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The John Anson Ford Amphitheatre Gets a Makeover

Ford Theatre rendering by Levin & Associates Architects (cropped)
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Ford Theatre rendering of stage by Levin & Associates Architects
Rendering of new the renovated stage and hillside. | Image: Courtesy of Levin & Associates Architects and the Ford Theatres.

The John Anson Ford Amphitheatre might be less famed than its cousin across the 101 freeway, the Hollywood Bowl, but the 1,200-seat performance space still claims passionate supporters among the thousands of Angelenos who attend its summer programming each year. Wedged into the Hollywood Hills east of the Cahuenga Pass and sheltered by palm trees and Italian cypress, the outdoor venue ranks among Los Angeles’ oldest performing arts venues currently in use. Now, after a $66 million renovation and a closure stretching almost two years, the venue will reopen July 8, just in time to launch its summer season.

Started back in 2012 with off-season upgrades, the project concludes Phase One of a “multi-year, nature-meets-culture transformation” of the nearly century-old space, says Laura Zucker, executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. The organization operates the venue through a three-way partnership with the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Ford Theatre Foundation. The Ford itself, along with the 32-acre park where it resides, is owned by the county.

Among the latest changes are a two-tier wooden proscenium with a Brazilian hardwood deck Zucker says “will last for the next 100 years,” along with modernized sound and lighting equipment, renovation of the Jerusalem-gate-inspired towers framing the stage, and a rear sound wall with a “canyon green and sky blue” finish. Dining options will be vastly improved, too: a newly constructed 2,300-square foot open-air picnic terrace accommodates up to 125 people, and a two-story structure combines a concessions kitchen and office space. [Inside] the Ford, the venue’s indoor black box theatre, will be repurposed into a self-serve food area before a civic dedication ceremony marking the project’s wrap-up takes place in August.

There are less obvious but essential improvements as well, like expanded performer dressing rooms, an under-stage drainage system that will prevent water from running down the hillsides into the theater, and new retaining walls to shore up L.A.’s unstable terrain. The renovations are being handled by Levin & Associates Architects, Brenda Levin’s downtown firm responsible for overseeing overhauls of Dodger Stadium, the Griffith Observatory, the Wiltern Theater, and Los Angeles City Hall.

Ford Theatre rendering of JAFT Picnic Terrace by Levin & Associates Architects
Rendering of new picnic terrace, concessions building and sound wall. | Image: Courtesy of Levin & Associates Architects and the Ford Theatres.

Landscaping firm Mia Lehrer + Associates, whose current projects include the L.A. River revitalization, has also worked to integrate the amphitheatre with its rustic setting. The bi-level stage now incorporates drought-resistant landscaping and stone steps that effectively extend the performance space upward into the hillside behind the stage and blend it with the surrounding greenery.

“The stage is literally carved into the hillside and it was our intent, like that of Christine Wetherill Stevenson who built the amphitheatre in 1920, to preserve its rugged beauty and continue to provide a dramatic outdoor setting for performances,” Zucker says.

Future plans include a three-level parking structure, a 299-seat indoor theatre, a museum and gallery space, and a hiking trail.

"Pilgrimage Play" (1922), Salome before Herod.
"Pilgrimage Play" (1922), Salome before Herod. | Photo: Los Angeles Public Library collection.

Stevenson was a playwright and heiress to the Pittsburgh Paint fortune who originally constructed the venue as a backdrop for her work. "The Pilgrimage Play," a religious pageant about the life of Jesus, was performed until 1929 when a brush fire destroyed the original wooden structure, then known as the Pilgrimage Theatre. Its concrete successor fared better, and the spectacle appeared there for another three decades -- until 1964, when the county, which had been deeded the land in the interim, was sued over the play’s religious content, forcing it to shut down.

The arena acquired its current moniker in the 1970s, when it was renamed to honor John Anson Ford, the former L.A. county supervisor who helped establish the Arts Commission, drove the county’s acquisition of Descanso Gardens, and lobbied for construction of The Music Center. The venue had a second life as a punk venue during the 1980s -- Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Ramones, and Jane's Addiction all performed there -- and produced an early offering of Tony Kushner’s AIDS opus "Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches" before the summer programming got its start in 1993.

Pilgrimage Play Amphitheater circa 1931. Photo by Bob Plunkett.
Pilgrimage Play Amphitheater, circa 1931. | Photo: Bob Plunkett.

At the time, Zucker says, “we wanted to re-animate this beautiful historic outdoor amphitheatre to support L.A.’s greatest artistic assets, its performing artists.”

The transition birthed Ford’s Partnership Program. Under this presenting model, L.A.-based arts organizations apply for a spot in the Ford’s slate of warm-weather offerings. Selected acts receive front of house, production, and marketing support while keeping up to 90 percent of ticket sales.

“Our idea was to create opportunities for artists to adventure artistically while building their audiences,” Zucker says. For most performers, she adds, the Ford’s capacity is “significantly larger than the venues they are accustomed to.”

This year’s lineup features more than 70 events spotlighting music, dance, and performance meant to reflect the diversity of L.A.’s residents and its cultural influences. Some of the more eye-catching newcomers include a Star Trek reimagining of Mozart’s "Abduction from the Seraglio" by Pacific Opera Project, a contemporary dance work from Invertigo Dance Theatre dramatizing the aftermath of a natural disaster, and Impro Theatre’s "L.A. Noir UnScripted" -- an off-the-cuff, full-length play inspired by literary greats like Raymond Chandler.

Ford Theatres, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, 2014
Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Ford Theatres, 2014. | Photo: Gennia Cui.

There are returning audience favorites too, like the Fountain Theatre’s flamenco display, a series of Outfest film screenings, and TaikoProject, a taiko drumming troupe appearing with Chicano rock band Quetzal. The Ford Signature Series, which presents internationally known artists alongside local performers, will feature singer-songwriter Aloe Blacc, Grammy-winning Lila Downs with the Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company, and African-inspired dance troupe Urban Bush Women with the multilingual, Latin dance theater Contra-Tiempo.

The annual program, Zucker says, represents “the best of L.A.’s cultural tapestry.”

The 2016 season runs from July 8 through October 15. The complete schedule is available on the Ford’s website.

Top image: Ford Theatres Project, Phase 2 White Model. | Courtesy of Levin & Associates Architects and the Ford Theatres.

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