The most famous music stage in the world is most certainly Carnegie Hall. Next on anybody’s list has got to be the Hollywood Bowl.
Not as well known is that the Hollywood Bowl is actually one of three outdoor amphitheaters in the Hollywood Hills.
Together with the Hollywood Bowl, Griffith Park’s Greek Theatre and the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre make up a trio of outdoor neo-classical theaters that bring world-class stars to the summer stage.
Tonight, the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre reopens after undergoing a remodel and facelift.
The season kicks off with Japanese drummers TAIKOPROJECT and Grammy Award-winning Chicano group Quetzal and runs through October 15th and brings a highly diverse schedule of artists including Outfest, Dreamgirls 35th Anniversary (sold out) and world music.
There’s nothing new about the outdoor amphitheater. After all the ancient Greeks perfected the style nearly three thousand years ago. The mild Mediterranean climate and rippling hillsides of southern California must have seemed like the ideal locale for America’s own cultural renaissance and turn-of-the-century Angeleno artists flocked to the hills to put on their pageants, passion plays and spectacles.
How Hollywood Became the “Athens of America”
Behind the creation of LA’s amphitheaters were two visionary women, Artie Mason Carter and Christine Wetherill Stevenson.
By the early 1900s, Hollywood had made LA the new entertainment capital, drawing actors, writers and artists from around the world. And when they weren’t making epic spectacles such as The Birth of a Nation, they were performing theater.
One of the first huge outdoor shows took place in Beachwood Canyon. The play was Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar which featured a cast of almost 5,000 actors and extras. Nearly 40,000 people turned out to see the 1916 production.
Around the same time, a young heiress and playwright, Christine Wetherill Stevenson, was in residence at the Krotona Institute, an early Theosophist colony. The Theosophists were one of dozens of groups of free thinkers to set up shop in southern California. They followed a spiritual belief that wove together Eastern and Western religious traditions.
Stevenson had just finished a successful run of her play The Life of the Buddha in Beachwood and was looking for a new home to stage her passion play, The Pilgrimage Play depicting the life of Jesus. In those days, the Cahuenga Pass was little more than a buggy trail surrounded by gently rolling hills. Stevenson found her perfect spot where the Hollywood Bowl stands today and began work building her new theater. What better backdrop for a show about the Holy Land than the canyons of Hollywood?
That Shining Cross on the Hill
Internal squabbling over the theater’s construction caused Stevenson to leave the project and start another theater across the way. That theater became The Pilgrimage Theatre named for the single show that ran continuously until a lawsuit brought it to a close in 1964.
Stevenson died just a couple of years after her theater opened. Friends and supporters erected a giant cross on the hill above the theater, not as a religious statement but rather a symbol of peace and unity. The land was donated to the City in 1941 while The Pilgrimage Play continued it run, making it the Cats of its time. The courts eventually ruled that the performance was a violation of church and state and the complex was renamed the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre after a local politician.
The renovations completed this week include a new stage of Brazilian hardwood, acoustic paneling to improve the sound and a food market where a small indoor theater once operated. Unlike it’s larger cousins, the Ford Theatres offer a more intimate experience with a fraction of the capacity of either the Hollywood Bowl or The Greek. Also, the Ford is built with spectators facing inward toward the hillside rather than upon it which brings in the rugged natural beauty of the canyons to the performances.
For more background on the rebirth of the Ford, check Tom the Explorer’s excellence short doc below.
“It looks just like a bowl!”
Meanwhile, across the way the ambitious Hollywood Bowl carried on construction in fits and starts. This magnificent venue owes its existence to a retired music teacher Artie Mason Carter. Carter was a tireless booster and fundraiser. She sold her diamond ring for the cause and dropped her piano in front of steam shovels when a Highland Avenue construction project threatened performances there. Thanks to her efforts and funds from influential friends like Aline Barnsdall, the Hollywood Bowl thrived.
Over the years, the famous bandshell at the Bowl has been redesigned by notable architects Myron Hunt (Rosebowl), Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright), and Frank Gehry (Disney Hall).
The Beatles famously played here during their whirlwind tour of America in 1965. Legendary bands such as The Doors, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Elton John have also stood on the Bowl stage. It’s also home to the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and summer home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra led by guest conductors such as George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and John Williams.
Did you know that you can hike into the Hollywood Bowl?
Sandi shows you the way, right here.
Get thee to the Greek
While the dirt was flying around Cahuenga, another grand benefactor of LA was planning his own neo-classical performance stage.
Notorious land owner Colonel Griffith J. Griffith (no relation to the director), aspired to leave behind two architectural legacies. Besides the Griffith Park itself, Griffith left funds to create both the Griffith Observatory and the Greek Theatre.
Of the three theaters, the Greek is most obviously, Greek. Set inside the park among stately redwoods and elegant cedars, the Greek is an ideal spot for a laid back summer concert. A huge parade of stars have performed here including Robert Plant, Johnny Cash, Deborah Harry, Ringo Starr and surprisingly, Iggy Pop. Of course, the Greek is also the sacred spot where every grandmother’s favorite album, Neil Diamond’s “Hot August Nights” was recorded.
Now that the Ford is back, you’ve got three world-class venues to choose from.
From schedules and ticket information, check the links below.
John Anson Ford Amphitheatre
2580 Cahuenga Boulevard
John Ford Theatres
2301 N. Highland Avenue
2700 N. Vermont
Los Feliz, 90027