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A Bowl Full of Memories

Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

In the beginning was the Dell. Daisy Dell is what insiders called it, it being a 59-acre parcel of land west of the Cahuenga Pass, identified on turn-of-the-century maps as Bolton Canyon.

The days of the Dell ended in 1919, when Christine Wetherill Stevenson, heiress to the Pittsburgh Paint Co. fortune, organized the Theater Arts Alliance and sent two of its members--William Reed and his son H. Ellis Reed--tramping the Hollywood hills in search of a suitable spot for outdoor productions. The Reeds brought the pleasing acoustics of the popular picnicking spot known as Daisy Dell to Stevenson’s attention, and shortly thereafter she wrote a check for $21,000--half the purchase price of Bolton Canyon (the rest came from other Theater Alliance members).

A theosophist, Stevenson hoped to use the site to promote theosophical ideas and planned to present a cycle of seven plays exploring the lives of various religious prophets. When her colleagues balked at the suggestion, Stevenson sold her shares to her fellow Alliance members, and the Hollywood Bowl was off and running. Community sings and theatrical events took place there, and the first Easter Sunrise service at the Bowl was held in 1921. On July 11 of the following year, the first official season opened with an evening of classical music conducted by Alfred Hertz.

When Stevenson and her money stopped stoking the fire of the Bowl, oil heiress Aline Barnsdall stepped in with sizable financial contributions, while Mrs. Artie Mason Carter banged the drum to stir up public support for the venue. That first year, Mason Carter raised $20,000--almost enough to cover operating costs of the season--but it was clear the Bowl’s future was in jeopardy if it remained a private enterprise. So in 1924 it was deeded for 99 years to the county of Los Angeles, which paid some but not all the bills and gave it tax-exempt status.

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The Bowl’s first decade was its most experimental architecturally speaking, and the look of the place evolved dramatically from bare canyon to tiered seats and a stage. In 1926, plans were executed that were the work of Myron Hunt (who also designed the Rose Bowl), and the following year Lloyd Wright, eldest son of Frank Lloyd Wright, oversaw the building of the first of two movable temporary shells he designed for the Bowl. In 1929, based on Lloyd Wright’s second effort, Allied Architects created the permanent shell we see today.

Most people associate the Hollywood Bowl with classical music, picnics and fireworks; in fact, activities of every stripe have taken place there. In 1927, a pueblo was built onstage for a pageant titled “Indian Ceremonies” that involved 50 tribes. Franklin Delano Roosevelt appeared there in 1932 while on his first presidential campaign, and in 1938 Benny Goodman brought swing to the Bowl. The summer home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1922 (and the home of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra since 1991), the Bowl presented Vladimir Horowitz in 1941, who reportedly said he thought he “sounded good there,” and shook hands onstage with Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Hollywood High has held its commencement exercises at the Bowl since the ‘20s, and in 1942, Madame Chiang Kai-shek appeared as part of a Chinese war relief program produced by David O. Selznick. Frank Sinatra made L.A. bobby-soxers swoon there in 1943, and 22 years later, one incredible week of programming presented the Beatles, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky and Bob Dylan.

All the giants of jazz have appeared at the Bowl, including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. Many of the century’s great singers performed there as well, among them Barbra Streisand, Beverly Sills and Jessye Norman. In 1954, a mass naturalization ceremony in which 6,000 immigrants became U.S. citizens was held at the Bowl, as was one of America’s first AIDS benefits in 1983. Billy Graham preached there, Monty Python cut up there, and Circus Vargas pitched its tents there for several seasons running.

