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And the Grinstead played on: A look at the Plaza amphitheater

The Grinstead Amphitheatre has been the go-to place for jazz concerts, grape stomps and hula shows for more than 80 years, and this season the live entertainment at the Tuesday Night Farmers Market is added to its schedule on the second and fourth Tuesday evenings throughout the summer.

Farmers market music has, until this year, been played on the “horseshoe lawn” in front of City Hall every week, and moving the music for half of the shows – on an every-other-week basis – to the Grinstead was met with skepticism by some market regulars who like the party front and center, and wished it would stay that way.

Considering the fact that the Grinstead is the Plaza’s only genuine performance venue, the reluctance to hold the market’s music entertainment there causes one to ask: Why doesn’t the Grinstead Amphitheatre get more respect?

Up until the early 1930s, the beautiful park that is the Plaza was a rutted empty lot, mucky with mud in the winter and riddled with weeds and dust in the warmer months. City Hall, completed in 1908, sat in the center of this undeveloped land until the City of Sonoma, with the Sonoma Woman’s Club raising funds and leading the way, began building the Plaza as it stands today.

A.R. “Ray” Grinstead was a city councilmember at the time and one of the biggest proponents of the beautification of the Plaza. He was a local attorney and an active member of the Kiwanis Club. Grinstead also enjoyed singing and dancing and wrote and performed in many skits at Kiwanis Club events, according to “The Sonoma Valley Story” written by the late Robert M. Lynch, longtime editor and owner of the Index-Tribune.

Lynch says that Grinstead “was thought of as the father of Sonoma’s Plaza,” because in the late 1920s he was the first to propose to the City Council that improvements be made to “the barren site of the Plaza.” He also gained support and funding for the project from the Kiwanis, which joined the volunteer fire department and the Boys Scouts, among other groups, working toward improving the Plaza. From the earliest days, the duck pond, rose garden and amphitheater were included in the plans.

The amphitheater was completed in 1935 and on Memorial Day of that year, Councilmember Grinstead was the first to speak from its stage at a ceremony honoring those lost in the Great War. Previously, public announcements were made from the balcony of City Hall, but now the Plaza had its own stage.

The amphitheater became the Grinstead Amphitheatre when the Sonoma Kiwanis Club dedicated it in his memory on June 11, 1970, three years after Grinstead died after being thrown from a horse. Because he loved theater and music – and was involved in its creation – it was deemed a natural place to name in his honor.

Grinstead attended to the University of California and became an attorney in 1913. He served in World War I as a second lieutenant. He came to Sonoma in 1923 and married Emily Poppe, a member of a pioneer Sonoma family. They had three children, Hugh, Robert and Jean. Grinstead served as city attorney and was elected as judge of the Sonoma Justice Court in 1958.

Today, the amphitheater is maintained by the Sonoma Public Works Department, and Public Works Director Dan Takasugi said it is used for formal events about 30 to 40 times a year – more now with the addition of the farmers market entertainment. One or two weddings are held there each year, occasionally even a funeral. Benches are repainted once a year.

In 1990, the Sonoma Plaza Foundation was formed by Suzanne Brangham, who worked with the City Council to identify areas of the Plaza that needed to be spruced up, and the Grinstead Amphitheatre made the list. Brangham launched the Red and White Ball to raise funds for such much-needed Plaza improvements.

Brangham said the ball was meant “as a toast to the red and white wines of our Valley” and, from the first ball in 1990, it was a huge success. “The City had no money at the time,” she said, and the community stepped up.

“I had been to many concerts at the Grinstead and everyone sat around the edges,” she said, explaining it was too hot in the middle seats with no shade. In 1995, the Foundation first donated new benches, landscaping, irrigation and trees. Four California big leaf maples were built into the seating for respite from the heat, as well as additional coast redwoods and Japanese maples surrounding the seating area. In 2004, the trellised roof over the stage was added along with a new electrical system.

When the trees went in, they were 12 to 15 years old. Now, roughly 30 years old, they tower over the amphitheater providing ambiance and ample shade. As the Plaza began to look like new again, the Red and White Ball faded from the scene until being revived in recent years as a fundraiser for the Education Foundation.

Nowadays the Grinstead is used for Arbor Day festivities, Bear Flag Revolt reenactments, the Vintage Festival Grape Stomp, the Hula Mai annual show, the Wine Country Half Marathon awards ceremony and recently the International Woman’s Day gathering, and other events.

It is one of the many things that makes the Plaza, and Sonoma Valley, a place people love. No doubt Grinstead would be proud.