Hollywood Bowl: 100 Years Of Music For Everyone; So Cal’s Beloved Amphitheater Celebrates Its Centennial
Billed as the world’s largest natural amphitheater, the Hollywood Bowl has hosted the biggest stars in classical, jazz and pop over the past century: Luciano Pavarotti, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Itzhak Perlman, Yehudi Menuhin, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Rod Stewart, the Eagles, Ella Fitzgerald. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ last performance was at the Bowl five years ago.
The list goes on and so does the magic of a spot in the Hollywood Hills once called Daisy Dell.
The bowl’s famed bandshell, though changed through the decades, is instantly recognizable by its concentric arches and distinctive Streamline Moderne architecture, a sub-genre of Art Deco.
From the highest seats in the bowl, where the iconic Hollywood sign comes into view, to the premium boxes where guests enjoy finely prepared food and wine or their own picnics, the Bowl has lived up to its motto of “music for everyone.”
Even today, there are $1 seats available for midweek classical performances put on by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, which manages the venue on behalf of Los Angeles County, and buses are chartered to bring in guests from all corners of Greater L.A. On June 3, this season officially opened with Gwen Stefani and the L.A. Philharmonic, with musical director Gustavo Dudamel conducting.
Courtesy Hollywood Bowl
“The mission is to open the doors of the Hollywood Bowl to everyone in L.A. County, regardless of race, gender, income and we really do think about that when we are doing our programming,” said General Manager Laura Connelly. “Our seasons are eclectic every year, and we have this amazing bus program that we run which has between 30% and 40% ridership on any one concert and we make that opportunity to use the buses as affordable as possible. We still have $1 seats Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and we are proud of the fact that we are able to still offer that. Can you imagine going to see a show for a dollar? It’s crazy.”
The word magic often comes up while discussing the Hollywood Bowl with attendees and the venue’s workforce. Among them is Brian Smith, Live Nation Senior Vice President for Los Angeles booking. He grew up in the nearby San Fernando Valley and rode the bus to the Bowl to catch the Beach Boys and a performance of the cantata “Carmina Burana,” based on 24 poems from the Middle Ages.
“Then as a teenager, I’d see Morrissey, later Radiohead; I was in my 20s. It was probably Bill and Andy’s shows when I started going to a bunch of rock stuff,” Smith said, referring to Bill Silva and Andrew Hewitt. Together, they have promoted shows at the Bowl for 31 years and since 2018 have partnered with Live Nation.
“I saw that last Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show (on Sept. 25, 2017) and I’ve seen a lot of them,” he said. “I thought, “This is the greatest artist and the greatest band. There is some magic there. There was just something about him at the Bowl. I’ve been to a few shows that were like that. It’s an extraordinary place with extraordinary expectations.”
Petty died a week after the Heartbreakers closed out that three-show run with a rousing rendition of “American Girl.”
Smith says having Silva and Hewitt in the Live Nation family is a huge get for the music industry behemoth and they’ve been mentors to him personally.
“It’s invaluable, not only because of their 31 years of institutional knowledge at the Bowl,” he said. “They love the place too. I feel lucky to work with them every day.”
Hewitt recalls seeing the Grateful Dead at the Bowl in 1974 and taking in a Sonny and Cher show before he turned 10. It wouldn’t be his last encounter with the oft-retired megastar.
On the production values of the Bowl: “It’s a massive stage (the shell is a third larger than the previous one) and it’s got an unbelievable sound system (from L-Acoustics), great lighting and most tours augment it with their own,” Smith said. “It can be turnkey. Van Morrison comes in and he uses everything and it’s great or they can do a massive multi-truck show with Backstreet Boys and it all works seamlessly.”
The historic bandshell has been through several iterations through the decades. At one point, the plan was to design a new structure for every season, before common sense dictated otherwise. Before the current bandshell was constructed in 2004, the previous structure, which sat on rails and could be moved to stage right, had been in place since 1929. It’s depicted in the county seal.
Bill Silva, Andy Hewitt, Rod Stewart, long-time manager arnold stiefel and AGI’s Dennis Arfa ahead of one of Stewart’s Hollywood Bowl gigs. Photo by Randall Michelson.
Between the classical, pop and other shows put on by the L.A. Phil and those promoted by Live Nation, the Hollywood Bowl typically hosts just over 100 shows each year, Connelly said.
The latest version of the shell — the bowl’s fifth — has had a profound impact on the types and total number of productions that could stage shows at the facility, according to Silva.
“It’s increased because it’s so much easier for the touring artists to put their productions in,” he said. “The L.A. Philharmonic really planned ahead in expanding the shell in this latest renovation they did. A lot of shows just couldn’t logistically make it into the bowl based on how many days it would take to set up and tear it down. The Philharmonic likewise is seeing similar success with artists able to be more creative with their shows and easier to facilitate.”
