An Oral History of the Mann Center

There may be no finer way to spend a summer evening in Philadelphia than sitting on a blanket and listening to the sweet sounds of the Mann Music Center. Here, an oral history of the city's beloved cultural jewel.

OVER TIME, it was the rock and pop acts—everyone­ from Joni Mitchell, Talking Heads and Barry White to Elvis Costello, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan—that became synonymous with the Mann. They brought a younger audience. And, predictably, mischief.

Condoleezza Rice, former United States Secretary of State: I was honored to perform with the Orchestra and the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

Daryl Hall, singer: I played many times with John [Oates]. What more can I say? It’s one of the most important cultural centers in Philadelphia.

Kate Pierson, singer, B-52s: We’ve always loved playing there because Philly audiences are so passionate. We’ve particularly enjoyed playing the Mann because it’s in such a beautiful setting; it feels really homey and has great acoustics. There really are so few venues like that anymore.

Mike Wolverton, online sportscaster, Scrapple TV: I was an aspiring underage drinker, and procuring alcohol was difficult, but the Mann made it easy. There would be numerous kegs set up in the woods that ran along the right side. You would hop the fence, and each “operator” would sell you a plastic cup for five bucks. You’d drink from that keg until it was kicked or you threw up.

Matthew Lapos, concertgoer: My sister and her boyfriend took me with them to see Robert Palmer when I was 14 or 15. They figured I could sneak beer in for them since I was too young to be thoroughly checked by security. Well, they checked me good and found all the beers on me. I was terrified, but they just laughed. The security guard said, “They’re starting young these days.”
Louis Jennings, usher: The big rock shows would sell out, and there would be several thousand people at the top of the hill outside the fence. They couldn’t see, but they could still hear. It would be like a big tailgating party out there.

Jerry Grabey: We were vulnerable in a couple of areas to clandestine activity outside the fence line. Back then, it seemed like the concerts were a little more raucous. We’ve only had two deaths occur here over the years, both of natural causes. Given the amount of people through here, that’s pretty amazing.

Rachel Haydon, usher: I was working an invited rehearsal, and there was this scraggly Siamese cat walking around. And one of the other ushers said it was onstage the night before during a rock show, which I thought was hilarious. And he was just the friendliest cat. But he was a stray, he might have rabies, he might bite somebody, you err on the side of caution. So somebody would pick him up and carry him over to the fence and deposit him on the other side. But he kept coming back. So by the end of the night, I’m like, “I can’t leave him here, who knows what could happen to him? What if somebody decides he’s a menace and calls animal control? I’ll take him and find him a home.” So I called my sister, and she took him. She named him Manny because he was found at the Mann.

Larry Magid: We had our hands full with the neighborhood. I remember a friend who parked his car along Parkside Avenue rather than pulling into the parking lot. At the end of the show he came back and said, “I can’t find my car, can you help me?” He had just bought a brand-new car—I mean, it was not a month old. We finally did find it—up on blocks, completely stripped. They even took the steering wheel.