An overhead view of Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland. Photo courtesy of Jean Parker.
An overhead view of Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland. Photo courtesy of Jean Parker.

Elton John, Jimi Hendrix, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters and many more of the world’s biggest music stars have graced the stage of Merriweather Post Pavilion since the Columbia venue opened in 1967.

Over the past 56 years, Merriweather has undergone physical renovations and adaptations to societal shifts as audience tastes change. But one thing that has remained the same is the people. Every year, Merriweather hires hundreds of workers, many of them high school students, to keep order and clean up and help keep the venue running. Working at Merriweather is a formative experience for many, and a rite of passage. In fact, the story of Merriweather may best be told through the eyes of the people who have worked there. 

Baltimore Fishbowl spoke with Merriweather employees, including some whose time there dates back to the 1970s. To be sure, most have moved on to other jobs, but still they have so much to say about the place that used to be their summer home.

Here is what former Merriweather employees had to say about their experience.

What is your favorite memory from working at Merriweather?

Gregory Phillips (worked at MPP in the 1980s; currently in real estate development): When Elton John actually was married [to former wife Renate Blauel], he came to see Steve Winwood play. So he flew in near the Columbia library, and we were supposed to rent Lincoln Continentals that were the same color, and then one would go left, one would go right. And since I was the boss at the time, I got to drive out. And then we went backstage. And it was Elton and his wife, a nephew and a security guard. And then I think two or three nights later, he was actually playing at Merriweather.

We got word to take him backstage to the dressing room so he could meet with Steve Winwood before the show. And his security guard, which is this huge dude, leans over to me and said, ‘Mr. John wants you to come and sit with us in the seats.’ Because normally, we would have just got him there. And so I had the playlist, and I knew when to get him out before the end of the show, so he wasn’t mobbed. So we went up to go sit in the seats to watch Steve Winwood.

Katie Powell (age 29, worked at MPP from 2012-21 and a 2012 graduate of Centennial High School, now a teacher living in Chicago): Time and time again, you kind of have these preconceived notions of celebrities are jerks and whatever. Man, was I wrong. I mean, there are some times that you definitely saw that they’re divas and drama queens, and they want things to be perfect. But then, like, they’re humans. There’s one instance, I was carrying in two cases of water backstage one day and Kenny Chesney opened the door and took the water out of my hands. And it’s just like one of those things that like you’re a good human and like, I will tell anybody if they talk about Kenny Chesney, like, ‘No, no, he’s a good person.’ He’s the type of person I want to teach … my kids to be when they walk out of my classroom at the end of the year. It’s little things like that.

Gary Campbell (worked at MPP in the 1970s and 80s): Jackson [Browne] played I think three nights that year, and the second day, we were asked, ‘Anybody want to play softball? Go to one of the local high schools. We’re gonna play Jackson Browne’s team.’ So it was Jackson Browne and some of the band members, some of the roadies and the crew, and all that.

We’re on the field, and Daryl Hannah comes up to bat. She didn’t really understand baseball. So she stands up there and the pitcher throws three pitches, and she swings at all three of them. And she continues to stand in the batter’s box. That’s kind of an awkward thing. You know, they’re the band, and we’re the Merriweather people. So it got a little bit awkward. And finally, someone said, ‘Just take another swing, keep swinging.’ And the pitcher gets ready to pitch and Jackson Browne at that moment, turns around and says, ‘Wait, wait, what’s going on?’ And someone on their team said, ‘Daryl all struck out but they’re giving her another pitch.’ And he was pissed. He’s saying, ‘No way. Nobody carries us. Daryl, you’re out.’ He didn’t want it. He didn’t want there to be any inappropriate rule changes for his girlfriend or any of the other band members for that matter. So we ended up beating them.

What is the biggest lesson you learned working at Merriweather?

Peter Donegan (age 59, worked 1982-86, a mechanical engineer who lives in Ellicott City and graduated Wilde Lake High School in 1981): There’s a little bit of don’t judge a book by its cover when you meet somebody. And I say that in a way because we would see Deadheads that look like they hadn’t bathed in weeks, and they look like they’re quasi-homeless people. But when they open their wallets to share the tickets, it’s full of hundred-dollar bills.

Gregory Phillips: I think being part of a team is what Merriweather was all about. Ultimately, if you’re delivering a product, you do it as a team. And I think that’s probably the one thing that stuck with me the most.

