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How Religion Gave L.A. the Ford Amphitheatre

"Every building has a story," says Brenda Levin. "That's probably one of the most unique and wonderful things about working on existing buildings."

Levin, of L.A.-based Levin & Associates, is an expert on restoring and renovating historic buildings. Her firm's previous projects include downtown's Bradbury Building, the Griffith Observatory and the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. These are all places with deep stories involving large personalties and big ambitions. That's also true of the firm's recently completed project, the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, which opens its 2017 summer season this weekend, on July 15. 

Interior of the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, featuring the sound absorptive and acoustic wall panel and the new projection booth and control room. | Tom Bonner
Interior of the updated John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, featuring the sound absorptive and acoustic wall panel and the new projection booth and control room. | Tom Bonner

The firm was initially brought on to create a master plan for the Ford property. That led to a massive overhaul of the amphitheater itself. Part of the project was unveiled last year, but the 2017 season opening will bring with it new renovations and additions to the space. It was a massive undertaking that took several years to bring to completion and with the renovation comes a renewed interest in this outdoor venue's unusual history. 

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The Ford started out life as the Pilgrimage Play Theatre, an amphitheater created specifically to house the play produced and written by its founder, Christine Wetherill Stevenson. Knowing about Stevenson was as important to the Ford Theatre project as knowing about the building itself. "It really had as much to do with the architecture as the person," says Levin of the research that went into this renovation and restoration. 

Photo of Christine Wetherill Stevenson for Ford Theater | LA Phil Archives
Photo of Christine Wetherill Stevenson for Ford Theater | LA Phil Archives

Stevenson was a Philadelphia heiress who ended up in Los Angeles, where she became a mover and shaker in the arts world. She was the first president of a group called the Theatre Arts Alliance. Stevenson was also a student of Theosophy and the plays that she intended to produce were documenting the lives of religious figures. The Theatre Arts Alliance produced "The Light of Asia," which was about Buddha. After that, Stevenson wanted to produce a play about Jesus and the intent was to hold that on the grounds that became the Hollywood Bowl. An article in the Los Angeles Times from 1964 says that this was because the Hollywood Bowl was considered too big a space for the play. The same article notes that Stevenson had actually put up a big chunk of money for the Hollywood Bowl property. When she decided to move the play elsewhere, the producer and her friend and collaborator Mrs. Chauncey D. Clarke sought to sell off the Bowl property for a subdivision, others stepped in to prevent that. Meanwhile, Stevenson found a nearby property that worked well for what she was planning to stage. That became the Pilgrimage Play Theater (also called the Pilgrimage Theater in later newspaper articles).

Ford Fire 1929 | Image from Herald Examiner Collection | Los Angeles Public Library.
Ford Fire 1929 | Image from Herald Examiner Collection | Los Angeles Public Library

Stevenson's "Pilgrimage Play" opened in the summer of 1920. The text was based on scripture; in fact, Stevenson is referred to as the "transcriber" of the script, as opposed to the writer or author, in early news articles about the event. She also had a goal of bringing a sense of the Biblical lands to the stage. A 1921 article in the L.A. Times covered her return from a research trip to Palestine, Egypt and India, where she bought over $3,000 worth of costumes for the show. The article also noted that olives, figs and grapes would be planted around the theater to make it appear more like Palestine. 

"Pilgrimage Play" was Stevenson's pet project. Not only did she produce it and handle the script, but she also acted in it. The play was a success, but the woman behind it didn't live much longer than the third season. She died in Philadelphia in November of 1922. With her death, there were questions about what would happen to "Pilgrimage Play." Stevenson herself wanted it to run annually as a nonprofit production and her family honored that request when they deeded the land to the Pilgrimage Play Association. The play continued its successful summer seasons with multiple stories until it was struck by another blow. In October of 1929, a wildfire decimated the wood structure. 

The Ford Amphitheatre that we know now isn't the original structure. Instead, it is one that was constructed from concrete and reopened in 1931. A 1930 L.A. Times article notes that the new theater was set to cost $200,000 and sit on a piece of land that would cost $150,000. The structure itself was designed to be reminiscent of Jerusalem and the surrounding plant life was to do the same. 

Today, the style of the venue is called neo-Judaic, but that's a term that's fairly specific to this place. "Neo-Judaic is not necessarily a recognized style of architecture, so I can't point to anywhere in Los Angeles, or really anywhere else," says Levin. "I think it's more that the style of architecture reflects the functionality and the use of the amphitheater more than anything else."

Construction of the Pilgrimage Play Ampitheatre, 1931 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection
Construction of the Pilgrimage Play Ampitheatre, 1931 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection

 

History Ford Stage, 1947 | Los Angeles County Music Center
History Ford Stage, 1947 | Los Angeles County Music Center
Pilgrimage Play Amphitheater circa 1931 | Bob Plunkett
Pilgrimage Play Amphitheater circa 1931 | Bob Plunkett

Signifiers of the style include the towers that stand at the sides of the stage. Those remain part of the structure, as does the original concrete, which has been stripped and restored. Most of the major changes at the Ford Theatres have to do with its functionality. There is an expanded backstage now and a new loading dock, plus offices and improved facilities for concert goers to picnic, amongst sound and lighting-related improvements. One change that highlights the original design is the Grab & Go Market, which is situated behind large, stately doors that hadn't been opened for the public in decades. 

“The Zev” Picnic Terrace and the Ford Terrace Café with offices for Ford staff on the third floor | Tom Bonner
“The Zev” Picnic Terrace and the Ford Terrace Café with offices for Ford staff on the third floor | Tom Bonner

Also unusual about this venue is its configuration facing the hillside. "You're looking into the natural landscape, whereas with the Hollywood Bowl, you're looking in a shell. Pretty much any outdoor amphitheater that you can imagine has some sort of shell and the Ford does not," says Levin. 

Amphitheatre stage at night. A new lighting and sound transom was added to heighten the technological capabilities of the Amphitheatre and to improve audience and performer experiences. | Tom Bonner
Amphitheatre stage at night. A new lighting and sound transom was added to heighten the technological capabilities of the Amphitheatre and to improve audience and performer experiences. | Tom Bonner
TAIKOPROJECT and Quetzal, 2016 | Genna Cui
TAIKOPROJECT and Quetzal, 2016 | Genna Cui

In the early 1940s, the Pilgrimage Play Theater was donated to Los Angeles County and the play for which this space was built went from being an annual phenomenon to a sporadic production. In the 1960s, the play fell under fire from authorities concerned that, because "Pilgrimage Play" received City and County funds, it was a violation of the separation of church and state. To save the play, a fundraising committee worked to get the money together for another season of the show. The person in charge of that endeavor was John Anson Ford, who was previously a County Supervisor (The venue itself was named after him in 1976). In 1964, "Pilgrimage Play" had its final run at its original home. By that time, according to an L.A. Times article, one million people had seen the show. 

"Pilgrimage Play" was a cultural cornerstone of Los Angeles during its existence. Today, it's an obscure bit of local arts history, but its legacy remains in the small amphitheater on Cahuenga Boulevard. 

Top Image: Pilgrimage Play (1922), Salome before Herod | Los Angeles Public Library

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