The theme song from the 1970s television sitcom, "Chico and the Man," seemed an off-beat choice Sunday night for the first song to christen the shimmering new Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts on the banks of the Saugatuck River, and yet nine-time Grammy Award-winner Jose Feliciano, who wrote the song, chose the music deliberately.
The lyrics include the passage "a new day has begun," and it has for the Levitt Pavilion. The 41-year-old performance venue -- once a simple band shell and great lawn -- with its latest $9 million evolution is now a sophisticated amphitheater with state-of-the-art equipment and accommodations. The complex, several years in the making, got rave reviews from the nearly 2,000 people who sat under a cloudless sky for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and Feliciano concert that marked the beginning of its new era.
Westport architect Peter Cadoux, who designed the new Levitt Pavilion, said the space went from a re-purposed, closed municipal landfill to a performance setting that was an untapped resource to a state-of-the-art, environmentally conscious entertainment venue that anticipates the needs of performers into the next decade.
"Now we get to take it out for a spin," said Carleigh Welsh, the Levitt Pavilion's marketing and development director, after waiting about seven years from concept to approval process to construction. She introduced Feliciano as a legend who was about to "make history on this stage," but not before admitting, "We're a little overwhelmed with emotion and joy."
Elizabeth Levitt Hirsch, the daughter of Annemarie "Mimi" and the late Mortimer Levitt, for whom the performance venue is named, said her parents never in their wildest dreams imagined that 1.5 million people would enjoy the pavilion's free, outdoor summer concerts in its first four decades.
"Westport's Levitt is ready to welcome the next 1.5 million," said Hirsch, a California resident who heads the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation's venture philanthropy program and chairs the board of directors at the national Levitt Pavilions, a non-profit that provided $4.5 million in funding for the new Levitt Pavilion here.
"This is the biggest gift our family has given to any organization ... This is a community treasure," Hirsch told the audience of the recently announced donation.
Mimi Levitt, who continues to serve on the pavilion's board, also addressed the crowd, saying she and Mortimer were overwhelmed when the original venue opened and, once again, she said she felt overwhelmed Sunday. "My congratulations to Westport on this momentous occasion," Mimi Levitt said, dabbing her eyes with a white handkerchief as the audience gave her a prolonged standing ovation.
Barely a blade of grass was visible on the new, graded lawn, so thick was the crowd. The audience staked vantage points with lawn chairs and spread blankets and picnic dinners that ranged from pizza to gourmet feasts, and marveled at the view, the acoustics and the seating. There's really not a bad seat in the house.
"We've been coming here for 20 years. It's a whole new lawn that slopes down. You can sit and see. You're not worried about someone behind you being blocked," said Regina Masterson of Westport.
"This is magnificent. How beautiful, and right on the water. What a night. Not a cloud in the sky," said Jim Accomando of Fairfield, who referred to the Levitt and Feliciano as "local treasures."
"It's a whole different venue now. It's gone from dirt to beauty. They did a great job," said Philip Ross of Westport.
Feliciano's concert of about 90 minutes included his own compositions as well as covers of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," "Suspicious Minds" originally sung by Elvis Presley, Carlos Santana's "Oye Como Va," and the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreaming." He sang in English and Spanish, commenting that he was the proud embodiment of two cultures, Hispanic and American Hispanic. He dedicated the concert to Mimi Levitt and Freda Welsh, the pavilion's executive director since 1995. During his signature version of the Door's "Light My Fire," he changed the lyric "baby" to "Come on Freda, light my fire," and later added Mimi's name.
Feliciano was joined on stage for one song, "Born to be Wild," by his sons Michael on bass and Jonathan on drums. "We call ourselves Two Kids and a Blind Guy," Feliciano joked.
In addition to the memorable performance, the audience admired the great river views afforded by the setting. "This is really beautiful. Now you can see the water. That's one of the great accomplishments," said Judy Katz of Westport. "Mortimer would love this."
"I'm so happy. It couldn't be a more glorious day," Hirsch said.