clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The women who made Los Angeles the 'Athens of America'

The current Hollywood Bowl. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

In May 1916, an event occurred in rural Beachwood Canyon that forever changed the cultural landscape of Los Angeles. A production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, featuring a cast including Tyrone Power Sr., was presented in the Canyon's vast natural amphitheater. Traffic congestion up Beachwood was so bad (no shock to current LA residents) the play was held up for hours. Once it started, it awed all who witnessed it, including a writer for the Los Angeles Times:

Seated in a vast amphitheater fashioned by nature in beauty and grandeur, 40,000 people last night looked upon old Rome. Rome, with its hills, its forum, its gladiatorial arena, its rulers and populace, had been brought down through the centuries and reproduced on a magnificent scale in Beachwood Canyon, Hollywood, by the genius and creative ability of Raymond Wells and his assistant directors. There with perfect setting, with nothing to destroy the illusion, unhampered by the confining walls of a stage, 5000 actors presented "Julius Caesar," as it has never been played before.

[Construction at the Ford. Image courtesy of the Ford.]

The success of this one-off benefit for the Actor's Fund charity ignited a passion for outdoor entertainment that has gripped Los Angeles for almost 100 years. To this day, summer finds tens of thousands of Angelenos flocking to the Hollywood Bowl, Greek Theatre, and John Anson Ford Amphitheatre for music and theatrics under the stars. These institutions are entrenched in our community's cultural fabric, thanks in large part to two remarkable women (and a couple of Griffith men) who worked tirelessly to bring outdoor pomp and pageantry permanently to the masses.

The tradition of public theatrics in California stretches back to the mission days, when passion plays and pageants depicting the life of Christ were performed in outdoor venues. Easter sunrise services were also popular outdoor events, usually held in scenic natural canyons or atop accessible mountains. In early 1900s America, many artistically inclined progressive elites supported the pageantry movement, which sought to bring affordable history, dance, and music to the public in an effort to foster civic pride, teach moral lessons, and elevate public discourse. A rustic outdoor setting was considered ideal for these lofty goals. For cultural boosters, California, with its open blue skies, "verdure covered canyons" and ample cheap acreage, was indeed the promised land.

[The historic Ford stage. Image courtesy of the Ford.]

As early as 1912, Griffith J. Griffith, Griffith Park founder and lover of the "plain people," championed the construction of a Greek-style amphitheater in the park. In 1913, plans were announced for a model amphitheater designed by Norton and Wallace, and paid for by Griffith, to be built at the foot of Mount Hollywood. (Griffith's plans also included a large observatory which would be built atop Mount Hollywood's peak.) Griffith's project stalled, thanks in large part to the Park Board's reluctance to take any more money from the infamous Griffith, who had been convicted of shooting his wife in a fit of madness worthy of a Greek tragedy.

But the phenomenal 1916 success of Julius Caesar inspired one progressive citizen to pick up where Griffith left off. She was an independently wealthy writer, designer, actress, and seeker from Philadelphia named Christine Wetherill Stevenson. A member of the Theosophical Society, she spent time studying in the society's Krotona Institute in lower Beachwood Canyon. She claimed to have searched for years for the perfect venue to stage outdoor religious dramas of an inspirational nature, and found it in the gentle Krotona foothills. In 1918, she produced 35 performances of Light of Asia, a play by Sir Edward Arnold detailing the life of Buddha. A rustic 1,500-seat temporary wooden amphitheater was constructed at the head of Vista Del Mar Street. The nightly overflow audiences were thrilled with what they saw:

…the splendor of the setting and natural scenery enhanced by the starlit curtain of the night, the chatter of crickets and the occasional song of the night birds weave a magical spell over the enraptured spectator of this singularly beautiful and beautifully singular play…Everyone felt that the view of the city lights from the stadium and the intimate acquaintance afforded with the beautiful architecture of Krotona were in themselves worth the [50 cent] price.

[Christine Wetherill Stevenson.]

