Every summer, Southern Californians flock to the Hollywood Bowl for evenings of music and picnicking under the stars. As the Los Angeles Philharmonic begins its 90th season at the venue, we look back at the Bowl's history through archived images from the Hollywood Bowl Museum and other L.A. as Subject members.
The Bowl's origins as a musical venue date back to 1919, when the newly-formed Theatre Arts Alliance dispatched two of its members, William Reed and his son H. Ellis, to the Hollywood Hills to find a suitable location for outdoor productions. After a long search, the Reeds finally found their desired site: a shaded canyon and popular picnic spot known as Daisy Dell. Nestled in the hills near the entrance to the Cahuenga Pass, the site was a natural amphitheater, as H. Ellis Reed discovered:
"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."
Daisy Dell—soon to become known as the Hollywood Bowl—hosted concerts, graduation ceremonies, and other community events in 1920, but it was in 1921 that the Bowl's best-known association began. On March 27, 1921, the outdoor venue hosted its first Los Angeles Philharmonic performance, an Easter sunrise service attended by more than 800 concertgoers. The following year, the Philharmonic played its first official summer season in the Hollywood Bowl.
The first concertgoers stretched out blankets over the Bowl's wild grass or sat on temporary benches as bands and orchestras performed on a simple wooden stage. As the venue grew in popularity, the Bowl installed permanent seating and, in 1926, 1927, and 1928, installed a series of band shells meant to provide a visual backdrop and to enhance the amphitheater's natural acoustics. The 1928 shell, designed by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright), introduced the now-familiar concept of concentric arches but lasted only one season.
Finally, in 1929, the Bowl received a permanent shell, inspired by Wright's design but featuring circular rather than elliptical arches. It became instantly recognizable worldwide and, with only a few modifications by architect Frank Gehry in the 1970s and 1980s, remained in use through 2003. In 2004, a more commodious version of the old band shell debuted, based on the original design but large enough to accommodate a full orchestra.
Although the Bowl is best known as a symphonic music venue, it has hosted a variety of events, from Hollywood High School's annual graduation ceremony to speeches by political leaders and dignitaries.
In April 1943, Soong May-ling, the wife of Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, concluded a wartime speaking tour of the United States--organized by film producer David O. Selnick--with a rousing speech at the Bowl. Hollywood luminaries, Caltech scientists, and more than 30,000 others filled the Bowl the hear Soong describe China's war with Japan. Soong concluded her speech with a call for the U.S. Congress to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act, an 1882 law that banned Chinese immigration into the United States. With China as an ally in the war against Japan, Congress complied that December.
In 1946, Frank Sinatra became the first popular artist to play at the Bowl. It was a controversial appearance, as some objected to Sinatra's sharing the stage with the Philharmonic, but the Bowl began to incorporate popular acts into its schedule. During one especially memorable week in 1965, the Bowl hosted separate performances by the Beatles, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, and Bob Dylan. This summer, that tradition of diverse offerings continues with Bowl performances by rock band Maroon 5, country singer Dolly Parton, comedian Eddie Izzard, and, of course, concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.
Another Hollywood Bowl tradition—picnicking—dates back to the early 1950s. Although Daisy Dell hosted many picnickers before the first note was ever played in the Bowl, in-seat snacking was forbidden at performances until 1952. That year, Dorothy Chandler—a noted patron of the arts who helped save the facility from financial ruin in 1951—changed the rules and created a new custom when she ordered a catered picnic for her guests. In-seat picnicking is still encouraged at the Bowl today.
The Hollywood Bowl recently featured these moments, as well as many others, in a series of 90 retrospective tweets that celebrated the start of the Philharmonic's 90th season at the venue. Those highlights--many of which include images from the collections of the Hollywood Bowl Museum, a member of the L.A. as Subject research collective--are now compiled on the Bowl's website. To learn more about the Hollywood Bowl's history, visit the museum at 2301 N. Highland Avenue, next to the venue. Admission is free.