Dust off the picnic baskets, it's summertime. A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou under the stars at Hollywood Bowl, and the living doesn't get much easier.
Orchestras throughout the country head outdoors during the summer, but while many have to contend with the season's heat and humidity, the Los Angeles Philharmonic basks in the temperate climes of Southern California--a major factor in the ambition and success of the Bowl season.
For the Philharmonic--which will be on stage for 39 of the 63 concerts this year, starting Monday and continuing through Sept. 15--life at Hollywood Bowl is not all Camembert and Chardonnay, however.
"It's been an extraordinary challenge," says Wayne Shilkret of his first year as general manager of the Bowl--a position with responsibilities that include planning of contracts and production schedules, and meetings with everyone from food concessionaires to the Air Line Pilots Assn. (over the continuing problem of air traffic over the Bowl).
"I think that if I didn't have the experience of working at Kennedy Center, I'd have been overwhelmed."
The summer is also a challenge for the players, who in the last contract negotiations between management and the musicians' union asked for relief from the rigors of the summer schedule.
Last summer, 762,500 patrons clicked through the Bowl turnstiles for concerts by the Philharmonic, its Institute training orchestra, solo recitals and pop/jazz acts. "This year, if everything holds up, our attendance is going to increase dramatically," says Shilkret, who is already deep in planning for 1992.
Beyond the challenges of the Bowl season itself--which keeps a staff of 27 busy all year, expanding to nearly 600 during the summer--lies its immense impact on the fall/winter season. Shilkret hopes that some of the summer audience can be enticed into Music Center concerts, which are supported by revenue from the Bowl--a fact frankly acknowledged by the Philharmonic's leadership.
"The Bowl is tantamount to our endowment," says Philharmonic executive vice president Ernest Fleischmann, "in that it provides income to underwrite our deficit the rest of the year.
"Without it, we couldn't survive. Unlike most other large orchestras, we have a very small endowment. New York Philadelphia, Chicago--they each have $60-million endowments. Ours is $15 million. We have to make it up somewhere."
Considering that the Bowl draws more than three times the Music Center attendance, it is not surprising that it also earns three-quarters of the Philharmonic's ticket sales revenue.
The Philharmonic generated $18.8 million through program services (including a hefty $1 million in parking fees) against $27.3 million in expenses in 1988-89, according to its IRS filings. Its ratio of earned income to expenses is one of the highest--if not the highest--in the country. With donated funds and other revenue--including $900,000 in tour and recording fees--the operation produced a surplus of $890,000 for the season, creating an accumulated balance $2.5 million in the black.
The pressure to sustain those figures with conservative programming balances the pressure to increase them with innovations. "You never tamper with anything that works," says Shilkret, who came on board during last summer's Bowl season. "My feeling is to take a look at something, let it happen and then evaluate it."
One of the things he will be looking at closely this summer is the "Old-fashioned Night at the Movies," Aug. 17 and 18. Brainchild of Fleischmann, this program puts Doc Severinsen and "The Tonight Show" Band on stage for live music surrounding a screening of "Singin' in the Rain" and assorted period shorts. Shilkret says that whether such programs will become Bowl regulars like the fireworks concerts must await analysis of the event, but movies have already made appearances on two programs last summer.
(Another film has presented other problems for Shilkret this summer. The Philharmonic had planned to present the premiere of Peter Sellars' "The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez," a silent-film parody of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"--with a live performance of John Adams' "Harmonielehre" as the score--at the Bowl Sept. 13 as part of the L.A. Festival. The director, however, did not finish the film, leaving Shilkret and the Philharmonic with a hole that is still unplugged. "It does create a challenge," he acknowledges ruefully. He and Fleischmann are attempting to preserve as much of the character of the original program as possible in the replacement, which will still be an L.A. Festival event.)
Shilkret oversees the operational aspects of the Bowl, with production manager Pat Moore, who has been there 35 years. For artists and repertory, he works in tandem with Fleischmann.
"Basically what happens is a collaboration," Shilkret says. "I book the artists and Ernest deals with programming. Ernest is really fantastic with repertory and programming ideas."
Though in its 69th season the biggest and oldest of such fests, the Hollywood Bowl summer season is far from alone on the scene. Musical America's special festival magazine contains 46 pages of fine-print listings of just U.S. festivals, many with clear similarities to the Cahuenga Pass institution. Both artists and repertory can be disconcertingly familiar at widely dispersed venues around the country.
The Ravinia Festival, for example, distributes a large brightly colored calendar that has more than just appearance in common with its Hollywood Bowl equivalent. Summer home of the Chicago Symphony, the Ravinia season began June 22 and runs through Sept. 1, with the final week devoted to performances by the Miami Ballet.
The Chicago Symphony is in residence for eight weeks, playing 24 concerts of music largely familiar to any Bowl veteran. Many of the big orchestral works heard here this summer--Mahler's Symphony No. 2, Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique"--can be heard in Illinois as well.
The American-Soviet Youth Orchestra, the Moscow Virtuosi, the Emerson String Quartet and many soloists appear at both places. Omnipresent pops maestro Erich Kunzel leads five Sunday programs at Ravinia that practically duplicate the Bowl's weekend pops fare--Kunzel himself conducts the "Great American Concert" here July 20 and 21, then zips to Ravinia the next day for a "Best of Broadway" program. He racks up more frequent-flier miles when he conducts the Bowl's second Broadway program Aug. 10 and 11, jetting the next day back to Ravinia for their "Tchaikovsky Spectacular."
