Confessions of a teenage Hollywood Bowl usher
I used to be a ranger for Los Angeles’ greatest park. Actually, I worked at the Hollywood Bowl, which people automatically assumed meant that I got paid to watch concerts while pointing left or right a few times a day. In reality, though, being an usher is much closer to being a park ranger than a theater attendant.
Think about every time you’ve seen a show there. Doesn’t the crisp air make you breathe a little deeper? As you gaze out, do you admire the natural world that thrives mere feet from one of California’s most cursed highways? I know you pack picnics like you’re going on a multiday excursion. And, unless you happen to be made of money, you’re definitely getting your blood pumping hiking up to your seats.
To be an usher at the Hollywood Bowl — my first foray into the working world at the tender age of 16 — I followed similar rules to a park ranger: be full of interesting stats for curious hikers (currently the venue has 17,500 seats); map out journeys for weary travelers (there are bathrooms on both sides of the Bowl); be prepared for any wildlife that appears (Rush fans and Kenny Loggins fans are kindred spirits when they’re all loudly complaining about stairs); and leave the place cleaner than you found it (those rented cushions don’t get back into the shed by magic).
Recently I was told that going barefoot in a park is a fail-safe cure for jet lag, rejuvenating the body by being in touch with the earth around you. Any time I step through the Bowl’s gates, I feel that same sense of grounded belonging. This place is my roots, not only as the location of my first concert (Randy Newman in 1996) or as a born-and-raised Angeleno, but also as my first employer. I applied because the Bowl was my family’s summer home, the four of us snapping tickets up for any and all symphonies and rock shows that we could for the highly coveted $1 seats. When I started to think about how I wanted to spend my summers working, I couldn’t think of a better place to be.
On my first day, the house manager walked me and my fellow ushers through a dim corridor onto the sun-drenched stage. The Bowl was empty, but the energy of past shows was still there. We were standing where the Beatles shouted into a jet-engine roar of hormones, where Leonard Bernstein conducted frequently, hell, where Monty Python performed “Argument Clinic.” Suddenly the strict uniform of white button-up shirt (always long sleeves), black pants (not denim) and a clip-on tie didn’t seem so arbitrary. We were dressing for the respect of this institution.
That respect came with insane pit stains and sore feet, but there was respect and responsibility nonetheless! And I took that cultural weight seriously. So seriously, in fact, that I stopped a nice loafer from sneaking in without a ticket, only to be immediately corrected that they were an invited guest of the show. Apologies, again, Josh Groban.
But that’s why working at the Bowl was the best: Every night was a completely different experience. One minute you’re up on Prom 5 telling a group of dads they can’t smoke the joint they snuck in, and the next you’re down at the boxes pretending not to be in awe of celebrities who asked you to help set up their tables. Sometimes the popcorn attendants would bless us hungry ushers with a trash bag full of unsold popcorn. Huddled up at a table between trees, it was our turn to look like bears ferociously attacking a campground cooler.
The Hollywood Bowl’s magic has always been rebalancing that ecosystem every night. You are a part of the vibrating community of this iconic landmark — one that depends on the symbiotic relationship between the performers onstage and the audience. I learned how to follow along with orchestras by watching Gustavo Dudamel, Bramwell Tovey and John Mauceri conduct Vivaldi, Beethoven, Mozart, Gershwin, Puccini and others. I knew when a band had a crowd in the palm of its hands from witnessing Roger Waters, Belle and Sebastian, and Al Green perform. I understood the power of live music, the public service of experiencing art, and the necessity of social connection by looking into the faces of fans and newcomers.
My career as an arts journalist began when I started as a Hollywood Bowl usher. I would scribble notes on shows that moved me or characters I met as I waited for my shift to end. My college application was anchored by an essay I wrote 15 years ago about how this iconic curve jutting out of the Hollywood Hills touched me. Even now as another season begins and I’ve got my dollar seats on lock, I’m proud to be the one my friends reach out to with questions about the venue or tips. While I’m no longer sweating in a clip-on tie, I’ll be a Hollywood Bowl guide for life.
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