|By Michelle Kealey|
WEST SPRINGFIELD Visitors to the Big E will be watching the fair's major concerts from a different location on the fair grounds this year.
With the retirement of Charlie Belknap, who put on the Hollywood Stunt Show each year in the Big E's Outdoor Arena, fair officials made the decision to move the major weekend concerts to the Arena, which is now called the Comcast Arena Stage.
Eastern States Exposition (ESE) President Wayne McCary made the announcement last week, stating that the move will double the seating capacity for concerts and will improve traffic flow "in the heart of the fair" in front of the Coliseum and behind the Brooks Building.
"The decision to use the arena for concerts was an easy one. We have the space and the seating in one location something we have needed for several years," McCary said.
Noreen Tassinari, director of marketing at the ESE, said that fair official have explored other entertainment areas for many years, knowing that the stage in front of the Coliseum could become crowded.
However, she said that without erecting a new building on the grounds, there were no other options for relocating the concerts.
She said that when officials learned about Belknap's retirement a couple of weeks after the 2004 fair closed, they began to explore the arena as an option for the stage.
She said that concerts have taken place in front of the Coliseum since the 1970s and, although the major concerts will move to the arena, a smaller stage will remain there for additional entertainment on what is now named the Court of Honor Stage, also sponsored by Comcast.
Tassinari said that it is difficult to give an exact number of seats that were in the concert space in front of the Coliseum because spectators sat in bleachers and benches, but she said the area accommodated about 2,500 to 3,000 people.
The Comcast Arena Stage will double that number, seating about 6,000 spectators.
In addition to the bleachers in the arena, there will be seating on benches and chairs in the grassy area.
Tassinari explained that the stage used for the larger concerts will be the same stage that has been used in past years.
"It is a portable stage brought in for big shows," she said.
She said, however, that some significant changes have been made to the arena to accommodate the concerts as opposed to an auto show.
She said that a new food service area has been added, with picnic tables and umbrellas inside the arena. New lighting has been installed and improvements to the drainage in that area have been made.
Tassinari said that overhead wires have been moved underground to create a cleaner sight-line for patrons.
Trap rock has been installed in the grassy area to create a firm footing for the chairs and benches.
According to Tassinari, a separate entrance gate has been added to specifically accommodate the large tour buses that entertainers may bring on the road to different venues.
The new entrance is to the south of the arena so that buses enter from the back road without interfering with pedestrian traffic, she said.
She said that the bleachers in the arena will remain where they are and the stage will be situated at the approximate location of strip of pavement that was used for the stunt show, facing west/southwest to the bleachers. There will also be two large video monitors.
There will be standing room for spectators, but Tassinari said there has not been an estimate on the number of people who will be able to stand.
She said that over the past few years, the well-known performers, such as Jessica Simpson in 2004 and Destiny's Child in 2000, have attracted about 10,000 people, who stood as far as gates four and five to catch a glimpse from the "Court of Honor."
McCary said, "Our entertainment line-up at the 2004 Big E was one of the biggest in history. It is our intention to continue to bring national talent to the fair and in doing so, provide a safe and spacious environment in which to hold our concerts."
The major concerts will take place in the Comcast Arena Stage on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays throughout the 2005 Big E.
Concerts that have been booked for the Comcast Arena Stage include:
The Dan Kane Singers Sept. 16 at 8 p.m.
Omarion Sept. 17 at 8 p.m.
Gretchen Wilson Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. with opening act, James Otto at 6 p.m.
Chevy All-Access Music Tour - Sept. 20-23 - Exhibit Sept. 20 & 21; Music Sept. 22 & 23, 3:30 & 7:30 p.m.
Deborah Gibson Sept. 24 at 8 p.m.
Collective Soul Sept. 25 at 7 p.m.
The 5 Browns Sept. 30 a 3 and 8 p.m.
Frankie J & Baby Bash Oct. 1 - Frankie J at 7 p.m.; Baby Bash at 8 p.m.
Los Lonely Boys Oct. 2at 7 p.m.
Entertainment that has been booked for the Court of Honor Stage includes:
Stars of the Peking Acrobats(r) Sept. 16 - Oct. 2, 11 a.m., 1 & 6:30 p.m.
Julie Roberts Sept. 16 - 18 at 3 and 8 p.m.
Percy Sledge Sept. 19 - 22 at 3 and 8 p.m.
Ashley Gearing Sept. 23-25 at 3 and 8 p.m.
Charo Sept. 26 - 29 at 3 and 8 p.m.
Taylor Dayne Sept. 30 - Oct. 2 at 3 and 8 p.m.
The 2005 Big E will take place from Sept. 16 through Oct. 2. For more information about the annual fair, visit www.thebige.com.