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Celebrating its 75th-anniversary season this summer, the Bowl has left a mark on hundreds of thousands of people in as many different ways. Here--from interviews and from letters written to “The Audience Remembers,” a Hollywood Bowl Museum history project--are a few of them:

PASSIONATE ABOUT MUSIC

“My earliest memories of the Hollywood Bowl go back to the 1920s when it was much smaller and more intimate. The seating was wood benches on bare ground, and the few people who regularly attended were passionate about music. I remember seeing the great Bernardino Molinari conducting in all his temperamental moods--he was known to snap his garters when displeased with the musicians’ performance. Another memorable event was an evening in 1928 when conductor Percy Grainger took the Swedish poetess Ella Viola Strom as his bride. They were married onstage, then he conducted the world premiere of his tone poem ‘To a Nordic Princess,’ which he dedicated to her. They caused a sensation!”

--Suzanne Fotier-Klingberg, longtime

Philharmonic subscriber, South Pasadena

RIDE OF THE VALKYRIES

“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. I still love Wagner. Played loud.”

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--Evelyn Olmsted Ching, Pasadena,

from “The Audience Remembers”

MICKEY ROONEY AS PUCK

“I was 13 years old. My mother was a culture hound and wanted me to feel the same way. Not!

“I was dragged to every concert, and since none of my friends were attending these events, I really hated every moment. One evening in 1934, I settled down on a hard bench, glum and sullen, and suddenly saw a fairy tale unfold on the stage. It was Max Reinhardt’s production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ The staging was glorious, the orchestra magnificent, the actors and voices so lovely, but nothing compared to seeing Mickey Rooney stride out of left stage as Puck. He covered that stage in his inimitable fashion. His zest for the role of Puck was electric, you could feel it reaching all the way to the top section, where we were seated.

“All my teenage resentments disappeared.

“Now I take my grandchildren to the Hollywood Bowl. They love it!”

--Edna Glikmann, Los Angeles,

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from “The Audience Remembers”

A FIRST DATE

“I was in the eighth grade when my mother let me ride the bus to Hollywood Bowl with my first date to see Frank Sinatra. I remember the screaming and excitement of the young audience. I was splattered with mud when I got home. My mother didn’t let me go on another excursion for quite a while.”

--Katie Rowland, Inglewood,

from “The Audience Remembers”

BIG-BAND DAYS

“I went to the Bowl quite a bit when I was a teenager in the ‘40s, and the show I remember most vividly was a Stan Kenton gig in 1948. One of the strangest musicians in Kenton’s band then was this Italian guy named Vido Musso, who played tenor saxophone. He was a pure id honker who didn’t belong in the world of cool jazz, and his famous number with Kenton was an insane version of ‘Come Back to Sorrento,’ wherein Vido did his big, slavering solo.

“Shelly Manne might’ve been drumming with Kenton at that point, and there was a beautiful guitar player in the band called Laurindo Almeida, who was right at the edge of being a classical guitar player. The audience that night was composed almost entirely of white hipsters; there were practically no black people there--despite the fact that this was a jazz show--probably because Kenton’s band was incredibly Weber’s bread white. Nonetheless, it was considered quite radical to have Stan Kenton at the Hollywood Bowl.”

--Walter Hopps,

art historian/curator, Houston

WANDERING THE HILLS

“When I was in high school, the Bowl presented a production of this wacky old-time musical ‘The Vagabond King’ in the summer of 1950. A few of my girlfriends were in the chorus so I went, and they had animals and half a village entering the stage by descending from the surrounding mountains. All these goofy high school girls and assorted people were drifting around the hills, carrying lanterns and singing some sappy song--it was wonderfully ridiculous.”

--Carolyn See, writer, Los Angeles

JUDY IN THE RAIN

“I began working at the Bowl as an usher in 1936, so, needless to say, I’ve seen hundreds of shows. One that’s always stood out in my mind was a performance Judy Garland gave in 1961. The house was sold out and the whole first section was nothing but celebrities, and shortly after the show started, it began to rain. Judy just kept singing though, and not a single person got up and left. She was in great voice, the crowd went mad for her and she couldn’t give enough of herself to them. It was one of the nights when Judy was just what you wanted her to be, and it was pure magic.”

--Max Foster, Bowl employee

for 58 years, Pasadena

INTIMATE SURROUNDINGS

“In the ‘50s, I had a group called the Mel-Tones, and we used to go to the Bowl together and sit way up high in the cheap seats.

