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The People’s Pleasure: Angelenos’ Love Affair with the Hollywood Bowl

Produced for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association by Festival Productions. This gala concert celebrating Ella Fitzgerald benefitted the Hollywood Bowl Fund.
Produced for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association by Festival Productions. This gala concert celebrating Ella Fitzgerald benefitted the Hollywood Bowl Fund. | Los Angeles Philharmonic Archives
For Los Angeles residents, the Hollywood Bowl has become a part of their collective memory, highlighting the importance of public performance spaces.
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On warm, starry summer nights, Angelenos from all walks of life can often be found at the Hollywood Bowl, listening to a diverse array of performing legends. An important music venue of international prominence, the famed landmark has been an integral part of L.A.’s cultural fabric for almost a century.

The stage under the Bowl's legendary bandshell has been graced by artists including Gustavo Dudamel, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Oscar Peterson, Louis Armstrong, The Beatles, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Dolly Parton, Stevie Wonder, Billie Holiday, Willie Nelson, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Kris Kristofferson, Benny Goodman, Lana Del Rey, Courtney Love, Vampire Weekend and Arctic Monkeys, the popular Jazz Festival and the Mariachi USA Festival.

Watch a few of the Hollywood Bowl's great musical moments on "In Concert at the Hollywood Bowl." Play this preview.
In Concert at the Hollywood Bowl (Preview)
Closer view of the Hollywood Bowl and vicinity
Closer view of the Hollywood Bowl and vicinity | Howard D. Kelly / Los Anegles Public Library

Over the decades, these celebrities have often been the Bowl’s main attraction. But it is not just the famous who have been stars at the Hollywood Bowl. For Los Angeles residents, the Bowl has become a part of their collective memory, highlighting the importance of public performance spaces. Thousands of local high school students from institutions including Hollywood High and Immaculate Heart have graduated there. Like SoCal native Jocelyn Fultz, many more have fond memories of singing in the choir at the annual Easter Sunrise Sermon.

Graduation ceremony at the Hollywood Bowl
Graduation ceremony at the Hollywood Bowl | Security Pacific National Bank / Los Angeles Public Library

As the American Ballet Theater’s principal dancer Misty Copeland, who grew up in Los Angeles County, told the Los Angeles Times in 2020, the Bowl has long had a special cachet among Angelenos:

Growing up in Southern California, the Hollywood Bowl was always just a fantasy, like, one day I could ever perform there. When I got the opportunity to perform, I was partnered by Marcelo Gomes, and we did a Tchaikovsky theme. The love that I felt from the audience — I remember I walked out onto the stage to do my variation, the white swan from Swan Lake, and I couldn’t hear the music when it started because the cheers were so loud. Being a California girl, it was such a proud moment. I kept saying that evening I wish I would have been in the audience watching.

Listen to Misty Copeland's advice for young artists:
Misty Copeland’s Advice for Young Artists

The founders of the Hollywood Bowl intended for it to be a place for all Angelenos. In 1919, producer and performer Christine Wetherill Stevenson, a member of the esoteric Theosophical Society, founded the Theater Arts Alliance along with other local cultural and business leaders. Their goal — to build a permanent outdoor theater in the heart of Los Angeles.

In search of a perfect spot, Stevenson sent future Hollywood Bowl superintendent William Reed and his son, the actor H. Ellis Reed, to scout Hollywood’s hills and valleys. In a picturesque valley called Daisy Dell, they found what they were looking for. According to H. Ellis Reed:

…on a Sunday morning early in 1919, from a hill East of Cahuenga Pass, we spotted what we were looking for. We crossed the street [Highland Avenue] to a valley completely surrounded by hills. My enthusiasm knew no bounds. Immediately I wanted to test the acoustics. I scaled a barbed-wire fence, went up to the brow of a hill. 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.

Daisy Dell was soon purchased by Hollywood developer C.E. Toberman for the Alliance, supported with loans from Stevenson and philanthropist and cultural leader Marie Rankin Clarke. However, Stevenson soon left the Alliance due to infighting and built what is now the John Anson Ford Amphitheater.

But the spark she had lit took fire. The Alliance was renamed the Community Park and Art Association. Local cultural leader Frederick W. Blanchard was elected president, and music teacher Artie Mason Carter, who came to be known as “the soul of the bowl,” secretary. “I felt good music should be for every Tom, Dick and Harry, and not just for the cultured few,” Carter recalled. “I used to sit alone in the Bowl and dream of filling it with music.”

