FROM THE AJC ARCHIVES: When Garrison Keillor stormed off the stage at Chastain Park

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Garrison Keillor has been fired from Minnesota Public Radio amid allegations of improper conduct. The longtime radio host has performed in Atlanta many times over the years, memorably in 2005 when he stormed off the stage at Chastain Park. The loud audience got on his nerves. This piece by Richard Eldredge ran July 15, 2005

When Neil Young and Michael Stipe openly chastised noisy Chastain Park Amphitheatre audiences from the stage several years ago, the chardonnay-sipping conversationalists flicked away the criticism like a fly circling too close to the potato salad.

After all, Young has a well-honed reputation for crotchetiness and Stipe is a bit eccentric.
But when you receive a public spanking from “A Prairie Home Companion” host Garrison Keillor, a guy many suspect has green tea pumping through his veins — that’s something to talk about.
So when the coolers and candelabras are hauled into the venue Saturday for the India Arie concert, music fans can expect that talking will be a topic of conversation.

Chatty Chastain-goers are nothing new — the venue’s long-standing notoriety for noise has frustrated patrons and performers alike for years. For many, the quirky 7,500-seat, 61-year-old amphitheater can be either one of country’s most enjoyable — or confounding — places for a concert.

The issue came roaring to the forefront after Keillor posted critical remarks about the audience following the public radio host’s June 24 performance.

“The show was troubled by a large number of loud drunks sitting in the expensive corporate seats down close to the stage, ” Keillor said on the show’s Web site. Calling the Classic Chastain performance “a joyless affair, ” he added: “If Chastain Park were par for the course, I would’ve quit years ago.”

“A Prairie Home Companion” technical director Scott Rivard, who has worked with the National Public Radio show for 20 years, said he had to make a few tweaks to the Chastain recording before it hit the airwaves the following night.

“I did cut out some of those yells, ” he said. “To be honest, yells of that fervor or timbre are very unusual. We do a lot of amphitheater dates in June. Normally, the audience is very responsive.”

Remarks strike a nerve
Keillor’s comments struck a nerve with hundreds of concertgoers who praised the radio personality in e-mails to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and on an Web log.
“Mr. Keillor was very justified, ” said Teresa Brewton, a 47-year-old Eatonton resident. Twenty years ago, Brewton said, she thoroughly enjoyed a James Taylor show at Chastain. A 2001 Doobie Brothers concert was her last.

“We were surrounded by all these corporate men . . . who were acting like they were at a ballgame. One guy couldn’t even focus, he was so drunk, ” Brewton said. “Mr. Keillor said publicly what many of us have been telling friends for years.”

Rickie Lee Jones, along with Stipe and Young, are among performers who have groused on stage about the burbling buffet below.

Some artists, including Robert Plant, who performed last month, request that no dinner tables be allowed.

Yet Chastain is one of the favorite tour stops for Mary Chapin Carpenter, and the Allman Brothers and Gipsy Kings have inspired fans to dance in the aisles for hours on end.

“I’ve gone to probably 2 million shows at Chastain over the years and every single experience, every single show has been different, ” said Indigo Girls manager Russell Carter.

Quirks familiar to artists
Those who book the amphitheater are well-acquainted with its idiosyncrasies and try to educate first-time Chastain performers by having an up-front conversation.

“Some artists don’t want the tables and the food so we eliminate them for performers who request that, ” said Peter Conlon, who books acts for Chastain. “Some artists initially come in without the tables and then see what the venue is all about, and then next time we book them, they’ll request the food setup.”

Only a handful of concerts each season utilize the table-less “rock setup” option. Classic Chastain shows don’t even offer the option.

Conlon said the Keillor experience was “an aberration, ” but he doesn’t defend the rudeness of the crowd. “If you’re causing a disturbance, you’ll be asked nicely to leave, ” he said. Still, ejections are rare.

At a 2002 Blondie show, two drunken fans were ejected from a pricey corporate table down front after a beer was flung at security personnel who were trying to enforce the “no photography” policy.

There’s an ongoing tension between the corporate season table holders who use them to entertain clients and the single ticket-buyers who are there to see a particular artist. The groups are split about 50-50, said Rudi Schlegel, who books the Classic Chastain concert series for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Longtime tension
The tension has been present since the amphitheater’s grand opening in 1944, although in a different way.

In the amphitheater’s early days, when it hosted pops concerts, symphonies and musicals, concertgoers usually tailgated. Those in front tended to be quiet, and those in the back noisier, said 95-year-old Doris Lockerman, a retired Atlanta Constitution reporter who covered the opening of the amphitheater.

“If you were a late-comer sitting in the back, you couldn’t really hear the program, ” Lockerman said. “It was incredibly rude but people back there would talk. It could become a real rabble.”

In later years, as the performance lineup changed, the cooler-and-candlestick culture became an integral part of the Chastain experience.

On some nights, the artist, the choice of material and “highly social” Atlantans just don’t jell.

During a 2003 performance when rocker Neil Young tried to introduce an evening of songs from his upcoming concept album “Greendale, ” he scolded chatty Chastain-ers: “Once I made the mistake of playing acoustic in Las Vegas, and people talked through every song. I don’t do that anymore. Nice to know there’s a little bit of Vegas right here in Atlanta.”

Yet fans remained quiet for notoriously finicky Nina Simone when she played a rare U.S. concert in 2000.

Although the Indigo Girls enjoy its ambience, Emily Saliers acknowledges the venue’s challenges.

“We’ve had frustrating nights there because the crowd was too talkative, ” she writes in an e-mail. “And we’ve had great nights where the crowd was right with us. Chastain is one of my favorite venues because the vibe there is so summery and lovely.”

Fans ‘out of control’
Paul Hearn and his wife, Donna, live three miles from the amphitheater but don’t frequent the place any longer. Hearn said the crowds at a multi-evening stint by R.E.M. a few years ago persuaded him to give up the summer tradition.

“We went both nights and the crowd was just as out of control both times, ” said the 47-year-old.

“I remember Michael Stipe trying to sing a ballad and he just stopped. . . . He actually commented to the audience about how rude they were, and the crowd was so busy talking that they didn’t even notice. That was it for me.”

Hearn said he and his wife now go to shows at the Roxy, Philips Arena “and pretty much any other place except Chastain.”

Still, thousands load up coolers and bug repellent and continue the outdoor tradition.
Explained Russell Carter: “Chastain is just one of the things that makes it summer here.”

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