Here are some highlights from the venue’s illustrious history:
The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater hosts its first-ever performances in 1987. The venue capacity at opening is 1,200 people, 900 in seats and the remainder on its scenic lawn. The June 27 opening ceremony is attended by its namesake, 38th President of the United States of America Gerald R. Ford and his wife, Betty Ford, as well as Bob Hope, Dolores Hope, and many other luminaries and Vail pioneers.
Willie Nelson is the headliner at the venue’s first major performance on Thursday, July 16, 1987. Tickets are $100 for reserved seating and $25 for general admission. Vail Valley Foundation President Bob Knous credits President Ford and VVF Board Member Jack Crosby for helping bring Nelson to town.
The Nelson concert is one of six performances of the opening season, including the Colorado Springs Symphony on July 3, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater July 11-12, concert violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg with the Colorado Springs Symphony Aug. 9, the Vail Symposium’s women’s presentation Aug. 15, and the U.S. Army Chorale and Band on September 5-7.
The opening of the venue is the culmination of a years-long fundraising and construction effort led by the nonprofit VVF. The land that the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater (The Amp) was built on is owned by the Town of Vail and is leased to the Vail Valley Foundation on a long-term lease, and the VVF still manages the venue today.
The Bravo! Vail Music Festival, which was established as an independent 501c3 organization in 1987, holds its first performances at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater.
The botanical gardens adjacent to the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater were established in 1985, and in 1988 the gardens are christened as the “Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.” The gardens become renowned as the highest botanical gardens in the world and are an attraction to locals as well as visitors from around the world.
1989 is a seminal year for the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, including the following historical happenings:
In 1989, the legendary Bolshoi Ballet Academy dancers of the Soviet Union have a Houston performance canceled. Jerry Jones, then president of Beaver Creek Resort, takes the idea of bringing the dancers to Vail to VVF President and CEO Bob Knous, Vice President Lissa Macintosh Tyler, Director of the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater Melody Kennington, and soon-to-be President and CEO John Garnsey. In late May of 1989, Tyler hops on a plane to San Diego to find out more and meets with manager Mary Ellen Devery to explore the idea of a performance in Vail.
With support from President and Mrs. Gerald R. Ford and VVF Board Chairman Harry Frampton, Knous rallies a host of patrons that includes Oscar Tang, Henry Kravis, Dick Swig, Donna and Gil Giordano, Judy and Howard Berkowitz, Marlene and John Boll, Sheika and Pepi Gramshammer, and several others, who ensure the Bolshoi Academy can perform that summer in Vail.
A special friendship is formed between the Vail Valley and the Bolshoi Ballet Academy throughout three sold-out performances.
The Academy returns the following year, and soon becomes the “Vail International Dance Festival,” which is rebranded as the “Vail Dance Festival” in 2017.
Hot Summer Nights
The FREE Hot Summer Nights Tuesday night concert series begins. The trailblazing concept helps put the free concert model on the map for resort and destination communities.
Bravo! Vail Music Festival
Also in 1989, the Bravo! Vail Music Festival welcomes the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra to a residency at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, a major step forward for the Festival and for a long and fruitful partnership between the Festival and the VVF.
The VVF formally establishes The Bolshoi Academy at Vail, a four-week summer dance study for American students, which subsequently grows into the Vail Dance Festival. The Academy had visited for a one-time performance in 1989.
Santana headlines a sold-out concert at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater on Aug. 24. Opening for Santana is an up-and-coming jam band called “Phish.” Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio joins Santana for a song during his set and Phish drummer “Fishman” also plays a vacuum solo during the Santana set, much to the surprise (and possible displeasure) of Carlos Santana. In 2019, Anastasio would return to The Amp stage for the first time in 27 years, and recount the story to the sold-out audience.
The International Evenings of Dance, mixed-bill evenings featuring various styles of dance and music, is added to the Vail International Dance Festival (now known as the Vail Dance Festival) schedule. President and Mrs. Clinton attend the Festival.
The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater’s sister venue, the ~500-seat Vilar Performing Arts Center (VPAC), opens in Beaver Creek. In 2000, the VVF agrees to manage the VPAC, and both venues become managed and operated by the nonprofit VVF.
The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater undergoes the first of several remodels. The $9 million renovation in 2001 is guided by original building designers Morter Architects and includes more seats, additional restrooms, improved performance facilities, and a larger and better roof to keep out the summer rain. President Ford, his family, VVF Chair Harry Frampton, Board Member Oscar Tang, VVF President Ceil Folz, and Vail Mayor Ludwig Kurz are among those who attend the groundbreaking ceremony.
Bob Dylan performs a memorable evening at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. During his set, as rain comes down upon the still-enthusiastic crowd, he sings “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as well as “Rainy Day Woman.”
