A sign posted on the wooded hillside outside the Greek Theatre welcomes… (Gale Holland / Los Angeles…)
Ever since my daughter came home with a wild story about getting into the Hollywood Bowl for free via some kind of outdoor elevator, I'd been twitching to find out how to sneak into an open-air concert in Los Angeles.
Not that I endorse taking money from our amphitheaters, the glory of L.A. summer nights. As we speak, I have four outdoor concerts on my calendar, all with tickets duly purchased.
But secret passages, trapdoors and revolving bookcases have long had a hold on my imagination. Which is why I found myself scaling a treacherous slope outside the Greek Theatre, with warnings of P-22, the Griffith Park mountain lion, sounding in my ears.
The fates begged me to try it. Neil Diamond was in town for the 40th anniversary of his album "Hot August Night," recorded live at the Greek. On the album, Diamond anoints the Greek as "the place that God made for performers when they die" and specifically hails the "tree people" watching from the hillside.
We arrived for the second show of his five-night stand, but it didn't look promising. Diamond's audience was a bit on the geriatric side. Ushers were hauling benches out to where patrons would later wait for their Dine & Ride buses.
On the other hand, no one seemed unduly concerned that people were listening to the concert for free right outside. One gentleman sat in front of the main gate on a kitchen chair he said he found on the sidewalk. Another couple had settled into the parking lot. They told me they once saw a man on horseback ride up, listen to the concert and gallop away.
They hadn't seen anyone scramble up the embankment. Still, we gave it a shot. After I grabbed a handful of thorns, we gave up for the night, vowing to return.
So began my quest through the wilds of P-22's labyrinthine park in pursuit of that legendary free view that Diamond had saluted so long ago.
By the next day, scouting the trails in daylight for a spot in advance of Diamond's next show, we found an area with obvious signs of concert-watching, including flattened cartons of Budweiser and PBRs to sit on. To my shock, there was also a trash can and a printed sign reading, "if you are here reading this sign, you are an official 'tree person'!! WELCOME!"
Jeez, can't you even sneak around anymore without some boomer type patting you on the back for your officially condoned rebelliousness?
Whatever. I headed back up at dusk Saturday with low expectations of finding anyone. It was time to be astonished once again. There, cupped in the pines of Griffith Park, I found a merry band of tree people regulars, some of whom were on their third night with Neil.
A number of them had been coming for years and formed strong bonds, signing off each year with, "See you next season, buddy." They said they had started a Facebook page. I looked but couldn't find it.
Arne Hasdale's parents took him to Diamond's original "Hot Summer Night" concert in 1972. His first concert in the trees was Tina Turner. The unemployed kitchen equipment draftsman dismissed the idea of actually buying a ticket: "Beers are too expensive and it's just a hassle."
Another regular named Patrick did Hasdale one better. His parents met at the tree people site. As a teenager, he used to hike and slide around in the rain in Griffith Park with his father, who took him to see where the couple fell in love.
As Neil belted one hit after another out below, the tree people shared packets of pastrami, drinks and smokes. A man sitting behind us periodically let out a monster howl.
They shared tree person lore. Back when Santana and War used to play every summer, there was a grill and a full-blown party. Police helicopters sometimes buzzed the spot. A couple of times, the tree people were rousted, once during an Iron Maiden concert, again when Snoop Dogg appeared, drawing a mob.
"It was like Grand Central Market here," Hasdale said. During one of the rousts, Patrick tripped in the dark and split his face open, ending up in the emergency room for 39 stitches.
The tree people were as perplexed as I was by the origins of the "Welcome" sign, which they said suddenly appeared this summer. "After 50 years, we finally won the battle," Hasdale said.
The sound was great, but you can't actually see much from up there. The pines have grown too tall. The regulars assured me the view used to be pretty good. One tree person tried to show me how to peer through the branches and glimpse Diamond or at least his image on the electronic screen. I could just barely make out a corner of the stage.
But who really can afford seats close enough to see well at an amphitheater show? If you want to look at the performers, call up old shows, when they were young and beautiful, on your phone. Or YouTube the show the next day.
Marc Angelucci, a family law attorney, said he fell in love with the tree people 10 years ago at a Gypsy Kings concert. "It was the community, the camaraderie," he said.
He and his girlfriend, a special education teacher named Zita Diamante, got out of their beach chairs and we danced to "I'm a Believer" (yes, Diamond wrote the Monkees song).
Even my dog Dutchess, an Akita mix I brought for protection (see P-22 above), had fun. After briefly snarling at the howler, she settled into sentry duty.
"I want to be buried here," Angelucci crowed.
I descended with promises to meet up again at the site later this summer.
Now, if you stuck with me this long to find out how to get to the tree people site, too bad. I'm not going to tell. What would be the fun in that? Have your own adventure.