party with them. [1]“People are strange” but not strangers at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

Rock From the Beginning

Why has SPAC sought to bring in the rock?  Money is one answer.  Since before it opened, the Center has drawn on several fundraising strategies, including selling tickets to performances that not only fill the amphitheater but cover the lawn.  Not everyone approves.  As early as 1968, a local paper described the pushback “purists,” community members who wanted SPAC to stay strictly true to a classical, high culture brand. Reporter John McAleenan did a beautiful job of fact checking, underlining that SPAC’s pop culture programming did not sacrifice space by adding rock and pop to the program, but rather added dates before and after the classical season for diverse performers.

As a fused musical space, SPAC’s life story is dramatically its own. And for that, I am grateful for The Doors causing such a stir! [2]

A devoted audience

Rock stars’ names printed in programs had already led to pushback from those who wanted SPAC to remain tame with only classical performances. The Doors fans maybe proved the cautious right in some ways. As Marilyn Nason writing for The Post Star reported, “[i]t took Saratoga Police one and a half hours to clear the theatre to the shouts of ‘we want more,’ after the stage lights had gone off and the house lights came up.”[3] Maybe this demand for more music is a slight blemish for fan unruliness. But I see the electric energy of the people of SPAC having fun, making that night memorable to so many as The Doors delivered an electric encore at the request of an amped up crowd.

I am not the only one to think so. 

Craig Hankerson, SPAC’s director, was reportedly a long-time advocate of rock concerts and their appeal to younger audiences. He countered negative reactions to the The Doors concert (as quoted in SPAC 50: Celebrating Fifty Years of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center 50) by saying that “young people deserve their type of music too,” even if he agreed that “the incident gave a lot of ammunition to those people who are opposed to rock concerts. Although Hankerson feared that the concert “put the final nail in the coffin,”[4] as Field Horne writes in retrospect, “It didn’t, of course.”[5]

Reading Hankenson’s words was really meaningful to my journey with the SPAC archive. His attitude in support of even the unruliest of rock concerts reminds me of how current director, Elizabeth Sobol’s talks of generating energy and renewing SPAC as a beautiful place of diverse music. In fact, I think The Doors concert makes the SPAC stage historically iconic! I went to Paris to see Jim Morrison’s grave, and little did I know I would end up just minutes from another iconic place graced with his eccentric presence.

Eleven years later, or eleven seasons later, over 290,000 people attended special events in 1979.[6] Some of the performers that gave life to stage this particular season were: Fleetwood Mac, Doobie Brothers, Johnny Cash, and not to mention the multi-talented Judy Collins who performed on July 24, 1979.[7]

SPAC Backstage, 1979 newsletter. Courtesy, SPAC Archive

Having it all

“The 1989 Special Events season ran the gamut in programming styles. From rock & roll to acoustic folk, from heavy metal to dance, from jazz to pop, SPAC had it all this past summer.”[8]

SPAC 1989 Annual Report

“SPAC had it all” is a beautiful opening line in SPAC’s 1989 Annual Report, which highlighted the energetic and musically diverse performers who graced the stage that summer. Ten years prior to the LiveNation partnership, SPAC’s leaders continued to demonstrate a knack for greatness by bringing in performers like Stevie Nicks, Cher, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and Elton John to upstate New York each summer.[9]

Gavin Rossdale, Bush, 1997, SPAC Archive

That knack for musically diverse greatness inspired my direction for this SPAC story. When organizing boxes of photos from SPAC’s archive, I came across a familiar face–Gavin Rossdale from the British rock band, Bush.[10] I found out that the photo is from a 1997 performance, which sparked my curiosity to find out about other rock performances at SPAC throughout its vibrant history of musical performances. 1997 is just shy of the 1999 partnership with LiveNation to produce popular and rock performances. Experiencing SPAC’s history of music through the archive did not transport me to the past entirely because even with LiveNation handling “special events” independently of SPAC, this was not a sudden departure from the center’s past. Celebrating the contemporary rock and alternative performances is a celebration of SPAC’s entire history of commitment to its audience and commitment to rockin’ music. “People are strange when you’re a stranger” but you will always find your community through SPAC music. If you think the SPAC experience is limited to beautiful orchestral music, you better be ready to head-bang too!

[1] Field Horne, “Chapter 8/Specials” in SPAC 50: Celebrating Fifty Years of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, ed. Field Horne and Tracy Strann (United States of America: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 2016), 179-197.

[2] SPAC Archive, Newspaper Clippings, Box 1, Folder 1960s-1980s, John McAleenan, “1968 Crucial for SPAC/ Increase in ‘Pop Talent’ Seen as Vital To Cutting Operating Deficits,” The Saratogian, June 1, 1968. (Available online at

[3] Marilyn Nason, “Third Season of SPAC Ends with Performance of Doors,” The Post Star, September 3, 1968.

[4] Horne, “Chapter 8/ Specials,” page 185.

[5] Horne, “Chapter 8/ Specials,” page 187.

[6] SPAC Archive, Newspaper Clippings, Box 1, Folder: Advertisements & Promotional Material (1966-1984), SPAC Backstage, Fall 1979, Vol III, No. 4, front page.

[7] SPAC Archive, Print Matter, 1979, SPAC Specials Program, June 19-September 3, 1979.

[8]SPAC Archive, Print Matter, Saratoga Performing Art Center, Annual Report 1989: Special Events.

[9] SPAC Archive, Print Matter, Annual Report 1989: Special Events.

[10] SPAC Archive, Photographs, Box 1, Folder; Bush [1997].

Image taken of The Doors photo spread in 50th Anniversary book