“The first time I played there was 20 years ago, and I’ve performed there every season since. The first thing that struck me about playing the Bowl was this: I stood on the stage looking out at thousands of people and thought, ‘My God, this is strangely intimate.’ The Bowl has an encompassing feeling because it encircles you, and you’re particularly aware of that from the vantage point of the stage.

“The acoustics are better for a symphony orchestra than they are for a singer because the Bowl gets quirky when you add amplification. It’s not bad, but it gets quirky, so I always do a rigorous sound check when I perform there.

“As a performer, you also have to get used to the Bowl picnicking ritual. It’s like playing a nightclub where people are eating as they watch you. At first that bothered me, but then I realized that the picnic enhances their enjoyment of the performance. It’s like me going to the movies and stopping first at the market for a quart of milk and three cupcakes--the cupcakes make the movie better!”

--Mel Torme, musician,

Beverly Hills

PLACE FOR BIG SOUNDS

“I’ve almost always gone to the Bowl with heavy feet. The vastness of the setting, the distracted audience that’s primarily interested in picnicking, the amplification of the music, the generally popular programming--it’s just not my idea of serious art.

“Despite the formidable odds, I’ve heard some amazingly good concerts there, and on a good night the L.A. Philharmonic is a very good orchestra. Big pieces work best at the Bowl--Mahler or Wagner can work well there because that music is predicated on a big sound. But even a big sound isn’t supposed to be distorted, and I can’t think of a single composer or performer whose work is enhanced by that setting, with the possible exception of Peter Schickele [P.D.Q. Bach]. He once made an entrance by diving into the reflecting pool that used to be in front of the stage and swimming to the stage.

“Many people pretend to go to the Bowl for music, but they actually go to be seen, and the box seats in front are like family heirlooms that are passed from one generation to the next. The key word here is ‘Hollywood,’ and the Bowl really plays into that. It pretends to be high culture but it’s theme-park culture. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as we don’t pretend it’s something more, and my argument has always been with the pretense of the place.”

--Martin Bernheimer, former

Los Angeles Times music critic,

Los Angeles

HOOKED ON PERFORMING

“My parents used to take me to the Bowl when I was very young, and I can remember my father trying to keep me entertained when I was 6 by having me count the number of cigarettes that were lit.

“This was the early ‘50s, when everybody sat around and smoked, and during those years Walt Disney used to present a Disney Night at the Bowl. My father worked for Disney, so when I was 8 years old, I got to perform in a production that had a kind of ‘Main Street U.S.A.’ theme. I wore a beautiful costume and sat on a streetcar in a tableau that came to life, at which point I got to do a bit of dancing.

“On opening night, I looked out and saw that mass of people and heard the roar of the applause, and it just sent a thrill through me. I think that’s when I got hooked on performing.

“My next important memory of the Bowl took place in the ‘70s. They had a series of anti-nuke concerts called Survival Sundays that lasted all day, with everyone donating their services. That’s where I first saw Bruce Springsteen, and where my husband and I had our first date.”

--Catherine Coulson,

actress, Ashland, Ore.

PARADISE FOUND

“In the spring of 1964, I’d just moved to L.A. from Washington, D.C. I was 18 and was living in the Valley and going to Valley College, and I was a huge Beach Boys fan. They were on an amazing roll then, so I was thrilled when my roommate’s cousin got us tickets to see them at the Hollywood Bowl. My roommate’s father owned a liquor store, so we loaded up on pilfered beer and cruised over the hill in his Corvair.

“The Beach Boys were chimpy musicians, so to see them live--well, they were kinda fruity. But the scene was fantastic. I was just a hodad from the East Coast who thought California was the center of the universe, and the Bowl was packed with cool surfer kids. The guys were all sporting that kind of modified Kingston Trio look--button-down striped shirts with short sleeves that hung to elbow length. The Beach Boys had that look and so did their audience. And the girls were just incredible. They all had long, straight hair--I think that was the first place I saw the ironed hair look--beautiful tans and open-back dresses. It was a warm night, the air was fragrant, and I thought I’d found paradise.”

