Issue: Issue Summer 2009

Vintage Jewels

By: Rena Dictor LeBlanc

The Hollywood Bowl and the Ford Amphitheatre

Two vintage jewels in Hollywood’s cultural treasure trove are the Hollywood Bowl and the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. The world famous Hollywood Bowl is the largest natural outdoor amphitheatre in the U.S. according to Carol Merrill-Mirsky, who is the Director/Curator of The Hollywood Bowl Museum.   The Bowl is built into the hillside, and is virtually identical to the ancient amphitheatres of Greece and Rome.

Wining and dining in your box seat

“The Bowl has been an icon of music for every taste and every type of person,” Ms. Merrill-Mirsky said.  “There have been thousands of performances.” 

Nearly one million people come to the Bowl each year, from all over the world.  Thousands enjoy pre-concert picnics in fourteen picnic areas.  Fireworks enhance many of the Bowl’s weekend concerts each summer.  Ticket prices range from $1 to $304.  The beloved icon has been the summer home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1922.

One of the most unforgettable evenings at the Bowl occurred decades ago when Judy Garland performed.  A rare summer storm crashed her concert.  The audience and the star got drenched.  In one of the most heartfelt and unplanned tributes to Ms. Garland the audience didn’t leave despite the downpour. 

Judy stopped singing long enough to tell the audience, “If you can sit out there, I can be out here with you.”

Among the legendary artists who have performed at the famed cultural landmark are Frank Sinatra, Luciano Pavarotti, Barbra Streisand, Abbott and Costello, The Beatles, Elton John, Itzhak Perlman, Jessye Norman, Diana Krall, Al Jolson…  The Bowl has appeared in so many movies and television shows that it’s familiar to people worldwide, and draws visitors from around the globe.

The original founders of the Hollywood Bowl were members of the artistic and business community in what was then the small town of Hollywood.  They wanted to establish an outdoor park and art center to entertain and educate a large, diverse audience and build community spirit.

Hollywood Bowl
In 1916 a community theatre production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar took place in nearby Beachwood Canyon.  It was 1918 when the first organizational meeting was held to plan for the future of the Hollywood Bowl.  The next year The Theatre Arts Alliance purchased 59 acres in Bolton Canyon on which to develop a community arts center. 

The first season of music under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl took place on July 11, 1922.  The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra performed with conductor Alfred Hertz.  The audience sat on simple wooden benches placed on the hillside. 

While much has changed since then, the tradition continues of presenting the world’s greatest performers.  Now the Bowl is located on 88 acres owned by Los Angeles County and operated by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn.  For the last five years the Bowl has been named the best major outdoor concert venue by Pollstar Magazine. 

The Edmund D. Edelman Hollywood Bowl Museum was opened in 1984.  It’s open year round and is free to visitors.  The museum features a permanent multimedia exhibit on the history of the Hollywood Bowl as well as changing exhibits.  This summer the museum presents a highly interactive exhibition “Soundscape - Hearing Music at the Hollywood Bowl.” 

The John Anson Ford Amphitheatre is a place where one can discover the cultural treasures in our own backyard, according to Linda Chiavaroli, Director of Communications.  “Most of our performers are from Los Angeles County. We’re very different from the Hollywood Bowl because with only about 1,200 seats, we’re much more intimate.” 

“At the Ford you’re so close to the stage you feel the energy of the performance across the footlights,” said Adam Davis, Managing Director of Production for the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. 

Described as L.A.’s Oasis Under The Stars, the open-air amphitheatre is located in a 45-acre park-like setting in the Cahuenga Pass against a backdrop of cypresses and chaparral in the Hollywood Hills. The amphitheatre is one of the oldest performing arts venues in Los Angeles that is still in use.  It offers music, dance, film, theatre and family events from May through October.  Its Big!World!Fun! Family Series offers eight Saturday morning multicultural programs in July and August that are free for children age four to ten and $5 for adults.

One year, at the end of the Jazz Tap Ensemble show, guest artist Gregory Hines surprised the audience by inviting people who had been part of the tap workshop to come onstage and dance.  “Around twenty five people got on stage and danced,” Davis said.  “The audience already was on a high.  It was electric.  It was like someone had sent off fireworks.”

Toward the end of a Japanese Taiko drumming show called Rhythmic Relations 2008, a group called Taiko Project had one hundred powerful drummers, including children, performing on stage.  “As they were playing you could feel the Amphitheatre vibrating,” according to Chiavaroli.  “People kept clapping for more encores.”

The amphitheatre was built in 1920 as the site of the Pilgrimage Play.  The play was performed by noted actors every summer from 1920 to 1929 when the original structure was destroyed by a brush fire.  The present theatre, designed to resemble the gates of Jerusalem, was built on the same site and opened in 1931.  In 1941 the land was deeded to the County of Los Angeles.  The play continued to be presented until a lawsuit in 1964 forced its closure because of its religious nature.

The amphitheatre was used for a variety of concerts and performances, but attendance dwindled and the structure deteriorated.  The late County Supervisor John Anson Ford obtained funding for improvements, and the theatre was renamed in his honor.  Later former County Supervisor Ed Edelman revived the theatre with the creation of   the Ford Amphitheatre Season in 1993.

“We never know who will perform from year to year because the people who want to perform apply to be part of our season,” Adams pointed out.  “We pick our performers from people who want to come here and produce their own shows.”

“When the Arts Commission took over the theatre in the summer of 1993, our executive director said the theatre on stage should be reflective of the cultural makeup of the county of Los Angeles,” Adams said.  “We encourage all the different communities of Los Angeles to be on our stage. What makes this theatre work is that we provide the opportunity for L.A. County artists to perform for people living in LA County.”  DH