"From Bridgeport to Westport, and now back to Bridgeport, it feels like everything’s come full circle!” shouted longtime REO Speedwagon vocalist Kevin Cronin to a packed house on opening night at the Hartford HealthCare Amphitheater in late July. The band launched into their smash hit “157 Riverside Avenue,” named for the Westport address where they stayed while recording their debut album at Paul Leka’s famous Bridgeport studio 50 years before. As REO co-headlined the evening with Styx, a crowd was once again heard to go wild at the former Bridgeport Bluefish stadium on a tour appropriately named “We’re Back.”
“After eight years, to be able to see the venue explode with life was just marvelous,” said Howard Saffan, developer and principal of the venue, which is coming to be known as the Amp.
Saffan was basking for a moment in the realization of a dream the day after it became a reality. Initially scheduled as a public/private project from 2017 to 2019 in which the city of Bridgeport retains ownership of the building, the going got tough. Countless faults were discovered in and underneath the old stadium. Notoriously designed on a plan made for a stadium in Florida, the ballpark had suffered badly in Connecticut winters. These setbacks, coupled with the funding needed to address them, and staffing shortages caused by a global pandemic, doubled the time it took to let the first fans through the gate.
Located at the nexus of Route 8, I-95, the Bridgeport Metro-North train station, and the Long Island Sound ferry terminal, the theater is in an ideal spot to bring visitors in, and efficiently return them home, wherever that may be. The first view concertgoers and travelers see of the amphitheater is its main feature: an enormous tensile roof, stretching from the luxury boxes atop the grandstands, over the stage, and opening to views of Bridgeport Harbor. An onshore breeze cooled the crowd on a hot opening night, adding dramatic effects to the stage show as it swirled fog into colored spotlights and blew band members’ hair.
The roof and tent-like oculus through which visitors pass on their way in are the work of FTL Design and Engineering — a New York firm regarded as one of the best in the world at tensile-fabric architecture. Saffan worked with founder Nic Goldsmith on a design inspired in tribute to the big top tents of Bridgeport’s own P.T. Barnum. Saffan had high praise for United Steel of Hartford, which created and installed the huge roof. “There’s nothing like us anywhere in Fairfield County,” Saffan says of the venue, which can accommodate around 6,000 attendees when counting standing room, skyboxes and other areas. “We’re unique, we’re a unicorn.”
The first seeds of the plan were planted over lunch one day in Wallingford, years earlier. Saffan, then president of the Arena at Harbor Yard, had standing plans for monthly lunch with Jim Koplik, Connecticut’s Mr. Music, who presents in excess of 150 concerts per year at the Mohegan Sun Arena, the 30,000-person Xfinity (Meadows) amphitheater in Hartford, and the Oakdale in Wallingford, among others. “At the time they were booking Ives Concert Park in Danbury and Jim said LiveNation was thinking about building an amphitheater there. It didn’t make sense to me to create something so far from the center of the state,” Saffan says. “ ‘Nowhere else to build it,’ he said. I called Jim the next morning and said, ‘I look at an empty stadium every day.’ ”
Now completed, the scale of this vision is impressive. “It’s a venue that, size-wise, has been lacking in the market, and we wanted to make sure we catered to audiences that wanted a better experience not getting rained on,” Koplik says. “I’m a big believer in all the seats facing the stage. What’s really special is when we were building it, I made sure the stage was on second base, not center field, because I wanted to make sure it was an intimate experience. Half the audience is on the floor. There are very few venues like that.
“It’s like an outdoor Oakdale and that’s very appealing.”
The size of the facility allowed many options for visitors once inside. A pub from Long Island-based Blue Point Brewery starts the concourse off above what was once left field, and is joined by eateries from local restaurants Caseus and Little Pub. Further dining options include Frank Pepe’s pizza, Crispy Melty, Donut Crazy and Bridgeport’s own Tasty Yolk.
Above and beyond right field perches the Corona Beach Club: two shipping-container bars, flanked by live palm trees bracketing a sheltered porch swing. A section of seats has been removed between it and the stage. “We designed the Beach Club so people could walk around, and don’t have to stay in place to watch the show,” Saffan says. “In front, and facing Blue Point in left field, are 20-by-14-foot HD screens. The larger ones are 32 by 23 feet, costing in the millions each. Every seat is a good seat, but most people still watch concerts via video screen if they’re HD, so we thought it was important to spend the money.”
