Gerry Frank celebrated at dedication for amphitheater bearing his name

A crowd gathered to honor Gerry Frank at the dedication for the Gerry Frank | Salem Rotary Amphitheater at Riverfront Park on July 23, 2021 (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

A light evening breeze was blowing off the Willamette River as about 300 people – including two governors of Oregon – declared their love for Gerry Frank.

“Gerry Frank, we love you,” the crowd said, testing the acoustics of the newly-constructed amphitheater in Riverfront Park that bears his name.

Frank, 97, is an Oregon icon, civic leader and philanthropist who was often called the state’s third senator for his longtime job as Chief of Staff for former Sen. Mark Hatfield.

He spoke from a wheelchair on stage, alternately thanking and teasing dignitaries in the audience, which included former Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

“This is quite a day,” Frank said. “This building will provide prosperity and pride and years of fond memories.”

Gerry Frank, speaks at the dedication for the Gerry Frank | Salem Rotary Amphitheater on July 23, 2021 as Gov. Kate Brown and Sen. Betsy Johnson look on. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

The Gerry Frank | Salem Rotary Amphitheater is a gift from the Rotary Club of Salem to the city in honor of the club’s centennial, which they celebrated in 2020.  Frank is the club’s longest serving member.

The amphitheater is designed to resemble the open weave baskets made by the Kalapuya people, and other features in its design pay tribute to Salem’s original inhabitants.

Those include native plants and Kalapuya staples like camas planted around the stage and incorporated into the landscaping, said David Harrelson, cultural resources department manager for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

Harrelson said Frank is an inspiration and credited him and Hatfield for their work restoring the tribe’s federal recognition in 1983.

“Naming this place after a person of this place is very fitting,” Harrelson said.

Rotary Club of Salem leaders ask attendees to test the acoustics at the dedication for the amphitheater (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The event at times had the feel of a roast as Salem dignitaries and politicians recounted their favorite Frank memories.

Gov. Kate Brown recalled Frank’s many years serving as the chocolate cake competition judge at the Oregon State Fair, “guzzling Pepto-Bismol” on stage before declaring a winner.

“He is a Renaissance Man who dabbles in just about everything,” Brown said of Frank.

Oregon Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, delivered the most rousing speech of the event, starting with Frank’s legendary Rolodex containing the names of nearly anyone an Oregonian might want to contact.

“Before Facebook, before Twitter, there was Gerry Frank,” Johnson said, drawing laughter and applause from the audience.

She also recalled a piece of Frank’s political wisdom, honed over years on Capitol Hill: “When you have no one to blame but yourself, you are definitely understaffed.”

But the speakers also noted how the amphitheater will serve Salem, becoming the “cherry on the top” of Riverfront Park, as Brown described it.

“Tell me, if you can, where you’d rather be right now?” Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett asked as the sun began to set behind the crowd.

Construction on the amphitheater began in July 2020, and some minor work remains to be done, said Barry Nelson, co-chair of the project for the Rotary Club of Salem.

That includes anti-graffiti coating on the concrete and a railing on the elevated portion of the stage. But mostly, Nelson said, they just need to wait for the grass surrounding the stage to grow.

By Oct. 1, he said the site should be ready to host events. The Rotary Club is getting several emails a week from musicians and others asking about booking a gig, Nelson said. They’ve been forwarding them along to the city.

“I’m hoping that they are filling it up,” he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.