Yet there are major differences. Ravinia's repertory, for example, under the leadership of artistic director James Levine for 18 years, boasts healthy doses of new music.
More significant for the bottom line, the Ravinia Festival is a separate organization, with its own directors and staff, headed by executive director Zarin Mehta and Levine, that contracts the engagement of the orchestra. Basically, Ravinia hires the Chicago Symphony, though the relationship is a longstanding one. (The Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl were operated independently until 1966.)
The Chicago Symphony thus is not at risk financially, having none of the promotion and facility expenses. (The L.A. Philharmonic operates the Bowl under a leasing agreement with Los Angeles County.) Eight weeks of work is important to any orchestra, but the Ravinia engagement does not mean as much to the CSO budget as the Bowl does to the Philharmonic.
The physical nature of the facility, dictated by the climate, is also very different from Hollywood Bowl. Like Blossom Festival (the Cleveland Orchestra) and Tanglewood (the Boston Symphony), the main concert area consists of a covered stage and surrounding seating, ranging from 3,500 at Ravinia to 5,200 at Blossom. Additionally, all three sites are farther out of town, with Tanglewood a 2- to 3-hour drive from Boston.
Outside the covered areas of the Eastern and Midwestern venues is lawn seating for an additional 10,000-13,500. Admission to the lawns, although sight lines in many places are significantly obstructed or nil, ranges from $6-$12.
At Hollywood Bowl, on the other hand, all seats have a clear--though maybe distant--view of the stage. Cheap seats at the Bowl range from $1 for Tuesday-Thursday concerts, Philharmonic Institute concerts on Sundays and two Mozart programs this week to $6.50 for the Wednesday jazz series.
In Bowls as in business, it takes money to make money. During the 1988-89 season, the Philharmonic supported its Open House children's program with $94,000 and the Bowl Museum operations with $44,000. Artists at the Bowl don't come cheaply either, particularly in the pop fields. The highest-paid soloists for the Philharmonic all season were heard at the Bowl--Andy Williams, $100,000 for leading his own orchestra in two Fourth of July concerts; Ella Fitzgerald, $60,000 for a program with guitarist Joe Pass.
The Philharmonic's 1989 balance sheet also shows $2.23 million of leasehold improvements at the Bowl, not including $359,000 for the Museum and $441,000 for the marquee (completely depreciated), $1.6 million for the sound system (plus another $262,000 in modifications), $388,000 worth of furniture and fixtures, and $540,000 more of Bowl "equipment."
If it's not one thing, it's another: $661,000 on parking facilities in 1981; $192,000 on the Patio Restaurant roof in 1982; $231,000 for improvements, including $75,000 for the marquee, in 1984; $156,000 on telephone equipment in 1985; $136,000 in 1986, including $42,000 for bench seating; $245,000 in 1987, including $159,000 for directors chairs in the boxes; $410,000 in 1988, including $267,000 for improving the sound system.
New or replaced this summer are the just-finished operations building, 59 more women's restroom stalls, a speed ramp between the second and third promenades, and some soundproof matting on the fourth level.
All of these improvements may be dwarfed in the near future. "We've determined that there is at least $40-million worth of work that has to be done," Shilkret says, much of it in unseen areas such as plumbing and sewers. A Bowl Planning Committee created to tackle the problem has its work cut out--the Bowl Facility Improvement Fund held $944,000 in 1989. Negotiations with the county, which shares in maintenance and capital projects, are yet to come.
It is clear that success at Hollywood Bowl is not just a matter of scheduling a little Gershwin or Tchaikovsky and opening the gates. In the '50s and '60s, when the Bowl operation nearly went bankrupt, breaking even was often all that could be hoped for with lackluster seasons.
The Cleveland Orchestra has discovered some of this in its operation of the Blossom Music Center near Akron. The Musical Arts Assn., parent organization of the orchestra and owner of the Blossom facility, has now contracted with MCA Concerts of Los Angeles to take over operation of the center, particularly the presentation of pop music attractions.
Musical Arts Assn. president Ward Smith said, "Through our relationship with MCA at Blossom, we will realize initial funds to pave the way for the retirement of our accumulated deficit, our operating costs will be reduced, and we will earn a risk-free financial return from the presentation of special attractions."
Shilkret would like to see special attractions blossom at Hollywood Bowl too, though the acts that have a chance to succeed in the vast spaces of the Bowl seem limited. "What I would like to happen is to have events all through June and September, and even into October."
Last weekend, Jimmy Buffett headlined a concert Saturday, followed by the Mariachi USA Festival Sunday. In these cases, the producers of the shows rent the facilities on a sub-lease.
For the Philharmonic's productions: "what we want to work on are the Tuesdays and Thursdays," Shilkret said. "We plan to involve ourselves more with radio stations, to coordinate repertory that prepares the listeners for the concerts, rather than just ad spots. The weekends are highly subscribed--that has taken years to accomplish--and with fireworks, four of the weekends are sell-outs."
Still, the Philharmonic thinks there's room to grow. Fleischmann says they could do with another 100,000-150,000 customers over the summer, but adds, "To fill 17,900 seats 63 nights is asking a lot."
When told that Shilkret was hoping for a "dramatic" increase in attendance, Fleischmann balked at his general manager's optimism and said they don't have specific projections for audience growth.
"I prefer to expect the worse and be pleasantly surprised."
* BOWL HIGHLIGHTS: For a list of July's Hollywood Bowl highlights, see Monday's Summer Special, a guide to arts and entertainment in the Southland.