Venue Voices — Levitt Pavilion Brings Communities Together Through Music

Photo by Annie French-Mack

There’s a hint of magic in the air when you experience an outdoor concert, and Levitt Pavilion Denver is no exception. With its natural grassy amphitheater and state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment, Levitt Pavilion creates a dynamic and oh-so-beautiful environment for everyone. 

Located in the expansive Ruby Hill Park in South Denver, Levitt Pavilion is known for its free shows that the venue puts on every year. Levitt Pavilion Denver is part of a national network of venues, all with a shared mission to build community through music, with their core programming requiring a minimum of 40 free concerts a year. 

READ: Venue Voices: The Roxy on Broadway Keeps the Music History of South Broadway Alive

Meghan McNamara, the Executive Director at Levitt Pavilion Denver, said that Levitt’s mission statement is what brought her to Denver initially. “When I learned more about the Levitt model, I was really moved by this idea that community building was the whole name of the game,” she said. “And the idea of that being our core purpose was really powerful, and exciting and ambitious because it just means there’s much more reliance on other revenue streams beyond ticket sales.” 

The Levitt Foundation is named after Mortimer and Mimi Levitt, whose story takes them back to the 1960s. Mortimer Levitt, a music lover at heart, owned a men’s clothing business in the Garment District of New York. He would often stand outside the incredible venues in Manhattan, trying to hear the shows and dreaming of what it was like on the inside. As he built his personal wealth and fortune over the years, he chose to direct his funds to the Levitt Foundation. With this Foundation, he aimed to open up music and live arts experiences for others, a dream he had growing up. 

Since the Levitt Foundation has been established, there are now seven Levitt venues across the country that all offer at least 40 (often more) free shows a year. Andrew Thomas is the Deputy Director at Levitt Pavilion Denver and has been with the venue since it opened in 2017. As a musician himself, Thomas said that free concerts are imperative as music is getting less and less attainable due to cost. “My parents took me to Red Rocks when I was nine to see Sting, and that was a life-changing experience,” he said. “Those experiences get harder and harder for families in a changing and really complicated economy. I can’t imagine having a family of four and taking them to any concert that costs any amount of money. It’s crazy.”

With the rise of ticket costs, especially after the pandemic, financial barriers arise that have slowed or stopped people and families from being able to see live music. The Levitt Foundation has a goal to remove this financial barrier, but also the core of their model focuses on bringing people together in a community. “Beyond just access to live music, there’s access to connection and having these joyful experiences with your neighbors,” McNamara said. “We’re creating settings where people who might not otherwise interact are together and having a shared experience and talking to each other on the lawn. That’s a really powerful force.” 

Jessi Whitten is the Director of Marketing and Audience Development at Levitt Pavilion Denver. Whitten also believes in the importance of access to live music. “I grew up rationing arts. If I won tickets from the radio, that was how I saw a show,” Whitten said. “I think it’s important to give everyone in your community the dignity of knowing that they can see a concert without having to fight for it.” Coincidentally, upon accepting the job at Levitt Pavilion Denver in 2020, Whitten found out that her parents had had their first date at the original Levitt Pavilion in Westport, Connecticut, circa 1970. “That’s the actual power of accessible music experiences,” she said. “A barnacle scraper in Westport, Connecticut could afford to take his high school girlfriend on a date.”

The venue’s set in the middle of the lush three-acre Ruby Hill Park and you can imagine what it’s like to sit on the lawn with a light summer breeze under the shade of a great oak tree. With a view of the city to the North and the mountainscape to the West, the splendor of Denver is always playing for free at Levitt Pavilion. “It’s the third largest park in the Denver Parks and Rec network and was previously underutilized,” McNamara said. “So Levitt Pavilion, the mountain bike area and the additional amenities that are coming are all part of a broader vision to make this an asset to the community.” 

