Stefanie LaHart and Carol Hoffman sat on a picnic blanket in Grand Park, snacking on fresh fruits and cheeses. LaHart, clad in a bright pink tea-length dress — one of her old swing dancing dresses — with her hair curled and eyeliner done especially for the occasion, felt a bit out of place among other audience members wearing shorts and T-shirts.
"Now you won't lose me, Carol," LaHart said. "No one else did the whole dress-up thing. It's hard to miss the girl in the pink dress."
LaHart, a self-proclaimed musical lover, and her friend Hoffman traveled from West Hollywood to downtown L.A. last month to watch the free outdoor screening of "Hairspray" and take in the free dance lessons, one of Grand Park's summer programming features. The park is offering free screenings every Saturday night in August and into September.
Since its opening a year ago, the three-block green space on the sloping land between the Music Center and City Hall has hosted about 70 events and drawn more than 70,000 fans for activities including drum circles and dance-alongs. This past weekend was typical; on Saturday the Park hosted a lively crowd celebrating National Dance Day with free lessons and the chance to dance in the Park's inviting fountain.
Bringing entertainment and cultural activities to Grand Park is an important part of the city's plan to fully revitalize downtown L.A. But it presents a challenge to programmers who must appeal to divergent audiences — the Music Center crowd, shoppers along Broadway, the growing young hipster population, families looking for kid-friendly events — all while preserving the park's laidback feel.
"When you look at the Music Center and you talk to regular folks, they've never been there, they've never been in the Dorothy Chandler pavilion, they have never been in Disney Hall and that's a shame, that's really a shame," Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina said. "So we need to make sure we can find a way to connect it all back."
Many park visitors have found ways to make the park connect back on a personal level. On any given weekend a parkgoer might notice children in brightly colored bathing suits playing in the fountain near people reading books in the sun and sipping on iced lattes. The entertainment is usually on the park's middle level — a DJ leading a jam session, a community dance troupe breaking out its moves — which attracts both passersby and others who have come to the park specifically for the event.
Howard Sherman, executive vice president of the Music Center, has been involved in working with the park's director, Lucas Rivera, to tie musical and cultural content into the park's programming. He said they strive to appeal to the entire downtown community.
"The mantra has always been to have diverse crowds onstage and in the audience watching," Sherman said.
Sherman said by offering free shows like the "Hairspray" dance-along and performers from such groups as the Los Angeles Ballet, he has been able to give many parkgoers a taste of Music Center offerings.
Molina, who spearheaded funding for the park and has been involved in its management, said she was not sure that Sherman and the Music Center have been completely successful in their aims.
"I have always found that one of my biggest issues with the Music Center and many of their cultural events is that while they work very hard at outreach and at doing other things is that unless you have the money to walk through those doors, you don't have the opportunity to see the unbelievable performances there," Molina said.
Sherman said the park is frequented by Music Center audiences who walk the grounds before and after events and attend special Music Center programs in the park. But that's just part of the crowd hanging out at the park.
"If you come to the park, people end up coming up the hill to the Music Center," Sherman noted. "It really is leading to more continuity between all the downtown venues." He believes that the park has become such a destination point, both for those who live in the area and those who don't, that it's changing the way people think about downtown Los Angeles.
Park director Rivera said programmed events such as this past weekend's National Dance Day are just part of the attraction. Bicyclists and jurors lounge by the fountain; midday tai chi and yoga classes are held on the lawn and there's a farmers market on Tuesday.
"There's not a box of different ways to use the park," Rivera said. "There are limitless ways and every time I come I see a new one and I think oh, we should program for that."
For many summer fountain frequenters, the unprogrammed playtime seems just right.
Jazmin Marquez, 11, and her aunt Arely Velleda sat in the shade of an umbrella at a table watching Marquez's younger sisters, Angelina, 7, and Carmen, 4, spread their arms and legs out, creating water angels in the bubbling fountain, enjoying the opportunity to cool down by a few degrees last week.
"It's fun and it's awesome, " Angelina said, wearing a pink and brown two-piece swimsuit. "I like to splash on her."
In the few minutes Velleda managed to pull the two out of the fountain, the girls made sure it would not be their last trip to Grand Park.
"Can we come back, tia?" Carmen asked, peering at her aunt like the Daisy Duck that peered out from her T-shirt. "Please, tia."