After the play's enormous success, Stevenson sought to build a permanent amphitheater to produce her "huge spectacles." Together with other Hollywood leaders, she founded the Theater Arts Alliance to further these aims. Elected president of the organization, Stevenson sent actor H. Ellis Reed and his father, future Hollywood Bowl superintendent William Reed, to search Hollywood for the perfect spot for her grand project. Reed remembered:

…on a Sunday morning early in 1919, from a hill East of Cahuenga Pass, we spotted what we were looking for. We crossed the street [Highland Avenue] to a valley completely surrounded by hills. My enthusiasm knew no bounds. Immediately I wanted to test the acoustics. I scaled a barbed wire fence, went up to the brow of a hill. Dad stood near a live oak in the center of the Bowl-shaped area and we carried on a conversation. We rushed back to the Alliance with a glowing report.

The Pilgrimage Play. Image courtesy of the Ford.

Prominent real estate developer CE Toberman, an Alliance member who had dreamed of a theatrical complex in Hollywood since 1914, secured options to 60 acres of the land, which was popularly known as Daisy Dell. Using donated funds and substantial loans from Stevenson and Mrs. Chauncey D. Clark, the property was purchased, with a hefty mortgage, by the Alliance. However, conflicts soon arose between Stevenson and other members. She left the organization and quickly built the 1,000-seat Pilgrimage Play Amphitheater (now the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre) across the street from the Bowl site. In June 1920, Stevenson's adaptation of the story of the life of Christ, The Pilgrimage Play, opened its first summer season to enthusiastic audiences, despite the fact that there were still some technicalities to work out:

There is still a certain toughness about the mechanics of some of the scenes, especially the pictures which are placed in higher levels of the hills. Much of the effect of the music is lost because of the placing of the orchestra. Still these are minor deficiencies compared with the fascination of viewing the actual incidents of sacred drama from the nativity to ascension, visualized against the background that speaks of the eloquent provisions of nature.

[The current Hollywood Bowl. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.]

Over at the Hollywood Bowl, the departure of Stevenson made way for the ascension of Artie Mason Carter, a young, electrifying, and tireless music teacher who had already gained acclaim as the director of the "Community Sing," a civically minded singing group. "People must learn first to sing together," Carter idealistically explained, "and then they will learn to work together." When the Alliance reorganized as the Community Park and Art Association, it elected FW Blanchard as president and Carter as secretary. Carter quickly became the driving force of the Bowl's development, earning her the nicknames "the Bowl lady" and "the soul of the Bowl." It was she who envisioned summer "symphonies under the stars" for the masses. "I was always a thorough going democrat with a small d," she remembered years later. "I felt good music should be for every Tom, Dick and Harry, and not just for the cultured few. I used to sit alone in the Bowl and dream of filling it with music."

In 1920, Carter organized a successful outdoor Easter Sunrise Service atop future Bowl boardmember Aline Barnsdall's Olive Hill (now Barnsdall Art Park). On Easter morning, 1921, she repeated this success at the still undeveloped Hollywood Bowl. Thousands of Angelenos stood in knee-high weeds as the sun rose, and Wagner's "Parsifal" was played by the recently formed Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. After this success, Carter launched a major fundraising campaign to build the Bowl into a world-class amphitheater. She rang doorbells, distributed yellow penny banks all around Los Angeles, and even sold her own diamond ring:

I had no car in those days … But I traveled miles on the street cars and I sold the conductors and motormen books of tickets for the Bowl while I did it. I haunted newspaper offices urging publicity for the Bowl concerts. The Penny Boxes caught on. Tourists here for the summer carried the little yellow boxes home with them … the boy scouts of France sent $100 … Help came from many unexpected sources.

A crude wooden stage, benches, and lights supplied by Hollywood High were put in place. Despite the rustic accommodations, during the summer of 1922, more than 150,000 people attended the first season of "Symphony under the stars."