With Ruby Hill Park being as versatile as it is, the location of Levitt Pavilion Denver is more intentional than just a beautiful setting. One of the main goals of the Levitt Foundation is to focus on building cultural infrastructure in places where there wasn’t a great deal of it previously. “Southwest Denver is very culturally and socio-economically diverse and culture happens here in many, many different forms,” McNamara said. “But there really wasn’t a large-scale community gathering place for culture to be shared.”

Photo by Annie French-Mack

A large-scale community gathering place was exactly what Levitt Foundation wanted to bring to Ruby Hill Park. “Being in this neighborhood, there’s a need but they also do feed and inform what we do,” Whitten said. “We have this really open dialogue with the neighborhood. We have an actual regular communication strategy to talk to the neighborhood and make sure that we’re representing them.”

Being bordered by a neighborhood and a bustling community, Levitt Pavilion is not immune to noise complaints, but the team tries to work directly with their neighbors to limit concerns. “We really do care about the neighbors, and we actually have a mission that the neighborhood really cares about,” Thomas said. And if a concern arises — “They have our names and phone numbers, they know who to call,” he said.  

With their mission statement at their core, Thomas, Whitten and McNamara all hinted at one thing: there’s a lot of love in this place. 

From the experience of entering the park, the ticketing, lighting, sound and even the state of the grass, care and attention go into every detail of the experience. “It’s one of the things that we can do as a nonprofit, just make decisions that are not solely based on our bottom line, our primary responsibility is to the mission versus revenue generation,” Thomas said. “Welcoming is at the top of the philosophy, and the more we invest in accessibility, which is a huge focus for the upcoming capital improvements, the more ways we can make participating in live music available to everybody.”

At Levitt Pavilion, things are a little more predictable as shows start on time and end at 10 pm for consideration of the neighborhood. They have quick changeovers between sets and are dialed in on timing. The versatility of the venue allows for laid-back lounging on the lawn or diving into the new and improved dance floor prepared with a mosh barricade. “This is the most comfortable concert experience I’ve had as a patron,” Whitten said. “It’s a lovely day in the park meets a high-quality, world-class concert experience. There’s not a lot of [dance] floors I feel comfortable laying down on to enjoy.”

Photo by Annie French-Mack

The crew at Levitt are looking forward to this summer and their free concert series kicking into gear. Last year, they had over 130,000 people come through the venue, and they are excited to keep that number growing. One of their favorite memories so far was the high energy and very highly memorable free GRiZ show last year, where they had 7,000 people come through the venue on a single night. “We ended our season last year at full capacity on maybe the most beautiful day of the entire year with GRiZ,” McNamara said. “We’re building that reputation as a place where you can do that kind of thing.”

With the main goal of the Levitt Foundation being to bring people together with access to live music, the crew at Levitt is excited to see the crowds come back to the park, especially after the pandemic when live music took a big hit. “Remember, during the pandemic, we were just kind of assessing what matters in life and what kind of world we would want as we move forward and escape our homes again,” Whitten said. “The thing that just kept on coming to my mind was that everyone deserves music, and music is essential.” 

If you take a look at their music calendar, the program covers boards all across the chart with different genres and live performances that span across cultures. “We have programming for everyone, no matter what your taste in music, no matter your age, no matter your personal identity or lived experience,” McNamara said. “Everybody should be able to find something here that they feel connected to.”

Levitt Pavilion’s free concert series, as well as their ticketed shows run now through October and are definitely worth checking out. The venue is one of a kind in Denver, with the Levitt Foundation mission statement held at its core. The magical space that is Ruby Hill Park, combined with the love inherent to the Levitt Foundation, creates a special experience unlike any other. “I want [patrons] to think that this is their space and this is their spot,” Whitten said. “I want them to say ‘This is my Cheers. This is where everybody knows my name.’ That’s my goal, a place where people can go without judgment and without the requirement of bringing a certain amount of money, and to feel comfortable and open to explore new sounds and new neighbors.” 

Discover more from 303 Magazine

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading