99 years of the Hollywood Bowl

On this day in 1922, the Hollywood Bowl, one of the world’s largest natural amphitheaters, opens its first official full season with a performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Since that time, a long, diverse list of performers, from Frank Sinatra to The Beatles, Luciano Pavarotti to Judy Garland, and Prince to Lady Gaga have appeared on stage at the Hollywood Bowl. The venue has become a world-famous Los Angeles landmark, has been featured in numerous movies with its iconic shell and is instantly recognizable the world over.

The Bowl’s origins as a musical venue date back to 1919, when the newly-formed Theatre Arts Alliance dispatched two of its members, William Reed and his son H. Ellis, to the Hollywood Hills to find a suitable location for outdoor productions. After a long search, the Reeds finally found their desired site: a shaded canyon and popular picnic spot known as Daisy Dell. 

Nestled in the hills near the entrance to the Cahuenga Pass, the site was a natural amphitheater, as related by H. Ellis Reed, “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 first known performance in Daisy Dell took place in 1920, when Gertrude Ross and Anna Ruzena Sprotte performed piano and voice atop a barn door used as a stage in the bowl-shaped canyon.

On March 27, 1921, the outdoor venue hosted its first Los Angeles Philharmonic performance, an Easter sunrise service attended by more than 800 concertgoers, and the following year, the Philharmonic played its first official summer season in the Hollywood Bowl. Early concertgoers stretched out blankets over the Bowl’s wild grass or sat on temporary benches as bands and orchestras performed on a simple wooden stage. As the venue grew in popularity, the Bowl installed permanent seating and, in 1926, 1927, and 1928, installed a series of band shells meant to provide a visual backdrop and to enhance the amphitheater’s natural acoustics. 

The 1928 shell, designed by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright), introduced the now-familiar concept of concentric arches but lasted only one season. Finally, in 1929, the Bowl received a permanent shell, inspired by Wright’s design but featuring circular rather than elliptical arches. It became instantly recognizable worldwide and, with only a few modifications by architect Frank Gehry in the 1970’s and 1980’s, remained in use through 2003. In 2004, a more commodious version of the old band shell debuted, based on the original design but large enough to accommodate a full orchestra.

In 1946, Frank Sinatra became the first popular artist to play at the Bowl. It was a controversial appearance, as some objected to Sinatra’s sharing the stage with the Philharmonic, but the Bowl began to incorporate popular acts into its schedule. During one especially memorable week in 1965, the Bowl hosted separate performances by the Beatles, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, and Bob Dylan.

Another Hollywood Bowl tradition, and one shared in the smoky past of Pine Knob revelers, is picnicking, and such fetes date back to the early 1950’s. Although Daisy Dell hosted many picnickers before the first note was ever played in the Bowl, in-seat snacking was forbidden at performances until 1952. That year, Dorothy Chandler, she of the pavilion fame and the noted patron of the arts who helped financially rescue the bowl 1951, changed the rules and created a new custom. She ordered a catered picnic for her guests, and in-seat picnicking and personal alcohol consumption are still encouraged for sanctioned events at the Bowl today.

This season, which could be considered the 99th since the barn-door recital, the Bowl will feature artists from Barry Manilow and Earth, Wind & Fire, to the Philharmonic, to Ben Harper and Lord Huron.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.