The Once and Future Pavilion

O n August 9, the Levitt Pavilion in downtown Dayton will open for its first season featuring diverse acts across multiple genres offering free shows to the public. The new donation- and sponsor-funded venue is the latest in a national chain of pavilions started by the Mortimer and Mimi Levitt Foundation in the vision of […]

Downtown’s Levitt Pavilion launches inaugural season

An architect’s rendering of the completed Levitt Pavilion, designed to showcase musicians and performances of all types.

By Mike Ritchie

On August 9, the Levitt Pavilion in downtown Dayton will open for its first season featuring diverse acts across multiple genres offering free shows to the public. The new donation- and sponsor-funded venue is the latest in a national chain of pavilions started by the Mortimer and Mimi Levitt Foundation in the vision of founder Mortimer Levitt.  The foundation helps cities “recycle” unused outdoor space, using free, live music to connect the people in the community.

The Levitt Pavilion is a product of a tri-party agreement between the Mortimer and Mimi Levitt Foundation, the Friends of Levitt Pavilion, and the City of Dayton. The original announcement and press conference was held in 2015, spreading community buzz and setting records for the fastest venue funding in company history.

Levitt was an immigrant born and raised in Brooklyn. His father supported the family by working as a street vendor at Luna Park outside Coney Island. When Levitt visited his father at the park, his appreciation for outdoor music grew as he stood outside the gates listening because he couldn’t afford the cost of a ticket to actually go in. He left high school at 16 to help support his family by working in the garment industry, finally working his way to being a salesman at Erlanger-Blumgart. During the Great Depression, he started his own garment business, The Custom Shop, and built an empire, finally retiring at 90. “His focus was, no town would ever feel what he did due to lack of access,” says Lisa Wagner, Executive Director of Levitt Dayton. This spawned the birth of the Levitt free show in 1974.

The first Levitt Pavilion was built in Westport, Connecticut. “They wanted to reactive it as an open amphitheater with naming rights, but everything had to be free,” Wagner says. Levitt’s dream was to have 30 venues nationwide, but 15–18 is the current working number with four more in progress. “We’re the eighth signature venue to be built in the U.S.,” Wagner says.

A few cities that house permanent pavilions include: Bethlehem, Arlington, Denver, and Los Angeles, with San Jose, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, and Minneapolis in the running.

The foundation also offers The Levitt “Amp Your City” Grant Awards, a grant process for cities that don’t meet population requirements for a signature venue. The grant gives $25,000.00 to put on a summer music series. To date, 15 grants have been issued including to Berea, Carson City, and Santa Fe.

The Friends of Levitt Pavilion Dayton started as a group brainstorm on how to build and strengthen the local community through activities and entertainment, and ended with a call to the mayor. Ironically someone outside of Dayton, already familiar with other venues, brought up the Levitt idea. “The way the story was told to me, within a week, the city of Dayton was very excited about the idea of a pavilion,” Wagner says. “They had a group go to a Levitt Memphis show to get a better understanding and everyone fell in love with it.” The Memphis venue, now called the Levitt Shell at Overton Park, was also the same location where Elvis Presley played his first paid public show, then called the Overton Park Shell.

While in Memphis, the group saw a band of Swedish singers playing alternative punk rock and was amazed by the energy and crowd. Locals said they enjoyed the experience and atmosphere of the shows with all ethnicities and lifestyles gathered together to enjoy great music. “This is what we need, more than ever, to come together as a community,” Wagner says. “There’s something about dancing like no one’s looking and the joy it brings us. We’re more alike than different.”

Memphis is having their 10-year anniversary this year. “Dayton was on the Levitt Foundation’s radar the whole time,” Director of Outreach and Community Engagement at Levitt Dayton Madeline Hart says. “It all worked out.” Within 2–3 years, $5,000,000 was raised with sponsor support, matching the foundation’s $5,000,000, fast-forwarding the project from planning to construction. “Dayton’s a nice tour stop for the level of artists we’re gonna get,” Hart adds. Four local artists will play this season along with regional, national, and international acts.

Response has been incredible. “I think we were the fastest the Levitt had ever raised money and that’s a testament to the people in Dayton,” Hart says.

Attendance is strong in other markets, with Memphis hosting roughly 2,000 guests on the lawn for different shows on Thursday and Friday nights, “It’s a new business in Dayton, but a proven model,” Hart says. “The city of Dayton came to the plate supporting this because it’s supporting the city.”  They’re also working closely with entertainment district police. “We have a great relationship with the fire and police departments,” Hart adds. Security is a high concern, with the staff being trained by Homeland Security for emergencies.

The Pavilion will be at 134 S. Main St., a revamped Dave Hall Plaza. Visitors are welcome to bring their own food and beverages. Beverages and food will also be available on Fourth Street at reasonable costs. “We’ll have two to four food trucks every night,” Hart says. “It’s completely BYO, excluding glass.” The setting will emulate that of a picnic setup in a park.

They want to create accessibility, part of which is not charging concert prices for drinks and food. Pets are also allowed, with designated areas outside the lawn, with service animals allowed anywhere.

The first season’s been christened “The Audio Picnic,” with people encouraged to bring lawn chairs and blankets. Hosting local, independent vendors might be in the Levitt’s future plans, but for now they’ll have three or four sponsored tables per show for local non-profits.

All normal concert amenities will be available with ASL interpretation being discussed. Weather alerts per show will also be updated on and social media.

It brings a community vibe to downtown Dayton. “Nobody’s telling them what to do and everyone follows the rules,” Wagner says. “Everybody takes ownership.” At each show, a bucket will be passed around throughout the evening for donations. “If you like what we’re doing and support free music, no donation’s too small or large. It’s remarkable to see people you didn’t think could afford it give the most, showing how much they appreciate this.”

The bucket will come around a few times each night. “They have it down to a science,” Hart says. “It’s an economic booster. What do people wanna do at 8:30? Go out, have a drink. Get a late dinner. We’re partnering with brick and mortars, saying ‘Hey, enjoy the rest of the city.’” The party atmosphere of the Levitt Pavilion hopes to breathe new life into the area, drawing new attention to local and incoming businesses, and revitalizing downtown.     

There are three homeless men in Memphis who donate to ‘their Levitt’ every show. “No matter where you come from, there’s something unifying about what the language of music does,” Wagner says. “It doesn’t matter what’s on stage. People go because it’s gonna be a beautiful evening and a great time. That’s the goal.” They’re working to create the same environment in downtown Dayton starting Aug. 9.

Shows are free, but artists are paid a fair wage. “We want to contribute to their journey,” Wagner says. “Connecting them to new audiences. Some don’t know what the Levitt is, but they want to play it. They love what it represents.”

They’re bringing in new and upcoming artists. “We’re supporting the community through music,” Hart says. Season artists include Lao Tizer Band, Big Bang Boom!, MojoFlo, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, and The Nightowls among others, while Dayton Funk All-Stars Band represent one of the local acts. Every season, a select artist will tour all the nation’s Levitts. This year, Paul Thorn and the Blind Boys of Alabama will make the national rounds.

Artists get the mission of Levitt, understanding what music can do. “They’re excited to be part of our series,” Wagner says. Funding comes from the national foundation, corporate sponsors, individual donors, and merchandise and concession sales. Select ticketed benefit events with bigger names will be held next year to help increase revenue. Other venues have already done so, booking Lucinda Williams and Los Lobos. Funds raised also support sound and lighting systems with
local production.

Shows will last 90 minutes, starting at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday and 3:00 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Levitt Dayton hopes the early concert time will increase city foot traffic and patronage to local bars and businesses. “If you have 1,500 people on the lawn at 8:30 at night, where are they gonna go?” Wagner asks. “We’re hoping they go to the Oregon District and Lock 27. If you’re a music lover, we hope there’s more music that happens after our music.”

Volunteers will track attendance figures every night with clickers. Lawn surveys will also be used for demographic research, with a 5,000 shoulder-to-shoulder maximum capacity or 2,500 with chairs and blankets.

Deciding venue factors include location and population. “Dayton barely makes it,” Wagner admits. “We were on their radar when we contacted them because of our location.” Proximities to I–70 and I-75, Chicago, and Nashville were taken into consideration.

Dayton’s diverse music scene was also a contributing factor to Levitt coming. All shows will be family friendly with audience interaction. Mosh pits aren’t expected or allowed and crowd surfing is discouraged given the dance floor space in front of the stage. Crowd participation is highly encouraged and while a few quiet, soft songs are welcomed, the vision is to get people up and moving. It’ll be a learning process of what plays well. Covers are allowed but artists must play original music and have a strong web presence. They hope the Levitt Pavilion will inspire local musicians to create great original music to share from the stage.

There will be a barricade up front with the stage at a certain height so artists can engage with the crowd. “It was really cool in Memphis to see this activated,” Hart says. “The first song started and kids were on the dance floor for the first time. By the end, it was packed. People are encouraged to get up and have a good time.” Historically, there hasn’t been a mad dash/sprint to the parking lot to beat gridlock at other Levitts. Wagner says nobody’s in a rush to leave, with people hanging out. “A lot of other cities have said they’ve seen a surge, with people leaving those venues and going out afterwards. There’s so much within walking distance. I don’t think people realize how walkable the city is.”

The season will run from Aug. 9 to Oct. 7. They’re not booking next year yet, but there’s been plenty of interest. They may start concerts in May or June next year depending on the weather. The Levitt will split its season in two with Spring and Fall shows. They’re also next to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, the official artist and guest host hotel and sponsor for the events.

Designated parking will be available around the area. “We’re not building extra parking lots,” Hart says. People can also check to request pavilion rental information for off-season events.

Though similar to other local venues, the Levitt Pavilion Dayton wants to be seen as an asset to the community, not competition. Besides bringing free live music to their communities, the Levitt Foundation helps to rebuild and revive unused structures bringing back the past while supplying chances to make future history. The Levitt perspective is to reanimate and activate unused spaces. For Dayton, it’s Dave Hall Plaza.

The Dayton Levitt Pavilion will have its initial opening on Aug. 9 at 7 p.m. with the Latin pop sounds of Gina Chavez. More information for Chavez can be found at  For more information on the Dayton Levitt season and venue information go to


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Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Ritchie at

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