A Diplomatic Guide
Outdoor Amphitheaters of Los Angeles
Los Angeles has many music venues. They include famous concert halls such as Walt Disney Concert Hall, historic theaters such as the Belasco, cemetery sites such as the Fairbanks Lawn at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, small clubs such as The Baked Potato and dives such as The Airliner.
But, the music venues that perhaps best reflect the southern California motif are outdoor amphitheaters – hillside indentations that form a natural performance space. Many were first used au naturel without stages, orchestra pits or benches. Today structures have been built adding band shells and seats while preserving the beauty of the outdoor setting.
Los Angeles has a number of amphitheaters, including the world renowned Hollywood Bowl. In addition, there is Griffith Park’s Greek Theater, the John Anson Ford Theater in Hollywood’s Cahuenga Pass and Burbank’s Starlight Bowl, nestled in the Verdugo Mountains. I’ll offer a few comments about each.
The Hollywood Bowl was started by a group of community activists who wanted a summer home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The first regular season of music began on July 11, 1922 as “Hollywood Bowl Summer Popular Concerts.” “Under the Stars” performances continue to this day. Past performers range from Baryshnikov, Heifetz and Piatigorsky to Sinatra, the Beatles, Adele and Avicii. .
A Hollywood Bowl tradition is to picnic outside the park before a performance or, if seated in the box seats, to use the foldout tables attached within each box and picnic at your seat.
Parking at the Bowl is generally horrendous. Instead of taking your car, it’s best to look at the Hollywood Bowl website, find the nearest park and ride shuttle bus departure point and enjoy a bus ride to and from the Bowl.
A Hollywood Bowl bonus is that it is always open. Visitors can walk the venue from the top to the bottom of its 17,500 capacity seating area. Afterward, a visit to the Bowl’s museum, adjacent to the entrance, will offer a historical perspective about this historic music venue. During the summer visitors can also listen to the Hollywood Bowl orchestra rehearse.
The Greek Theater, with its 5,900 seating capacity, is owned and operated by the city of Los Angeles through its Department of Recreation and Parks. It is another “under the stars” music venue. Smaller and more intimate than the Hollywood Bowl, it is nestled in the pleasant setting of Griffith Park – three thousand acres of land donated to the city by Griffith J. Griffith.
Griffith was a wealthy, paranoid, clandestine alcoholic who attempted to murder his wife because he thought the Pope planned to poison him in order to steal his wealth. To Griffith, his wife, a practicing Catholic, symbolized the Pope’s extensive reach. His attack left her disfigured and blind in one eye. At his 1904 trial Griffith’s defense was “alcoholic insanity.” He was sentenced to two years in San Quentin Penitentiary, where he served one year before being released.
In 1912 Griffith offered the city funds with which to build an observatory. The city fathers refused, saying they considered the offer a bribe for rehabilitation and they would not be bribed. Griffith died seven years later. In his will he essentially renewed his offer and provided the city with funds to build an observatory and a Greek Theater on land he also bequeathed to the city. The city fathers no longer had qualms about accepting the gift. The rest is history.
Established as the Pilgrimage Theater by a dissident, original founder of the Hollywood Bowl the venue is now known as the John Anson Ford Theater. With a seating capacity of approximately 1,200 it is currently under renovation but is due to reopen July 8. It is now owned by the County of Los Angeles and operated by the County Arts Commission, the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Ford Theater Foundation. Hopefully the renovation will eliminate some of the problems that made the Ford my least favorite outdoor venue.
Among the problems I hope the renovation corrects are inadequate bathroom facilities – during intermissions even the men’s bathroom had long waiting lines. Also, parking was as frustrating as driving the 405 on a Friday evening. Stacked parking, where a car can’t leave until the car in front leaves, was a perpetual problem. The county sought to alleviate this problem by offering free bus shuttle service from the Red Line subway parking lot next to Universal City. However, the busses only carried 25 or so people and the departure system following a concert was invariably poorly organized.
The Starlight Bowl area was first used for live performances in 1935. Structures were added in 1950. The seating capacity is 5,000. It is located in Burbank’s Verdugo Mountains. The panoramic view of the San Fernando Valley from the seating area is limited but from some of the parking areas, the views are spectacular – especially of Bob Hope (Hollywood-Burbank) Airport in the distance.
In the past the Burbank Symphony played here. More recently the entertainment has consisted of a potpourri of different acts and styles.
While the gates to the Starlight Bowl are generally closed unless a performance is pending, the area in which the Bowl is located is worth exploring. The nearby Stough Canyon Nature Center offers a nature study facility plus a number of hiking trails that lead to panoramic vistas. In addition, the DeBell Golf Club’s coffee shop offers ordinary fare but a restful setting.
Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity for the Los Angeles Consular Corps and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or the views of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.