A black and white photo of the Hollywood Bowl.
A black and white photo of the Hollywood Bowl

Carter worked tirelessly to get the project off the ground, raising funds for crude benches and a rudimentary stage to be erected. In 1920, she organized the first Easter Sunrise Service with the help of heiress and producer Aline Barnsdall (of Barnsdall Park fame). In 1922, the first official season of the Bowl debuted, a “symphony under the stars” attended by 150,000 people.

People congregating on a field that will soon be the Hollywood Bowl
First Easter service in Hollywood Bowl | Herald-Examiner Collection / Los Angeles Public Library

In 1926, a more sophisticated, 22,000-seat Bowl, designed by the co-op Allied Architects was dedicated, and it truly became a SoCal destination spot for locals eager for a little night’s music.

Patrons climbing up the hill to the Hollywood Bowl with their tickets on hand.
Patrons climbing up the hill to the Hollywood Bowl with their tickets on hand. | Herman J. Schultheis / Los Angeles Public Library

On June 22 of that year, the Hollywood Bowl was formally dedicated. According to historian John Orlando Northcutt, the special program celebrating the dedication featured “conductors, soloists and specialties including 24 pianists in a spectacular performance.” At the celebration were countless Angelenos who had donated money, time and effort to make the Bowl a community reality. The Los Angeles Times echoed the sentiments of many who were there:

All Los Angeles county residents are joint owners of the Bowl. No Roman amphitheater of the famous days was more democratic than this, and it is doubtful if any out of door meeting place in the world is half so beautiful in its natural surroundings.

The Bowl soon became the site of the occasional spectacle, like on August 9, 1928, when the eccentric Australian born composer and conductor Percy Grainger wed Swedish poet Ella Viola Strom on stage. Grainger had just conducted his tone-poem “To A Nordic Princess,” which he claimed was “honor-tokened in pride of race and personal love.”

For many in SoCal, programs at The Hollywood Bowl were their first exposure to classical music and opera. In 1996, Pasadena native Evelyn Olmsted Ching recalled one such evening for the Hollywood Bowl Museum’s “The Audience Remembers” project:

Back in the early ’30s, my Aunt Lydia used to take me to concerts at the Bowl. The trips were real excursions, involving a bus ride in Long Beach, a Red Line train into the L.A. terminal and a streetcar ride from there. After the concert, the whole sequence was reversed, and we not infrequently arrived home after midnight. The particular concert I will never forget was a production of ‘Die Walkure.’ The shell had been moved to one side, and when it was time for the Ride of the Valkyries, lights shone on the steep hills in back of the stage where {the Valkyries}, on horses and wearing armor and horned helmets, rode hell for leather down toward the stage. The audience gasped.

By the 1940s, the Bowl expanded its programs to include jazz and pop musicians. According to Jessica Gelt of the L.A. Times, Frank Sinatra was the first pop singer to perform at the Bowl, thrilling local bobbysoxers (and filling the cash-strapped Bowl coffers). The Bowl was also the scene of touching, personal events. In 1954, 6,000 immigrants attained U.S. citizenship in a gargantuan naturalization ceremony held there.

Frank Sinatra Hollywood Bowl Program cover, August 1943 | Los Angeles Philharmonic Archives
Frank Sinatra Hollywood Bowl Program cover, August 1943 | Los Angeles Philharmonic Archives

On September 21, 1961, Judy Garland gave a legendary performance at the Bowl in the midst of a rare California rainstorm. The Los Angeles Times critic Art Ryon wrote:

It was drizzling, and she was dazzling…I liked it when, as she first pranced out and stood somewhat alone in front of the large orchestra in that large shell and surveyed her 18,000 raincoated admirers, she chuckled and said, “My, this is an intimate little room, isn’t it.”

The cultural and youth revolution of the 1960s brought new energy to the Bowl. When tickets went on sale in April 1964 for the Beatles’ August show, the ticket office on-site was swarmed by eager fans. The Los Angeles Times reported:

Girls started gathering at the Bowl as early as Friday afternoon to obtain tickets to see that zany, mop-haired British quartet. But police prevented anyone from entering bowl grounds until 3 a.m. Saturday when ticket lines were organized. “They kept hiding in the bushes. We had a heck of a time keeping them out of there,” one officer said. A few minutes after, ticket windows were opened at 9:30 a.m.. An announcement went over loud-speakers that all choice $7 seats had been sold. Many fans wept.