--Jack Cheeseborough,

radio producer, San Francisco

REMEMBERING DR. KING

“In 1968, I attended a memorial for Martin Luther King that was held at the Bowl two days after he was assassinated. I was 19 and I went with three friends who, like me, were young, emotional liberals. Bill Cosby was the emcee, and they had an incredible lineup of rhythm and blues performers--everybody from Aretha Franklin down was there. We got in on general admission tickets, then snuck up front and sat in a box with a wealthy black family from Hancock Park.

“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.”

--Steve Chase,

social worker, San Diego

IN A MARIJUANA HAZE

“In 1968, I saw Jimi Hendrix at the Bowl. I was 17 and still in high school, and that was a really stoned summer for me. I dropped acid before the show, and one of the main things I remember about that night was the cloud of marijuana smoke that hung over the crowd. Most of the people there were decked out in full hippie regalia and were high on pot or LSD.

“Vanilla Fudge opened the show with an adequately noisy set, but they were total amateurs compared with Hendrix. In his early years, he was a fantastic performer and he was great that night. While he was playing, dozens of people dove into the pool in front of the stage, then swam across it and climbed onstage, where security people gently led them offstage so they wouldn’t get electrocuted. Nobody got roughed up or arrested--this was before the hippie thing turned ugly--and everybody was in a good mood that night.

“The only bad part of the evening was driving home on the Santa Monica Freeway in my father’s Mercedes-Benz. He would’ve been pretty upset if he’d known I was driving his car when I was high on LSD.”

--Justin Henderson, writer, Seattle

FIGHTING THE AMBIENCE

“When I came to this job, I had, shall we say, a limited appreciation for the classic American musicals--'Oklahoma!,’ ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ and so forth. I knew little about them, but in seeing them, I realized writers like Rodgers and Hart, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, had a lyric gift comparable to the latter-day songs of Schubert. The songs they wrote were charming, lovely and moving and, with the exception of the Beatles and Sting, few pop composers today can match them. This understanding is one of the changes in me brought about by my time at the Bowl.

“As to how the Bowl has changed during my tenure here, the nature of the audience hasn’t changed much, but the size of the audience has changed considerably--picnicking and fireworks, which I made fixtures at the Bowl, have been incredibly well received. Of course, it’s concerned me they might upstage the music, so we’ve worked hard to make the programs strong enough to compete with the ambience. I’m happy to report that in most cases, once the music starts, it really does take over.”

--Ernest Fleischmann, since 1969

general director of Hollywood Bowl

and executive director of the

L.A. Philharmonic, Los Angeles

APPLAUSE, APPLAUSE

“Zubin Mehta was conducting. I don’t recall the date or the program. The audience applauded after the first movement, and again after the second. At the end of the third, no one applauded and Mehta turned around to peer at the audience in disbelief.”

--Ruth King, Banning,

from “The Audience Remembers”

BLANKETS AND STARS

“Whenever I go to the Bowl, my favorite memory always returns--that of a high school student attending the Bowl over 50 years ago. At that time, way high up in the Bowl, there were no seats, only rolling green lawns. We were allowed to bring blankets and spread out on these lawns. There has never been music so thrilling as we heard those nights, lying in darkness looking up at the stars. It is still unforgettable.”

--Jane Gowan, Westlake Village,

from “The Audience Remembers”

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The Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., celebrates its 75th-anniversary season tonight with the gala “Magic of Mancini,” 7:30 p.m. $5-$1,000. Gala and regular season information: (213) 850-2000.

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The Edmund D. Edelman Hollywood Bowl Museum, on the Bowl grounds adjacent to the Patio Restaurant, reopens July 9, after expansion and renovation, with two exhibitions on the history of the Bowl. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Free (with free parking until 4:30 p.m.). (213) 850-2058.


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