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Ojai's Libbey Bowl gets a first-stage revamping

Built in 1957, the rustic venue is internationally renowned as the home of the Ojai Music Festival. But time and termites have taken a toll, and next month the structure will be razed and rebuilt.

May 07, 2010|By Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times

Built for $12,000 as a do-it-yourself community project in 1957, rustic Libbey Bowl has always been the little concert stage that could.

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky premiered a number of his works at the half-shell amphitheater. His American colleague, composer Aaron Copland, chose the sycamore-tangled setting to debut his conducting career. More recently, surf rocker Jack Johnson packed the bowl with fans of his popular tunes.

But time and termites have taken a toll. The stage's clamshell cover is crumbling from wood rot, said Jeff Haydon, executive director of the Ojai Music Festival. The foundation is unstable and gaping holes have opened up in subfloors, he said.

Next month, the 53-year-old structure will be razed and rebuilt, financed by a grass-roots campaign that raised $3 million. But the bowl's supporters say they need hundreds of thousands of dollars more to add extra dressing rooms, restrooms and other amenities that will allow the venue to continue drawing world-class acts.

Raising the money hasn't been easy in a time when people are losing jobs, struggling to pay bills and watching their 401(k)s dwindle, even in affluent Ojai, Haydon said.

"We have gone to our usual donors and then gone back again,'' he said. "It's the biggest civic project Ojai has ever undertaken."

Initially called the Festival Bowl, the amphitheater was constructed to house the Ojai Music Festival, an annual weekend of eclectic, avant-garde music created six decades ago by high-minded music lovers from the Ojai Valley. In the 1970s, it was renamed Libbey Bowl to honor Edward Drummond Libbey, one of the city's founders.

Over the years, Libbey Bowl has attracted a regional audience as the site of poetry, storytelling, film, rock music, Fourth of July concerts and Shakespeare productions. But it is most famous as the home of the internationally renowned Ojai Musical Festival.

Past music directors Michael Tilson Thomas, Pierre Boulez and Esa-Pekka Salonen were known for programs that challenged "contemporary music intelligentsia," as one reviewer put it. This year's festival, which opens June 10, is no less cutting-edge.

Conductor George Benjamin will lead mezzo-soprano Hilary Summers and Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern in performing the works of Frank Zappa.

Tilson Thomas, who directs the San Francisco Symphony, recalls his Ojai Music Festival days fondly. "It was a wonderful little retreat, and part of the charm was those twisting sycamore trees,'' he said.

The festival's outsize reputation is a source of pride to residents, even for those who sometimes find the musical offerings hard to embrace.

"Some of the concerts are unbearable,'' said Alan Rains, who grew up in Ojai and runs the local family-owned department store. "I've seen people with their fingers in their ears. But the overall experience can be quite rewarding."

Events at Libbey Bowl pump about $3.5 million annually into the city's economy, making it an important economic as well as cultural landmark, Rains said. The Ojai Valley Service Foundation estimates that amount could double once expanded programs are brought to the revamped amphitheater, which will have a capacity of about 2,000.

"It will certainly drive more tourists here," said Rains, who sits on the foundation's fundraising committee. "That's more tax revenue for the city and more business for merchants."

The Ojai Music Festival, local nonprofit groups and the city — working with architect David Bury — came up with a design that largely retains the look of the current structure. But the venue's infrastructure and backstage areas will be expanded to better accommodate artists and production crews, Haydon said.

The clamshell roof will be raised about 6 feet to improve acoustics, and the stage will also grow a little, Haydon said. Hard wooden benches just off the stage area, endured by long-suffering audiences for decades, will be taken out and replaced with individual seating. The bowl will be realigned to face the lawn areas that seat 800 people; the grassy areas will also be re-graded to improve sight lines.

Supporters say the bowl, scheduled to reopen in June 2011 in time for the 65th Ojai Music Festival, will look much the same.

"You won't notice a whole lot of difference,'' fundraiser Nita Whaley said. "The trees, the birds, the stars — all of those things that make Libbey Bowl such a magical place — they'll still be here."

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