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Concerts under canvas

Project Briefs | October 1, 2007 | By:

The founder of a regional history show surprisingly turned down an offer by a philanthropic supporter to build him a theater.

“He said no; he wanted a tent show,” says Phillip Anich, operations manager for Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua (BTC). The 22-year show remains one of the few productions in an all-canvas tent, which adds to the show’s down-home feel. Each section of the tent, manufactured by Anchor Industries of Evansville, Ind., bears its own fire retardance certification.

“The reason we’re using canvas is its superior acoustic properties,” Anich says. In addition to concerts, plays, lectures and multimedia musicals, the nonprofit performing arts organization produces in the tent a weekly one-hour radio program aired nationwide on public radio.

BTC’s 60-by-75-foot performance tent, 60-by-60-foot concession tent and 12-by-12-foot raffle-ticket tent cover ground that slopes with a 9-foot drop in one direction and 18 inches in the other. But Anich says a straight tent is aesthetically critical. “I like when you step back and everything aligns.”

The sandy loam soil presented its own problems. “We had issues of it holding the tent down,” Anich says. “As we got more sophisticated, we geographically identified where the tent should be and precisely put anchors in where they should be every year.

“We put screw anchors in the ground, then a ratchet strap that fastens where the polypropylene line is coming off the tent,” he explains. “I had some straps made that have a loop sewn in the end and take the line though the loop and tie it back with a bow line … so one guy can go and ‘tune’ the tent.”

While he could probably put up the tent with eight people, he says, he ends up with a “boatload” of community-minded volunteers (at one time he had 80 people “on the ground” to walk the poles into position). “If we start at 7 a.m., we can walk away at 4 p.m.,” he says. It takes another three weeks, however, to install the 60-by-60-foot stage, seating for 900, a screen, the sound system and lighting—all of which BTC owns. It takes a mere four days to deconstruct and about three hours to drop the tent canopy.

With a 70-night season, BTC inevitably contends with the occasional storm. “We have been hit by hail twice,” Anich notes. “Last season, we had a tent that had a few years left on it, but hail driven at 60 to 70 mph put holes through the top.” So, BTC bought a new tent. But during a July rehearsal, “We were hit with sustained winds of over 45 mph with gusts as high as 60 mph,” Anich recalls. “One of the quarter poles snapped and tore a 17-foot hole in the new tent top.

“It was about five hours of continuously replacing things. It was like being in a storm on a ship, swapping out bungees, replacing screw anchors, and holding onto things.” This fall, Anich is having a new panel made to replace the patch job he fashioned to get BTC through the season.

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer and editor based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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