By Kelli Skye Fadroski
Long before the fans enter through the gates, buy their first cold beer or cocktail and head to their seats to enjoy an evening of live music at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, dozens of men and women have already been hard at work behind the scenes to ensure that every last detail is perfectly in place before the first note is played up on the stage.
After 36 years, the venue will be torn down this year to make way for the expanding Los Olivos apartment community, but not before a pair of shows headlined by Orange County’s own Gwen Stefani on Saturday and Sunday. Putting together these last few gigs, including Go Country 105 FM’s final Go Fest with Florida Georgia Line, the hip-hop festival How the West Was Won featuring Ice Cube, and longtime venue favorite Jimmy Buffett, has been an emotional experience for the amphitheater’s crew, which has become like family over the past three decades.
Several members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 504 have worked at the 16,000-capacity amphitheater since it opened with the Charlie Daniels Band on Aug. 21, 1981.
“He had brown hair back then, like I did,” head carpenter James “Buck” Buckholz said of Daniels with a laugh, pointing down at one of his work ID badges bearing a photo that’s a few decades old. He’s also head of payroll, and as the team shows up to his office, nestled just off stage right, he checks off their names as they clock in before 10 a.m. to set up pop-punk band Blink-182’s show later that evening.
Over the years, Buckholz and his team have witnessed some once-in-a-lifetime moments, from sharing ribs with Hall of Fame blues guitarist Bo Diddley in 1985 to hanging out with members of the English metal band Iron Maiden as they cooled off at the then-adjacent Wild Rivers water park after a sound check during one of their numerous summer visits.