At left, Linda Litehiser and Linda D’Aviro have logged thousands of volunteer hours establishing and running free concerts in Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in McLaren Park. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Guardians of the park

In the late 1990s, Linda D’Aviro and Linda Litehiser — neighborhood activists who are collectively known as “The Lindas” — wondered why the amphitheater in San Francisco’s McLaren Park was never used.

“I couldn’t believe how empty it was. It was so sad,” said Litehiser, a resident of the Mission Terrace neighborhood, recalling how in the 1980s-90s, the theater was largely abandoned and had rotting benches.

Today, the venue is brimming with music, celebrating its fourth annual “Saturday in the Park” concert series on weekends through Oct. 22.

Having put in thousands of volunteer hours over more than a decade to help revitalize the venue, D’Aviro and Litehiser are pleased with their grassroots success in bringing people and music to the theater, which hosts Cocker Power, a Joe Cocker tribute band, headlining Saturday’s show.

But they still have more to do.

“We are ladies in our golden years. We need to take this to the next level,” said D’Aviro, who has lived in Crocker Amazon since 1989, and, along with Litehiser, are Friends of the Amphitheater’s most active members.

The women — who have written “their fair share of grants” and still do everything from cutting checks to storing tents in their garages — obtained $30,000 to fund the concerts. Support comes from corporate sponsor Airbnb, as well as the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department and San Francisco Parks Alliance.

Their goal is to set up a foundation, similar to the one supporting Stern Grove’s free concerts, to keep their program sustainable.

After looking at models from all over the country, they’ve conquered many initial hurdles, including safety.

“The challenge of the amphitheater is that it’s in a bucolic setting. You can’t see it from any road,” said Litehiser.

Working with police at the Ingleside Station and parks advocates, they fashioned a security program that volunteers can execute, which addresses the potentially dangerous five-to-10-minute walk from the parking lot to the 750-seat theater.

They’ve also helped other organizations, including the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, navigate the “daunting” permitting process required to use the theater.

Among their early triumphs was their role in naming the facility the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in 2005 (the late Grateful Dead leader was born and raised in the Excelsior) at a bash with then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, Jefferson Starship and Wavy Gravy. It was two years after Friends of McLaren Park hosted the first “Jerry Day,” an event designed to bring neighbors to the 318-acre park and theater.

More recent renovations include four handicapped parking spots, improvements to the seating and stage, and the park’s first restrooms.

With more stable funding, plans include increasing lighting and landscaping to accommodate booths, food trucks and “other amenities you take for granted when you go to a concert,” D’Aviro said.

Perhaps the advocates are most proud to present local musicians playing many genres. “We’ve done everything from big band and the Great American Songbook to Bollywood and Celtic Dead music,” D’Aviro added.

They also point to the upcoming “great, fourth annual” blues show (in the mid-1970s, the theater was home to blues festivals) and extensive programs for young kids, including a popular September show with a stroller corral rather than bicycle parking.

Most importantly, they want to continue to get the word out to those still unaware of the extraordinary natural area in their neighborhood.

“We don’t need to make sure that somebody from the Marina knows about it, but do for someone who lives five blocks away,” Litehiser said, admitting that public transit to the theater is difficult even for people living nearby.

“People who have never gone to a concert before often go on a hike afterward,” said Litehiser, referring to the trails, views, picnic grounds, lake and reservoir in the park, which is “like the wild, west end of Golden Gate Park.”

Enjoying the customer service aspect of her many volunteer duties, D’Aviro said, “We welcome people. It’s really about joy and happiness.”

Both of “The Lindas,” as they have come to be known, added: “What it’s all about is to come and spend the day with us; it’s really a wonderful place.”

IF YOU GO

Saturday in the Park Concert Series

Where: Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, 45 John F. Shelley Drive,
McLaren Park, S.F.

When: 12:30 to 4 p.m. Saturdays, through Oct. 22

Admission: Free

Contact: https://www.facebook.com/mclarenparksf/

LINEUP

Saturday: Cocker Power; Rock Candy with Lindsey Boullt, Jason Muscat, Tony Patel-Dunn and Bryan Turner; Lost Comet with Sharon Pucci (rock ’n’ roll)

Oct. 15: Back Porch Band; Beauty Operators String Band; Canyon Johnson, Windy Hill Bluegrass Band (bluegrass)

Oct. 22: Diva Ladee Chico with the Saturday in the Park House Band; The Groove Riders; Bobbie “Spider” Webb Band (blues concert, amphitheater opening 45th anniversary party)


AirBnBFriends of the AmphitheaterJerry Garcia AmphitheaterLinda D’AviroLinda LitehiserMcLaren ParkSan Francisco Parks AllianceSan Francisco Parks and RecreationSaturday in the Park concerts

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