The Amphitheater was built in 1970 when the SF Recreation Department completed construction of a multi-purpose outdoor Greek-style amphitheater. When it opened in 1971, the press reported the amphitheater “adds a new cultural dimension to San Francisco” describing it as providing “excellent acoustics” & seating for 700.
From 1975-77 the amphitheater hosted the 3rd, 4th and 5th San Francisco Blues Festival until it outgrew the space and moved to a larger space in the Golden Gate Park Bandshell. Once it outgrew the Bandshell it went first to Kezar Stadium and to Fort Mason, when the final Blues Festival was held in 2008. For the next two decades few, if any, live performances were held and with no funding, maintenance and repairs were sporadic and the existence of the amphitheater was not widely known.
From 1996-1999 SF Parks and Recreation expended capital funds to install ADA compliant restrooms, bench seating, adding parking spaces and pathways leading to the amphitheater. During the construction project amphitheater lighting and hillside stage electrical panels were removed and never replaced, limiting the venue’s use as only a daylight performing space.
During the amphitheater work some members of the neighborhood’s park advocacy group, “Friends of McLaren Park (FOMP)” lobbied the SF Parks and Recreation to name the amphitheater in honor of local resident and well-known musician Jerry Garcia https://jerrygarcia.com/jerrys-story/ of the iconic band The Grateful Dead, who had passed away August 9th, 1995. Jerry grew up in the Excelsior District, was known to regularly be in McLaren Park, and naming the amphitheater after a musician was seen as a fitting tribute to someone many residents knew. However, naming the venue after someone affiliated with the drug culture was unfavored by the city decision-makers, so the amphitheater remained unnamed and this plan was sidelined for a decade.
The 1999 local San Francisco city election was the first following the reintroduction of electoral districts for the Board of Supervisors. With 3 Supervisorial districts surrounding John McLaren Park, the new millennium saw more of the City’s focus on the Southern part of the city. This led to its active community advocates to lobby for more municipal investments to recognize the park as the City’s third-largest outdoor recreation area, improve maintenance, add several new amenities and promote increased use of the amphitheater as a music and performance venue.
The community continued its park advocacy, urging the District Supervisors and SF Park and Recreation Department staff and Commissioners to invest more into the park. Friends of McLaren Park (FOMP)” and booster group F.A.C.E. (Friends and Advocates of Crocker-Amazon and the Excelsior) lobbied the SF Parks and Recreation to name the amphitheater in honor of musician Jerry Garcia. At about the same time a F.A.C.E. member contacted the Trustees of the Jerry Garcia Estate and got approval to use one of the musician’s drawings as a fundraiser for the Crocker-Amazon “Purple Playground” raising $5,000.
To showcase the amphitheater and get publicity, F.A.C.E. and FOMP planned a live music concert. Named “The Annual Excelsior District Jerry Garcia Birthday Celebration” the first “Jerry Day” celebration on stage in the amphitheater was held in Sunday, August 3, 2003. The free music concert celebrated the August 1st birthday of Jerry Garcia with birthday cake and “Cherry Garcia” ice cream served to concertgoers. Each year since, on the 1st Sunday in August, an annual “Jerry Day” concert is held at the amphitheater.
On July 21, 2005 the SF Recreation & Park Commission passed Resolution Number 0507-003 which proclaimed the “unnamed Greek style amphitheater in John McLaren Park…shall hereinafter be known as the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater”.
The Official City Dedication of the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater was held on October 29 2005 organized by Friends of McLaren Park and F.A.C.E. and supported by District 10 & 11 community members, musicians and artists. Wavy Gravy was the celebration’s Master of Ceremonies, author and journalist Ben Fong-Torres recounted Jerry’s musical influence and there was an Official Proclamation presented by former Mayor (current California State Governor) Gavin Newsom. The concert included entertainment presented by The Jefferson Starship/Jefferson Galactic Family Reunion, David Gans and several Grateful Dead Tribute Bands: Mystery Cats, Grapefruit Ed Acoustic, The Little Wheels Band, Jerry Rigged and Michael John Ahern. To read the press coverage of the dedication, follow this link: https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/EXCELSIOR-Theater-gets-a-musical-salute-2562918.php
On July 15, 2008 Friends of McLaren Park (FOMP) held a meeting to create a sub-committee called The Friends of the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater (FOJGA), focused on working with the City to fund more staffing, maintenance, capital improvements, reasonable fees and more amphitheater promotion to promoters and the performing arts community to hold performances at the underutilized venue. The “Friends” began to hold regular meetings with the District Supervisors, SF Parks and Recreation staff, the Ingleside Police Department to overcome objections and obstacles keeping the venue closed. After nearly 4 years of negotiations, FOJGA (now calling themselves Friends of the AMP) held the first annual “Saturday in the Park” free concerts series in the fall of 2013.
In 2015 McLaren Park Collaborative members voted to set aside 2012 Bond funds to repair the surface in front of the amphitheater stage and install a handrail on the path leading from the stage to the green room. This work was done in 2016.
Following the 2015 Grateful Dead “Fare Thee Well” Tour which SFRPD sponsored as a live-streaming concert in AT&T Park, the concert sponsor, The Madison House, donated $25,000 to SF Rec and Park to improve the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater. The donated funds paid for an official RPD “flag-style” metal sign at the ADA entrance to the amphitheater displaying “Jerry Garcia Amphitheater.”
In 2016 SFRPD began the “McLaren Park Visioning Process,” starting with a day of family-friendly fun, a Treasure Hunt, designed for participants to discover several special places within the park. Future plans include a family triathlon and a soapbox derby.
In 2017 SFRPD created four separate focus groups: Trails and Paths, Roadways, Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, and Group Picnic Area and Playground.
RPD has held meetings to discuss future improvements to update the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater and enhance the venue, based on community input from RPD Focus Groups held in 2017. For the most up-to-date RPD information, follow this link: http://sfrecpark.org/1163/Jerry-Garcia-Amphitheater-Project–McLar