One of the fans was none other than future Grammy-winner Natalie Cole, the then 14-year-old daughter of crooner Nat King Cole, who had been driven to the ticket office by her father’s chauffeur. “I like my dad’s singing better than the Beatles,” she told a reporter. “But the Beatles are cuter than my dad.”

The show, on August 23, 1964, was dubbed by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper “a night of harmless madness.”

“The Beatles came, conquered and left with $58,000 after 30 minutes at the Hollywood Bowl. I can’t say I heard them, but with the aid of binoculars, I saw them,” she wrote wryly.

The Beatles would return for a Bowl encore next year. Other rock n’ roll legends, including The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and Jimmy Hendrix, also appeared on the Bowl’s stage.

Many Angelenos have fond memories of the Bowl in the 1960s. “My first big outdoor concert,” Hollywood native Cher Tobish recalls.

18 years old. Jefferson Airplane. Nose bleeder seats at the very top. Told my girlfriend, follow me, and we took seats all the way down to the front of the stage, jumped into the water to get to the stage with about ten others. A few of us made it, and we danced while they played music. Security came to remove us, but Grace Slick stopped playing and told them no, leave them alone and kept playing while we kept dancing.

L.A. native Tom Evans worked at the Bowl as a teenager, partially because he got to watch shows — including his favorite performers Peter, Paul and Mary — for free.

I worked the summers of 1965 and 1966 for Mr. Overman’s concession, renting seat cushions each show night, verbally announcing repeatedly, ‘Get your cushions here, 15 cents. It’s going to be a long, long show on those cold hard benches,’” Evans remembers. “They were light Styrofoam and could be carried 10-12 at a time stacked over both shoulders while walking with them up and down the aisles. We would tell people to leave them on the benches when the show was over and then pick them up the next morning. What was amazing to me was that the rental cost only 15 cents each, which was about the cost of a candy bar at that time.

For many L.A. natives, the Bowl was a playground, even when there wasn’t a show. “There was LAPD all over the place. We’d sneak in many times, but they were hip to many of our tricks,” Hollywood native Eric McCoy recalls. “They were in the surrounding hills too. If they caught you with dirt on your shoes, they knew you snuck in. We’d even bring an extra pair of shoes sometimes. I played all around there during the daytime on many occasions, sometimes just to ride the level ground escalators. The pond in front of the stage was cool too. Wanted to swim in it but would’ve been kicked out instantly.”

The Bowl was also home to a memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. the day after his assassination in 1968. SoCal native Steve Chase recalled the event, emceed by Bill Cosby and featuring performers including Aretha Franklin, in “The Audience Remembers”:

This was a solemn day, but it was also a day of solidarity with other human beings regardless of background, and the racial mix of the audience was half black and half white. I think the spirit of that day had to do with the setting of the Bowl because there’s a real potency to being outside in the open air — but then, those were different times too. There was a hum in the air, and people were moved by things and gravitated toward one another when something happened like the killing of Dr. King. Because we couldn’t make sense of it, we needed to be with others who shared the sense of uncertainty we felt.

Throughout the decades, the Bowl has continued to be the scene of many important moments in the history of music and culture. For this author, nothing could top the 2011 Dolly Parton show where she played the saxophone, except maybe the 2013 concert when Willie Nelson sang with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. For L.A. resident Jim Meade, it was a 2015 Van Halen concert. “I saw the last Van Halen show Eddie ever performed there,” he says. “It was amazing. Dave had a great quote where he said, ‘the best times of my life has been on stage working with you’ to Eddie. It was an awesome end to their career before Eddie passed.”
Even though the Hollywood Bowl season was canceled in 2020 — the first time since its inception — due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Angelenos have still found ways to enjoy their beloved Bowl. “A good friend planned a picnic for a small group of friends with masks at the tables above the parking lot,” Hollywood native Sue Becker says. “She invited the gentleman who played every summer night in the underground walkway between the east parking lot and the Bowl…It was our own private concert on the hill as he played his sax and portable piano with his little dog sidekick. [It was] so beautiful and memorable for all of us.”

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