Karen Donegan (Teacher, worked at MPP from 1983-86, lives in Ellicott City, graduated from Centennial High School in 1982): Telling people news they don’t want to hear in a way that you can get that. ‘Oh, I’m really sorry. You’re right. I wish you could do that. But I’m gonna get in trouble if I let you down there.’ It was a lot for me in education, when I have to deal with parents and deliver news that they don’t want to hear. You know, I use a lot of my old Merriweather skills.

What are some of the bigger changes you’ve noticed over the years?

Gary Campbell: The first year I worked there, you could bring alcoholic beverages in as long as they weren’t in cans or bottles. So you could fill in a cooler with whatever your pleasure was. And then the next year, it was decided that they were going to sell alcohol inside. And you, therefore, weren’t allowed to bring anything in.

Jo Corry (worked at MPP in the 1970s-80s): I don’t think you have the same level of accessibility to the humaneness of what musicians are today that you did then. They weren’t tired, they were in good moods. They were just people in the back basically. I think the whole dynamic between performers and their fans changed.

What impact does Merriweather still have on you?

Amrit Dhillon (age 46, president of Ad House Communications, worked at MPP from 1993-99, and graduated Atholton Hight School in 1995): I was a journalism major when I was working. I was doing promotions so it kind of set me up. I left Merriweather and went to work at an ad agency. I think it set me up for kind of being creative. I think it let me be creative and think outside the box a little bit. I think the biggest thing that it taught me was that work should and can be fun.

Katie Powell: I never thought I would network for my career at Merriweather, but that totally happened. Like I am friends with people on Facebook, we worked one show together at Merriweather.

I moved out [to Chicago]. I bartend at Topgolf because I went to Topgolf one time and I was like, ‘Holy smokes, it’s the same thing.’ People show up for an event. They’re here for a set amount of time. They want to drink, they want to have fun, and then they leave. So that’s kind of scratching my itch. I’m an extrovert so it was hard moving out here not knowing anybody. So that, similar to Merriweather, got me out talking to people and helped me. I long for Merriweather sometimes and that camaraderie with people.

What was the most challenging part of the job?

Peter Donegan: I mean, drunk people in fights. Can’t hit anyone really, right? I mean, not that you would want to hit anybody. But you know. And we were ushers. There were security guards. I guess the reason I was an usher was I wasn’t burly enough at the time, I guess. But yeah, handling drunk people.

Karen Donegan: We didn’t have radios. So you’d have to send somebody to go get security, and it was always some belligerent guys trying to show off for a girl or wanted to pick a fight. Or, I had one woman once, it was Bob Seger, she asked me where she could go to nurse her baby. And I looked at her and said, ‘Ma’am, we don’t have nursing.’ I think she said it was a little too loud, too. But perhaps you should have left your newborn. What were you thinking?

What do local people miss by not working at Merriweather?

Jo Corry: Well, I guess I’d have to start by saying I met my spouse there. So it was a wonderful place to cultivate a friendship that became a love interest that became 37 years of bliss. But in addition to that, lifelong friendships. The individuals that I had the opportunity to meet, in the environment in which we met, with the love of music, in the summertime when we were in high school and college, it was charmed, it was magical.

Kim MacLean (age 64, a consultant for life sciences industryworked at MPP from 1978-84, lives in Columbia and graduated Wilde Lake High School in 1977): You miss a unique venue in a unique city, Columbia. And you miss the opportunity, if you’re a music lover, to bond with people that were like you, who love music, that found a way to combine making money with seeing great bands and making great friends. Hopefully, the people that work there today are still forging these friendships that I did that are still going forty years later.

Why do so many people keep going back to work at Merriweather?

Amrit Dhillon: It’s so much fun. You’re working with, like, 100-plus kids your age. We’re all from across the county. We’re all Howard County kids. The Hammond wrestling guys were always running the parking lot. Like it was just where you got to interact with other kids in Howard County. And it felt cool. Like, you got to hear all of the shows every summer, as you moved up. Sometimes you get comped tickets for your friends. I mean, my college friends were distraught when I left because they’d been seeing concerts for free for a couple of years. But hanging out with people that are all around the same age, enjoying great music hanging out late.

Kim MacLean: I think it was a combination of the music, and you bonded with people over the music, and I think that music does that to people. It makes them happy. So it was a very happy job. I never not wanted to go to work there. And I can’t say that for any job I’ve had since then.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we will share stories from employees who still work at Merriweather.

Jake Shindel is a summer intern for Baltimore Fishbowl. A rising senior at Towson University, Jake has held many positions within the campus newspaper, The Towerlight, and had a previous internship at...

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