“The shell is an interesting story because it was a partnership between Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and the late (L.A. Philharmonic Association Executive Director) Ernest Fleischmann,” Hewitt said. “Ernest had the desire for a new shell and had the architect, and Zev wanted to do it and there was a bond initiative for billions of dollars.”
Yaroslavsky helped push for an increase in the budget to ensure there was enough money to get the project done, due in part to the strong partnership between the county and the orchestra.
“Supervisor Yaroslavsky felt it was important to not just have the Philharmonic but to have The Rolling Stones,” Hewitt said. “So, Bill and I had to work very hard to make sure we had The Stones a few years back.”
The partnership between the L.A. Phil and Los Angeles County has been a hallmark of the Bowl’s success over most of the past 100 years, Connelly said.
“It’s maintained by the county and managed by the L.A. Philharmonic Association. It’s helped to make the Hollywood Bowl what it is,” she said. “You’ve got this certain Streamline Moderne architecture that we’ve tried to keep with all the buildings and any new upgrades that we do. We have that amazing fountain at the entrance. A statue called the Muse of Music, designed by George Stanley, who did the Oscar statuette, is part of that fountain. If it hadn’t been a county property, I don’t know that we would have had that kind of history and had that be part of the fabric of what the place is.”
The 200-foot Muse of Music, Dance and Drama fountain, which sits at the venue’s Cahuenga Boulevard entrance, was designed by Stanley and constructed in 1940 from granite quarried from nearby Victorville, California. It was commissioned in 1939 as a Federal Arts Project, part of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.
It was refurbished in 2006, said Mark Ladd, associate director of Hollywood Bowl operations. He’s worked at the venue for more than 40 years after stints at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and venue security giant Contemporary Services Corporation, which has the contract at the Bowl.
Speaking of fountains, from 1954-72 the Bowl featured a 100,000-gallon reflecting pool that separated the stage from the audience, but was removed after overly exuberant fans made a practice of jumping into it. Earlier this summer, “CBS Sunday Morning” did a feature on the bowl, showing fans jumping in for a swim at a late 1960s Hendrix show.
That section is now one of the Bowl’s exclusive areas, with fine dining available at most L.A. Phil-promoted shows.
Introducing the venue to new artists and audiences is something Hewitt and Silva relish. Case in point is the June 4 show by Rex Orange County, which Silva called one of the most important events he and Hewitt have promoted at the venue in years.
“The audience was parents bringing their 16-year-olds, singing at the top of their lungs to every song,” he said. “It’s exciting to see the ushering in of a new era of an audience and great new musicians. They play their own instruments, write their own music. There’s a horn section. It’s very musical. It was exciting and produced the highest merchandise numbers we’ve seen at the Bowl by almost a factor of double the best before that. The only ones out there doing better merch than this kid would be Harry Styles.”
A Fine Ladd: Mark Ladd, associate director of Hollywood Bowl operations, has more than 40 years at the Bowl.
Silva said he sometimes has to explain to artists the value of playing the Hollywood Bowl even though tickets might have to be priced a bit higher than other sheds, and he cited Rex Orange County as a good example.
“You’ve got a very astute young manager (Jonathan Dickins) who’s wildly successful with his other client, Adele, and who recognizes the value of planting the flag in iconic venues and making a statement,” he said.
“What an exciting night to see that audience experience the Bowl just like a young Andy Hewitt did when he was seeing Sonny and Cher.”
“The first concert I went to was Sonny and Cher and the Turtles at the Hollywood Bowl, which Cher has always found amusing when we were involved with one of her many farewell tours,” Hewitt said.
“The promoter saw her when he was 6,” Silva quipped.
Most rock and pop shows booked this year, with a lineup that includes Dave Matthews, Jack Johnson, The Who, Pet Shop Boys with New Order, Florence + The Machine, Wu Tang Clan with Nas, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Rüfüs Du Sol, Zac Brown Band and Smashing Pumpkins with Jane’s Addiction, have sold out or gone nearly clean, Smith said.
“It’s an easy sell. The wind is at your back there,” Smith said, explaining that the venue itself is part of the appeal. “The Gorge (in eastern Washington) is beautiful. Red Rocks (outside Denver) is a great shed, but there is just no venue in the world like the Hollywood Bowl.”
Agents of artists who can fill the place prioritize playing the Hollywood Bowl when they come through Los Angeles in the summer, according to the promoters working with the venue.
“It’s easily the most in-demand venue that we work with,” Smith said. “A lot of artists route their tours to include the Bowl. It’s an important place for many artists who can fill it up. When you’re looking at where you want to play, you’re often using an anchor — ‘Where’s that important play?’— and then we route around it. The Bowl is often that play.”
