Summer 2018 - Features

Lighting the Stars

Beck Colwell '94, Lighting the Stars by Derek Herscovici '14, She became a social worker to help people. Now Becky Colwell '94 employs those people skills to manage one of the world's best-known venues.

Los Angeles Night falls and the lights of the “Hollywood” sign flicker to life. Long strings of headlights snake their way up the hills to a small canyon overlooking the city. Inside the Greek Theatre, General Manager Becky Schmidt Colwell ’94 is doing last-minute checks on the sound, lighting, concessions—anything and everything to ensure every aspect of the concert is perfect. She’s been here before anyone else; she’ll likely be one of the last to leave.

How Colwell got to Los Angeles from small-town North Carolina is a story worthy of Hollywood itself. It involves Auburn, people skills and a whole lot of music. But that can wait.

Right now it’s show time.

Growing up in North Carolina, Auburn was never far away. Several of her friends from high school were already on the Plains, but it was her sister Sarah Schmidt Coe ’88 that truly convinced her.

“When I was in high school, Auburn was the main college I would visit,” said Colwell. “North Carolina has some great colleges, too, but I loved everything about it and had my heart set on graduating from Auburn.”

A member of Alpha Gamma Delta sorority, Colwell was drawn to event and party planning, but saw no future in it. A lifelong fan of live music, she benefited from an energetic concert scene in the early 1990s, where live acts were constantly performing. Colwell remembers Garth Brooks at the arena, and swears she saw an early Dave Matthews Band playing a house party.

Colwell settled on a degree in Family and Child Development from the college of human sciences, mostly for its broad applications. Returning to North Carolina as a social worker, she worked at a group home for boys, contemplating a master’s degree, but after a couple of years, her passion for the job had waned.

In 1998, she agreed to a summer job with the 20,000-seat Walnut Creek Amphitheatre in Raleigh managing their part-time staff. A major tour destination for live acts around the country, Colwell figured she’d see some shows, make some money and, after a few months, revisit her old job. 

“They hired me because of my social work experience,” said Colwell. “I’ve worked with a lot of people and issues.”


A couple months in, recognizing her people skills, the sales department offered her a job selling season ticket packages, box suites and sponsorships. At a crossroads in her career, Colwell took the chance, becoming a full-time sales employee for the next five years. Then, in 2002, while attending a concert at the newly-opened Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary, N.C., Colwell had a chance encounter with the venue’s general manager. Months later, she called to ask if Colwell wanted to interview for her job.

At the time, the company that managed Walnut Creek, SMG, also managed 20 venues around the country, all of them amphitheaters. Koka Booth was one of them. With a total capacity of just over 7,000, the amphitheater would be significantly smaller than Walnut Creek, but her role would dramatically increase. Was she nervous?

“Totally. I wasn’t shy about that. I always feel that general managers are not going to know every detail—they’re gonna know enough to support the team members that they put in place, so they should hire the people that have the expertise in those fields.” She had little time to prepare, though: after accepting the job in January, Colwell only had three months to prepare for the first show of the season—none other than Bob Dylan.

It was crazy, it was sold out, so it was a huge crowd coming,” she recalls. “We had been renovating a concession building and the weather had delayed things; I remember the health department was there giving us our final permit two hours before we were opening. It was very stressful.”

Permit secured, the guests arrived on time for Dylan to perform. After so much stress leading up to her first show, there was one word to describe watching it come together: “thrilling.”

That was in 2003. For 12 years, Colwell’s reign as GM of the Koka Booth was one of tranquility and efficiency. The amphitheater became one of North Carolina’s premier venues, hosting top acts like Sheryl Crow, the Doobie Brothers, the Black Eyed Peas, the Steve Miller Band, Chicago and many, many more. Through it all, Colwell learned that the hardest part of the job, above everything else, is managing expectations.

“I always remind my staff—and myself—some people can only go to one show a year; it might be their biggest night out and we can’t forget that. We need to be on point all the time.”

Most people are surprised that Colwell attends every show, but completing the checklist—arriving before the tour does, setting the vendors up, checking security protocols, ensuring guests are in their seats on time—is the most crucial part of her job. 

In the summer of 2015, during the middle of the Koka Booth’s busy season, Colwell’s email inbox exploded with questions from SMG’s West Coast operations. What was her organization chart like? How did she balance the budget? She answered each question without thinking twice, too busy
notice anything unusual. 

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, SMG had just acquired the operating rights to the historic Greek Theatre and was building its new front office. Colwell remembers exactly where she was—managing a Cheap Trick show—when the phone rang.

Overhead shot of Greek Theatre; The Greek Theatre

“Our national booker called and said ‘Hey! Just wanted to let you know, we won the national contract for the Greek and we’d love for you to consider being a GM’ and I was like ‘Oh, that’s great! Yeah, consider me,’ and then I hung up.” It wasn’t until later, checking her email, that Colwell realized what she had agreed to. “The Greek? In L.A.? No way. But he called me the next morning and he’s like ‘We’re moving fast, are you serious?’” 

