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Bowling Through the Ages

September 03, 2000

The Hollywood Bowl has come far from the early 1920s, when it was a tent for the band and some wooden benches for the audience. Its current arched bandshell was built in 1929 and remains a Los Angeles icon. Lousy acoustics, but gorgeous bones.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. now want to replace the aging clamshell with a bigger, similar design. It would improve backstage facilities, enlarge the stage and allow the musicians to hear one another, a serious flaw in the current shell. Some preservationists are anguished, but the new shell should be built. In truth, the Bowl has been in a state of change since it was conceived.

The 1922 tent was briefly replaced by a fantastical pyramid design by Lloyd Wright, son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The current shell was modified in the 1950s with a reflecting pool and fountain in front of the stage. In the 1970s, it was defaced by the most radical attempt to correct its acoustics--dozens of giant white tubes plastered in rows around and above the shell. The current hanging globes, another failed acoustical remedy, were installed in 1980.

Experts including the Bowl's conductor, John Mauceri, say there is no correcting its deficits. In this instance, on this spot, new is needed--as long as the promises of better as well as bigger are kept. Acoustics is far from an exact science.

The Bowl's increasingly diverse audiences will continue to hear an amplified version of concerts, but a better environment for the musicians should produce better music. Perhaps the biggest acoustic improvement for audiences would be erection of a sound wall to muffle the roar of the Hollywood Freeway as it passes below the Bowl. That could be Caltrans' contribution to the rejuvenated Bowl.

The proposed bandshell rightly honors the original, and in fact closely follows a 1928 design that had a lower, more elliptical arch. A new one can be built for the ages, unlike the current, crumbling shell.

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