The last is a statement of Saffan’s outlook for the amphitheater project as a whole, and it shows everywhere. Over the course of an evening, I witnessed the slightly bizarre spectacle of many people taking pictures of the bathrooms, which are entirely gray marble throughout. Live orchids will remain a feature near the sinks. The ground floor concourse is lit with a star field of soft yellow lights on a black background. The baseball field’s dugouts were retained to keep the character of the building alive, and serve as large bars for concertgoers on the floor. On a sold-out night the line at any of their registers was fewer than three people deep.
Fans can arrive up to two hours ahead of time to eat and sip local beer at the 400-person capacity Two Roads tasting room just off right field. There are 70 bars throughout, and, crucially, a 3-to-1 ratio of women’s to men’s rooms. Traffic flow outside the theater was also a concern, and a study with the city yielded an enormously fan-friendly policy that parking would be free in order to remove the stop-and-go of payment transactions. The number of fan exit points inside was tripled.
“Growing up on Long Island and going to Jones Beach I liked the free-standing stage design, but with a tent over it,” Saffan says. “We wanted the experience to be totally different, but knowing we’re in Fairfield County, drawing people from Connecticut, Westchester, we wanted it to be unique but comfortable.”
Experienced live music fans know a great show comes from the interplay of energy between a band and an audience. The sight and sound of a happy, enthusiastic crowd supercharges the way a band can play, and turns a good night into a legendary one. Keeping the band happy off the stage can be just as important, which is why the Amp has what may well be the greatest back of house in the industry.
The back of the stage is partially open, so 18-wheelers full of tour equipment can pull directly to the stage. Backstage doors lead to an artists’ residence, clearly visible from the grandstands, which is just short of an actual mansion. Lodging, green room, full baths, laundry, dining and kitchen facilities fill either side of a hallway — just for the road crew — and to the building’s rear are star apartments featuring a full kitchen, fireplaces both indoors and on an outdoor stone patio, makeup/bath appointments, even a video game arcade.
Saffan credits Chris Zipay of Live Nation for all of it, and predicts the ease and luxury of the apartments will be a factor in landing big-name acts at a medium-size venue.
On stage, Styx launches into “Lady,” and the crowd erupts. Overhead, the enormous “torch” which supports the center of the theater’s 125-foot-tall roof hangs suspended over the crowd like the Tesla coil in some titanic laboratory. Six masts rein it in place with an intricate spider’s web of steel cables, the roof pulsing red, green and blue with the show’s lights above, while the screens of the sound designers dance with their own lights in orderly rows over home plate.
Sound equipment is through d&b audiotechnik, a German company Saffan calls “the Mercedes-Benz of the sound world,” with audio designed by Don Gamsjager of local DNR Labs.
Saffan and Koplik enjoy telling the story of “Guitar man,” an aluminum sculpture which joined similar outlines of basketball and hockey players on the curtain wall of the New Haven Coliseum from 1972 until its demolition in 2007. “I was doing my show with Chaz and AJ on WPLR, and this guy calls in and says ‘You should get Guitar Man, bring it back,’ ” Koplik says. “Then the next guy, Leo Reizfeld from Got Attitude Vodka, calls in and says ‘I bought it at auction because I couldn’t bear to see it go down. I know where it is; it’s yours.’
“I think Guitar Man gives us good karma as we bring live music to southern Connecticut again,” Saffan says. “The passing of the torch from the old New Haven Coliseum to the new amphitheater.”
Speaking a few days after opening night, Koplik runs through the upcoming acts: country, hip hop, classic rock, jazz standards … “The first four shows are four different crowds, and we hope every age group likes the venue.”
From May to October the Amp is expected to host as many as 50 concerts and 30 to 40 additional events.
Saffan wanted the best of everything because the amphitheater represents a legacy he’s leaving to the city. “Most people come into Bridgeport and they think it’s not fancy, but we’re bringing an experience you’ll see at the best places in New York, with the convenience of being in Connecticut. This place is our baby, Jimmy and me.”
Hartford HealthCare Amphitheater
500 Broad St., Bridgeport
Upcoming shows at "The Amp":
Dropkick Murphys and Rancid, Sept. 1
Trippie Redd, Sept. 8
Brit Floyd, Sept. 9
Alice Cooper and Ace Frehley, Sept. 19;
Erykah Badu, Sept. 22
NF, Sept. 29