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A Brief History of the Hollywood Bowl in Postcards

Hollywood Bowl is the largest natural amphitheatre in the country and a favorite evening destination for Angelenos and visitors alike. Every Summer I go as often as I can. There’s something magical about the venue – the hillside setting, the way the music travels from the stage’s shell up to and around the canyon, and, of course, the fresh open air under the stars. As their summer season ends, I decided to take a look into the Bowl’s almost one hundred year history.

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And, of course, I love any reason to look up vintage Los Angeles postcards. After successful outdoor performances of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and The Light of Asia were hosted in the Hollywood Hills, the newly formed Theatre Arts Alliance began looking for a permanent location in the hills for more outdoor productions and events. Alliance members William Reed and his son H. Ellis embarked on a long search and finally found a popular picnic spot nestled in the hills known as Daisy Dell. H. Ellis Reed remembers, “I scaled a barbed wire fence, went up to the brow of a hill,” Reed said. “Dad stood near a live oak in the center of the bowl-shaped area and we carried on a conversation. We rushed back to the Alliance with a glowing report.”

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All photos courtesy of Hollywood Bowl / LA Philharmonic.

Heiress Christine Weatherill Stevenson, President of the Alliance, then purchased 59 acres of Daisy Dell for $47,000. On March 27, 1921, the venue hosted its first Los Angeles Philharmonic performance while the stage was still simply a wooden platform. It was around this time the space began to be known as the Hollywood Bowl due to the bowl-shaped canyon.  In 1924 the Bowl was deeded to the County of Los Angeles to safeguard the venue for future generations. Thank you!

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Inspired by the hillside amphitheatres of ancient Greece and Rome and as performances at the Bowl grew in popularity, including an Easter Sunday service as seen above that continues annually to this day, organizers installed seating and a series of shell designs to take advantage of the canyon’s natural acoustics.

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The 1928 shell, designed by Lloyd Wright introduced the now-familiar concept of concentric arches but lasted only one season due to weather damage.

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The following year, the Bowl installed a permanent shell inspired by Wright’s design.

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A collage of the evolution of the Bowl’s shell design can be seen below.

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New York Times Music Critic Olin Downes described his experience at the Hollywood Bowl by saying, “[The concerts] have a flavor different from any other concert known to me. The setting must be seen to be realized… it is no wonder that thousands upon thousands attend the four concerts given on as many evenings each week and that these people listen…under a spell not known to audiences of concert halls, and that they learn…to love and to worship music.”

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Around this time, in a first and possibly last (as far as we know) a baby was born at the Hollywood Bowl under the stage during a concert. In 1932, during his presidential campaign, Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a large audience at the Hollywood Bowl.  Its paid attendance record of 26,410 was set in August 1936 for a performance by French opera star Lily Pons.

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In 1937, a memorial service was held at The Hollywood Bowl for George Gershwin, attended by a cast of Hollywood’s “who’s who.” Among those who spoke or performed during the service were Fred Astaire, Eddie Cantor, Otto Klemperer, and the Phiharmonic.
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Also in 1937 the Bowl appeared in its first major motion picture – the classic David O. Selznick film A Star is Born.

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In 1946, Frank Sinatra regaled concert goers at the Bowl as the first “pop” performer to be hosted by the venue. Also in 1946, a heavy rainstorm began to fall during a performance of Judy Garland but legend has it “not a soul left.”

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In 1951, after a disastrous money-losing season of unpopular, big budget productions, the Hollywood Bowl abruptly went bankrupt and closed, only to be rescued thanks to the efforts of an “Emergency Committee” lead by, who else, Dorothy Buffum Chandler. In 1956 Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong performed together and recorded their double album, “Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl.” During one especially memorable week in 1965, the Bowl boasted performances by the Beatles, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Bob Dylan, and the Beach Boys. Who today could possibility challenge that stunning lineup?

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The rest of the groovy decade saw Jim Hendrix, Sonny & Cher, The Rolling Stones, and The Doors all make their Hollywood Bowl debuts.

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In 1966, violinist Itzhak Perlman commented, “I have had a lot of experience playing outdoors, but nothing is as special or exciting as playing the Hollywood Bowl.”

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In 1970 The Hollywood Bowl added acoustical sonotubes, created by internationally renowned Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, to improve sound quality.

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In 1973 Opera newcomer Luciano Pavarotti made his Hollywood Bowl debut quickly becoming a Bowl favorite. And 1978 saw the performance by conductor John Williams, who visits the Bowl annually even today. In 1980 Frank Gehry returned to implement the signature fiberglass spheres that hang from the Bowl’s shell to enhance acoustics.

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Over the next thirty years, the Bowl has hosted Madonna, Tina Turner, John Paul Jones, Tom Petty, Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston, and many, many more.

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In 2000, the architectural firm Hodgetts & Fung renovated of the Hollywood Bowl shell to bring the performance stage and backstage facilities up to current seismic standards.

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In 2001, Radiohead made their first appearance. And it’s hard to believe only six short years ago, music Director Gustavo Dudamel makes his Los Angeles opera conducting debut, leading a performance of Bizet’s Carmen. In 2012 new LED jumbo screens are controversially added to the amphitheater.

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Today, the Hollywood Bowl remains Los Angeles’s favorite concert venue. In the next month alone it will host Dolly Parton, The Lumineers, Sia, Van Morrison, and Danny Elfman, Hope to see you at the Bowl!

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All photos courtesy of The Hollywood Bowl Museum. To learn more about the Hollywood Bowl’s history, visit the museum at 2301 N. Highland Avenue, next to the venue. Admission is free.


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