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A Bowl Full of Memories

Bring on the fireworks! Pack the picnic baskets! The Hollywood Bowl is celebrating its 75th-anniversary season. Here's a landmark with loads of personal history.

June 30, 1996|Kristine McKenna | 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.

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.

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!"

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