“It’s undeniably iconic and beautiful,” he said. “It sits right in the middle of Hollywood (whereas many sheds are not in an urban center) and I don’t discount that there is magic in that place. You can feel it when you are in there and the sun goes down and the headliner is about to go on. It seems there’s awareness from the artists and the fans that something special is about to happen. Often that leads to an extraordinary show.”
“It’s a marquee venue, for sure, and one of the nice elements is, we can typically illustrate that an artist can sell more tickets at the bowl than other places just because it’s still a more limited offering than other venues. There’s still a season to go to the Hollywood Bowl. It’s not open year-round and we do only so many shows per year. We don’t do hundreds per year,” Silva said. “I would say most artists enjoy playing it on the way up, at the top and as they slowly float their way down. There’s always a time in their career when it’s going to be a great night there.”
The magic of the Bowl was evident in 1998, when Robert Plant and Jimmy Page went on tour in support of their Walking Into Clarksdale record, Hewitt said.
“The show consisted mostly of rearranged and not rearranged Led Zeppelin songs and I had the privilege of watching the show with my childhood friend (film and TV producer) Bill Gerber,” he said. “Afterward, we were standing backstage and it was Robert and Jimmy (and manager) Bill Curbishley,” Hewitt said. “There weren’t many people so I just came back and said, ‘That was the best show I’ve ever seen you guys do. That show was amazing,’ And Robert Plant says, ‘Yeah, it’s the best show we’ve ever done.’ And I said, ‘You mean as Page/Plant?’ and Jimmy said, ‘No, that’s the best show we’ve ever done anywhere.’”
“It was really special for them and the musicians they were playing with on that tour were extraordinary,” Hewitt said. “It was just one of those magical nights. I had seen Zeppelin many times when I was a kid, and they were never as good as they were that night.”
Rick Franks, Live Nation’s co-president of touring, whose first job was as an usher at Pine Knob Music Theater outside Detroit, said the Bowl has a worldwide profile, as evidenced during a conference call with Live Nation executives in Australia prior to Stewart’s show on June 14.
“They were excited that I was at the Bowl,” he said.
In 1919, Theatre Arts Alliance Inc., with Christine Wetherill Stevenson, heiress to the Pittsburgh Paint Company, as president, purchased the land would become the site of the Hollywood Bowl – 59 acres in Bolton Canyon (also known as a popular picnic spot called Daisy Dell) – for $47,500.
The Bowl’s 100th anniversary is tied to July 11, 1922, when the L.A. Philharmonic held its first summer concerts there. The centennial was originally to have been marked in 2021, but the Bowl only had half a traditional season last year thanks to COVID.
The first event at the site, Daisy Dell, was a choral performance at Christmastime, by fire and candlelight with blankets on the ground, in 1920. The official birthday, however, is March 27, 1921, when the L.A. Phil did its first performance there, an Easter Sunday service on a crude wooden stage, with the orchestra and the Hollywood Community Choir that was organized by Artie Mason Carter, a Missouri native considered the Bowl’s founder, according to “Hollywood Bowl: The First 100 Years,” by Derek Traub.
The 1927 version had a ziggurat shape and the 1928 a semi-circle shell. Both were built by Lloyd Wright Jr., son of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Last Dance: The Hollywood Bowl was the site of Tom Petty’s final performance, Sept. 25, 2017. Photo by Randall Michelson
The 1929 design by Lloyd Wright that lasted through 2004 had nine concentric segmented arches that could be “tuned” panel by panel, according to an L.A. Phil timeline, which noted the shell was at the forefront of the Streamline Moderne movement.
Improvements and maintenance are constant to keep the century-old amphitheater up to date, Connelly and Ladd said.
The shell replacement, done over nine months during the 2003-04 offseason, was nine years in the making.
The expanded stage has a 50-foot diameter turntable that, unlike the old one, sits flush and rotates more than 180 degrees for on-the-fly set changes or to introduce one band as the other plays off. The turntable almost didn’t make it into the renovation due to cost considerations, but a donation paid for it, Ladd said.
The shell features an acoustic halo that projects amplified sound down to orchestral performers – it’s not used for rock shows – and has sound-absorbing panels that were fabricated off-site in a Hughes Aircraft hangar, Ladd explained. There are also Modex Module acoustic panels on the sides of the shell.
A new system was installed to mitigate sound getting into neighborhoods – where R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and DJ Paul Oakenfold are among the residents – and on stage.
The Bowl’s seat benches were replaced in 2016, with much of the Canadian sourced Alaskan yellow cedar repurposed elsewhere on the property. Someone even used it to make a Gibson guitar, according to Ladd, who said the wood is maintenance free, lasts about 30 years and costs about $100 per seat.
“We also repainted the shell and it looks brand spanking new and sparkling for our centennial, Connelly said. “Over the years, we’ve re-designed and completely constructed a whole new midgate and box office plaza. We’re constantly looking at ways to keep the venue looking magnificent, make sure we are up to date with technology and have the best possible systems that we can get for the venue.”