The road to '65: Countdown to UCSC's 50th anniversary / Quarry revival

Upper Quarry Amphitheater c. 1965

Upper Quarry Amphitheater c. 1965 (photo by Robert Brandeis)

Editor's note: This third installment in our series of stories leading up to a celebration of UCSC's 50th anniversary is about the very early days of the Quarry Amphitheater and the central role the amphitheater has played on campus over the years. Restoring the Quarry Amphitheater is among the priorities of The Campaign for UC Santa Cruz.


On a January day in 1963, then-Campus Engineer Lou Fackler set out with a car full of dignitaries for a tour of what was to be UC's newest campus. But Fackler, who'd been on the job only a week, took a wrong turn and ended up in an abandoned limestone quarry in the upper campus— where his car, and his VIPs, promptly got stuck in the mud.

There's a good chance those sitting in the car that day would have had a hard time envisioning what that ragged hole in the ground would become: an award-winning outdoor amphitheater that has played host to a presidential stump speech by Gov. Jerry Brown, a teach-in featuring former U.S. ambassador Joe Wilson, a talk by Intel CEO Andy Grove, and, for a time, a nude psychology class.

"I think it's beautiful, breathtaking," said Campus Architect Emeritus Frank Zwart (Cowell '71, mathematics) of the amphitheater. "It always reminds you of where you are, surrounded by the campus's natural splendor, its history, and an extraordinary piece of landscape architecture."

The idea that a gaping hole could be recycled into something useful—even beautiful—seems to first have been mentioned in 1962 by pioneering landscape architect Thomas Church, who played a major role in the design of UC Santa Cruz.

It was four years later, however, that Dean McHenry wrote to Church pitching his own ideas for the site. UCSC's first chancellor envisioned concerts, lectures, "pageants and dramas."

Church, apparently busy, turned over design of the site to his longtime colleague, and former UC Berkeley faculty member, Robert Royston.

Royston, one of the most influential landscape architects of his generation, was known for designs that were modern, dynamic, and human-centered. His plans for the amphitheater, which would go on to win an award from the American Society of Landscape Architects, reflected his interest in applying principles of modern art to shaping the landscape.

Sections of seats were angled and asymmetrical, and the space between benches varied from row to row. A boulder was left to rise from one side of the stage, while a stand of Oregon maples rimmed the back of the space. Completed in 1967, the amphitheater cost $82,600.

Even before the amphitheater was finished, Dean McHenry held his 1966 inauguration there. Ceremonies and commencement exercises (some of them dignified, some not) soon followed. In 1968, honorary doctorates were given there to film director Alfred Hitchcock and musician Ravi Shankar. Activist Angela Davis spoke at a commencement ceremony there in 2003.

Comedian and activist Dick Gregory graced the earthen stage as did Congresswoman Bella Abzug, and author and architect Buckminster Fuller.

In 2001, the mournful notes of a violin drifted in the air as mourners hung messages from ribbons in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

There were protest rallies and teach-ins—and a noteworthy class taught there by pioneer Professor of Psychology Michael Kahn. Kahn's free-flowing talks on topics from Carlos Castaneda to Sigmund Freud were accompanied by music and, on sunny days, nude sunbathing by some students. The class became known as "Suntan Psych."

Closed in 2006 because of safety concerns and lack of funding for repairs, the amphitheater is now populated by weeds, skittering grey-brown lizards—and the echo of memories.

Reopening the Quarry Amphitheater is among the priorities of The Campaign for UC Santa Cruz.


Getting ready for UCSC's "Big 5-0"

To mark UC Santa Cruz's upcoming 50th anniversary, the campus and its friends will reflect on and celebrate UCSC's history and achievements, as well as illuminate its future.

UCSC opened for classes in fall 1965, with its first full academic year 1965–66. Therefore, the campus has established an 18-month period for "official" anniversary activities, beginning in January 2015 and ending in June 2016, which marks the end of the complete 50th academic year.

Chancellor George Blumenthal has formed a 50th Anniversary Leadership Committee of distinguished alumni and thought-leaders to assist in presenting a thoughtful and meaningful series of events, projects, and celebrations to mark this wonderful milestone.

The committee's first meeting was held on October 18.

Committee members to date include:

John Laird, Chair

Hilary Bryant

Fernanda Coppel

James Datri

Charlie Eadie

Reyna Grande

David Graves

James Gunderson

Paul Hall

Teri Jackson

Gail Michaelis-Ow

Ezequiel Olvera Jr.

Julie Packard

Jock Reynolds

Nikki Silva

Alec Webster

Lisa Witter

Michael Woo

Ron Yerxa

Help us plan the celebration!

For information, visit