The New York Philharmonic joins the Bravo! Vail Music Festival’s lineup at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, to be joined by the Philadelphia Orchestra four years later, helping establish the Bravo! Vail Music Festival as one of the leading classical music festivals in the world.
Damian Woetzel is hired as Artistic Director of the Vail Dance Festival, ushering in a new era for the event and helping elevate its reputation as the premiere dance festival in the nation.
A remodeled Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater opens to the public on June 17. The new remodel includes a new entrance area protected by a soaring canopy dubbed “The Lobby,” including enhanced ticket and bag checking areas, a mini-stage, new concessions and restrooms, and a series of symbolic sculptures, images, and interpretive elements at a new Ford Family Tribute.
The improvement also includes a terracing of the lawn area, known as the Susan and Harry Frampton Lawn in honor of the VVF’s longstanding Chair of the Board (1981-2017), Harry, and his wife, Susan.
More than $12 million was raised to fund the remodel, including $2.1 million provided by the Town of Vail after overwhelming support is provided by Vail voters.
Willie Nelson opened the venue in 1989. In 2014 his son, Lukas, continues the family tradition by playing with his band Promise of the Real at Hot Summer Nights. It was the first of several returns of Lukas and his band to the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater and VPAC venues.
The Vail International Dance Festival rebrands to the more concise “Vail Dance Festival.” One of the GoPro Mountains of Music Concerts, Stephen Marley, is held at the venue on June 11.
In June the complete GoPro Mountain Games music series, known as “GoPro Mountains of Music,” moves from Checkpoint Charlie in Vail Village to the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. The June 8-10 series features headliners Moon Taxi, The Marcus King Band, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass, and Nahko and Medicine for the People.
In August the venue celebrates its 30th Anniversary with a concert weekend featuring headliners Rodrigo y Gabriela and Third Eye Blind.
Shortly after the 30th Anniversary Concerts, a fruitful partnership begins between the VVF and AEG Presents to bring more headliner acts to the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, including artists like Robert Plant (2018), Dispatch (2018), Steve Martin & Martin Short (2019), Trey Anastasio (2019), Steve Miller Band (2019), Gary Clark (2019), Bob Weir & Wolf Bros (2021), Sebastian Maniscalco (2021), Death Cab for Cutie (2021) and more.
The global COVID-19 pandemic leads venues and public gathering places around the world to close their doors in winter/spring of 2019-2020. On July 11, 2020, the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater becomes one of the first venues in the nation to reopen its doors by hosting a limited-capacity movie night on the lawn, followed by a limited-capacity Hot Summer Nights concert on July 14. The Vail Valley Foundation continues programming throughout the season and hosts a complete season of Hot Summer Nights concerts.
In cooperation with local public health officials, new protocols and social distancing rules are established. Ford Amphitheater events help give much-needed relief from the isolation of the pandemic. For the first year in memory, the Vail Valley Foundation and Bravo! Vail are unable to jointly host the July 4 Patriotic Concert.
Throughout the summer of 2020, the Vail Valley Foundation releases new branding and signage for the venue.
The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater opens earlier than ever before (May 15) and returns to a complete season of entertainment at full capacity. The venue is one of a very few outdoor venues and therefore hosts an elevated number of high school graduations, school plays and performances, and community events. In 2021 the venue hosts a total of 68 events, more than any other time in the venue’s history.
Michael Franti & Spearhead opens the season with the first major full-capacity event in the venue since 2019. The venue quickly transforms from the Michael Franti & Spearhead concert into an exceptional sold-out GoPro Mountains of Music weekend that opens with Yonder Mountain String Band and closes with two nights of Bob Weir & Wolf Bros. The Bob Weir shows are so well received that the band, in 2022, releases an album which captures songs from the band’s four-night run at The Amp and Red Rocks, “Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros: Live in Colorado.”
Bravo! Vail Music Festival also returns, in 2021, to a complete season of events.
The VVF’s partnership with AEG Presents continues to flourish in 2021 not only with the Michael Franti and Bob Weir concerts, but also with comedy from Sebastian Maniscalco, concerts from Lindsey Stirling, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Death Cab for Cutie, and Phil Lesh & Friends. Hot Summer Nights also returns to full-capacity events.
Today, the 2,500+ seat venue hosts big names in rock, country, and bluegrass; it is the home base for Bravo! Vail; it hosts the world’s top talent at the Vail Dance Festival each summer; and it is home to community events, graduations, and a host of ceremonies that, together, make it a central gathering place for everyone who loves Vail in the summertime.
The Ford Amphitheater structures are owned and operated by the Vail Valley Foundation, who operate the venue on a long-term lease of land from the Town of Vail.