Sound of Summer

The former Bluefish baseball stadium in Bridgeport is rocking a $25 million makeover, replete with Gehry-esque flying steel masts around a big-top torch. It’s home of the Hartford HealthCare Amphitheater now, an outdoor music venue with 5,700 seats, local food and drink, and enough luxury to lure boaters back to shore by showtime.

A tensile membrane roof made of fiberglass and Teflon stretches across the site, protecting 92 percent of concert-goers – as well as 23-foot-high video boards and a state-of-the-art German sound system – from the elements. Marble lines bathroom walls and sinks, live orchids ring restroom entrances, French glass from St. Gobain shimmers under lights imported from Milan.

“It’s an architectural marvel,” says Attorney Howard Saffan, of Weston, the amphitheater’s developer, builder and operator.

Eight years ago, during one of their monthly lunches, Saffan and veteran concert-promoter Jim Koplik, of Stamford, agreed that Fairfield County could really use a new amphitheater. As it happens, entertainment company Live Nation was considering constructing one in Danbury. Saffan recommended Bridgeport instead. And he knew just the place: Harbor Yard, home of the Bluefish.

He could see the stadium from his office next door at the Webster Bank Arena, where he was the president of the Sound Tigers minor league hockey team.

The stadium had long-struggled to make a profit, and existing zoning meant that neighborhood opposition was unlikely. Plus, the location was perfect for a concert venue: an easy walk from the train station, a minute from I-95, a quick stroll to the Port Jefferson ferry, and close to food and drink in the Park City.

Many meetings with city groups, shipping delays, and a pandemic later, the pair’s vision is finally realized.

The grand opening act, REO Speedwagon and Styx, on July 28, is a mash-up of old, new and a little deja-vu. Back in 1970, REO Speedwagon recorded its debut album in Bridgeport, at the old Lekas Studio. Band members were staying in Westport back then, a time so memorable, apparently, it was captured in the song “157 Riverside Avenue,” a long-time fan-favorite. More than two dozen concerts follow from now through October, featuring acts from New Canaan crooner Harry Connick Jr. to rapper Rod Wave to Grammy-winning rockers Greta Van Fleet. In between, the amphitheater hosts cider fests, beer fests and more.

The Hartford HealthCare Amphitheater opens three hours prior to showtime, giving fans plenty of time to eat, drink, and gather. Local fare, including pizza from Pepe’s, barbecue from Hoodoo Brown, seafood from Knot Norm’s, ice cream from Timothy’s, and craft beer from Two Roads and Blue Point, fills concession stands. Ten bartenders work the granite-wrapped dugouts on the concert floor. Concierges pour Dom Perignon in the luxury suites. Carving stations line the Harbor Club.

Everything is catered to knowing who our clientele is,” Saffan says. “People in Fairfield County want quality and service, whether that’s food, service, the band or the venue.” Bands get the star treatment at the amphitheater, too, with their own personal chef (Eric Fellito, of Tasty Yolk and The Chelsea fame), six dressing rooms, massage rooms, a s’mores bar at the outdoor fireplace, video and pinball room and more. Even the roadies get TLC. Saffan and Koplik added gleaming showers and washers and dryers for the road crew, as well as prime parking out back with water and power for eight tour buses. Talent, crew and operating staff can all eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together, served by a custom kitchen.

The goal, says Saffan, is to make everybody happy to come back next time.

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