Over the next three years, Carter's work on behalf of the fledgling Bowl became the stuff of legend. When summertime construction on Highland Avenue threatened the success of the Bowl's crucial second season, Carter took matters into her own hands. Together with an 86-year-old Bowl worker named EJ "Grandma" Wakeman, Carter dragged rocking chairs into the middle of the street, directly in front of a steam shovel. "If you plow up this street," she yelled from the chair, "you will have to plow me under with it!" Pragmatically, the city heeded her warning and postponed construction until the fall. Another time she theatrically burned the Bowl's mortgage on stage in a plea for funds, raising $9,000 from the audience in a single night. By 1924, Carter was elected President of the Bowl, which was in good enough shape to be dedicated to the county to protect it from developers. The county promptly leased it back to the Hollywood Bowl Association (successor to the Community Park and Art Association).

Massive changes were taking place at the Bowl. Carter (right, via Hearst Newspaper Collection/USC Library) traveled around the country, granting interviews, raising money, giving lectures, and promoting Los Angeles and the Bowl. The county began a $100,000 improvement project, transforming the Bowl from a weed-filled dell into a sleek modern amphitheater. Allied Architects, a cooperative of 33 local architects, was hired for the project. The cooperative's Myron Hunt designed the balloon shape of the 22,500-person seating area and the complex's substructure. Lloyd Wright designed a series of experimental orchestra shells (including the famed pyramidal shell of the 1927 season). In 1929, the firm of Elliott, Bowen and Waltz designed the Bowl's iconic permanent shell under the Allied Architects' banner. On June 22, 1926, the "new" Bowl was dedicated to great acclaim:

The Bowl has been touched by the fairy wand of progress. Great terraces of seats… surrounded by smooth promenades and green hillsides…It is easy to imagine the surprise and the pleasure the thousands of Bowl fans will have as they file in under the great arc lights. Huge towers at each end of the enormous stage, with its silver colored sound shell at the back, will shed rays of varicolored lights across the amphitheater …. All Los Angeles county residents are joint owners of the Bowl. No Roman amphitheater of the famous days was more democratic than this, and it is doubtful if any out of door meeting place in the world is half so beautiful in its natural surroundings. The additions the Allied Architects have made have accentuated this beauty and created conveniences for the audience and the performers the Romans never dreamed of. Under the enormous stage are places for everything, instruments, scenery, spacious rooms for the players, a library and countless other accessories to music and the stage. Long suffering enthusiasts who braved discomforts will have their reward this year … Already the fame of the Bowl has spread to the farthermost corners of the earth and artists of all nations are clamoring to have a presentation there.

Carter's dream had come true. But she was no longer at the helm. In March 1926, charging "constant antagonism to her ideas," Carter stepped down from her post as president. (She eventually mended fences with Bowl leadership and occupied her own box at the Bowl until her death in 1967.) In many ways her work was done—the Bowl was already "famed the world over." Stevenson's amphitheater lived on as well. Though the wealthy Philadelphian died in 1923, her Pilgrimage Play continued on, an LA institution. The Pilgrimage Play Amphitheater was rebuilt in 1931, after a devastating fire. Critics called the $350,000 structure a "temple," embodying "distinctive features of the building style of ancient Palestine."

The Greek Theater. Image courtesy courtesy of the LA Library.

Los Angeles had one more amphitheater up its sleeve, leading one wag to proclaim, "Los Angeles is now the Athens of America!" In 1929, construction began on the long proposed Greek Theater in Griffith Park. Spearheaded by Griffith's J Griffith's son, Van, it was paid for by the Griffith Trust and public funds. The 5,000-seat concrete theater was said to be an acoustically perfect public monument, a "temple" to the populace. At the Greek's first operatic concert in 1931, a critic applauded the "atmosphere of friendliness or uncritical welcoming" of the theater, which was filled with "varied types" of happy people enjoying challenging music.

And so Los Angeles had its triumvirate of famed amphitheaters. Today, with inflated prices, impossible traffic and corporate intrigue, it is easy to regret the loss of the original "democratic" mission of these LA icons. But after all the hassle, nothing beats the communal spirit of listening to a great band under the stars, surrounded by contented strangers.
Further Reading:
· The Hollywood Bowl Story by John Orlando Northcutt
· The Hollywood Bowl: Tales of Summer Nights by Michael Buckland and John Henken
· Curbed Features [Curbed LA]