At first, Colwell admits, she wasn’t. One of the most famous amphitheaters in the world, the Greek was a professional level she had never considered. The enthusiasm from SMG for her to manage one of their crown jewels was intriguing, though. No matter how daunting the job was, the more she thought about it, the harder it was to resist. After a successful interview with the parks and recreation department of Los Angeles, she had to decide.

“Thankfully, my husband David said he’d move anywhere if it’s close to the ocean,” Colwell said. “He had his own business in Raleigh, [but] he said ‘you’ll never get this opportunity again, you gotta try. If you fail, you fail. But you don’t want to look back and say you didn’t try. So I said ‘OK, let’s do it!’”

In an interview with L.A. Weekly published just after her arrival, Colwell said accepting the offer to join the Greek Theatre was the easy decision—moving to Los Angeles? Not so much.

Located inside the sprawling Griffith Park, the Greek has hosted live performances since opening in 1931. Like many venues around the country, the Greek was repossessed by the city of Los Angeles after its 40-year contract with the Nederlander Organization expired.

The Greek is a municipality of the city, with outside management groups like SMG brought in to run day-to-day operations. Concert promoters then contract the venue to host their shows. The city would put the Greek’s revenue back into the park system, but the drawback to taking over after 40 years was starting from scratch, literally.

“It was funny, there was so much going on [during the L.A. Weekly Interview] I didn’t even have furniture, so we sat on the floor and did the interview.”

Besides handling renovations, there were larger concerns to deal with. Lying just below the foothills of Griffith Park, the Los Feliz neighborhood, historically, has had a turbulent relationship with the Greek. Between the nearly 10,000 daily visitors to going to Griffith Park’s attractions and failing to abide the 10:30 p.m. noise ordinance, Colwell described the atmosphere between the locals and the city as “volatile.”

“This is where I feel like my degree in Human Sciences from Auburn helps me immensely. I can negotiate and work with all personalities and try to be the peacemaker. They just really weren’t trusting anything that was going on, so I worked hard to gain their trust.”

Colwell hosted monthly ‘coffee hours’ and nighttime meetings with residents to hear their concerns. The city had warned her about past difficulties with residents; responding to their needs quickly was critical. She knew she wouldn’t last long if she didn’t win them over.

A major step was becoming a resident of Los Feliz herself, living, working and enrolling her five-year-old daughter Sidney at the same school as them—feeling the impact of the Greek’s events like they do. There’s also a practical side to living in Los Feliz, as well: in traffic-choked L.A., a seven-minute commute
to work is unheard of.

They had hoped for a soft opening on her first show, but Latin-pop icon Pepe Aguilar drew a full house. A ‘bucket list’ destination for a lot of acts, the Greek’s season from April to October is always full, forcing the city to cap their schedule at 76 shows a year. She’s never said no to an act who wanted to play the Greek.

Throughout the years, Colwell’s had the opportunity to meet hundreds of artists, but she usually tries to respect their space and privacy. If invited, she’ll visit, but she understands the toll months of touring can take. At an industry conference, the singer Halsey told her about just wanting 45 minutes alone to call her mom. If they leave the dressing room dirty, it’s not a big deal.

“Who knows how many days they’ve been on the road, how long it’s been since they’ve seen their family, or whatever the situation may be. I forgive them a lot for that kind of stuff.”

There have been some tough shows—an Evanescence concert was nearly derailed by a brushfire—and plenty of great ones. Colwell’s favorite show?

“I really, really liked Snoop Dogg—he was hilarious! It was just a fun, smooth night and we didn’t have a single issue. Snoop and his entourage were very professional the whole day.”

Near the end of the 2017 season she received another call from SMG, this time about attending a conference in Nashville. She said she couldn’t go, but the caller persisted. She suspected nothing until his questions became more specific: can you come for one day? Specifically, October 17. She soon guessed why.

Colwell was named Venue Executive of the Year from the International Entertainment Buyers Association (IEBA), in recognition of her work guiding the Greek through the changeover. She didn’t realize how big of a deal it was until she arrived in Nashville to receive the award.

“I was really surprised and honored. It was a big, pivotal transition for the Greek—there was a lot of eyes on us. Honestly, I think I won because I survived, and people gave me credit for that! But it was a huge honor. Huge.”

After a career of fixing the spotlight on others, Colwell was rewarded with one of her own. Just don’t expect her to step out from behind the scenes again anytime soon-. That’s not her style.

Just weeks away from the start of her third season with the Greek, Colwell is getting anxious. In her view, 2016 was all about getting up and running, while 2017 was about working out the kinks; 2018 will be about getting it all just right.

“I’m just excited to see if all our efforts over the past two years have panned out and we can have a really smooth year,” said Colwell. “I’m actually looking forward for [the season] to get underway—I always can’t wait for the offseason, but then
it gets to spring and I’m just waiting for us to open again.”

For Becky, David and Sidney, adapting to L.A. life is less intimidating now that they’ve found a community to call their own. They’ve made a list of sights to see and Colwell has connected with the Auburn Los Angeles club. Hearing “War Eagle” feels like coming home again.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are in the world, it never gets old,” she says. “It’s like music to my ears!”

Becky Colwell in The Greek Theatre; Thank you for visiting the Greek Theatre