Take Two®

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

Inside the century-old Ford Theatre's $72 million renovation

by A Martínez and Austin Cross | Take Two®

The Ford Amphitheatre Austin Cross

For nearly a century, the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre — aka the Ford Theatre — has entertained thousands from its stage nestled in the Hollywood Hills.  Built in 1920, it's one of the oldest venues in the city.

In the decades since its opening, programs have ranged from religious to rock. The best may be yet to come for the Ford — the amphitheater recently underwent a $72 million restoration and modernization.

To find out more, Take Two's A Martinez ventured out to meet with the two people who made it happen: architect Brenda Levin and Ford executive director Olga Garay-English.

Interview highlights

How did the Ford Theatre come to be?

Olga: It was started in 1920 by a very rich woman who was a playwright. She put a group of people together and wrote what's called "the Pilgrimage Play." They needed a place to perform, and so she purchased not only this land, but the land that the Hollywood Bowl is on. 

The Pilgrimage Play being performed at The Ford Amphitheatre
The Pilgrimage Play being performed at The Ford Amphitheatre The Ford Amphitheatre

Was the theater built a certain way to give people that feel? 

Olga: Absolutely. The towers that you see here have a Judaic feel to them. The backstage, the use of the rocks and the verdant landscaping were meant to evoke the time of Jesus in that kind of climate. 

A Martinez and Brenda Levin survey the stage from the catwalk at the Ford Amphitheatre.
A Martinez and Brenda Levin survey the stage from the catwalk at the Ford Amphitheatre. Austin Cross

It's right across the way from the Hollywood Bowl. I think a lot of people just go there and don't think of the Ford too much. 

Olga: I think it's a very different experience in the Bowl. The Bowl is fabulous, but the Bowl seats 18,000 people. We seat 1,200 people. Instead of looking at big screens, you're looking at an artist's eyes, and you get a completely different visceral experience when you see an artist at the Ford Theatre than you do at the Bowl. There's no bad seat in the house. 

Catwalk view of the Ford Amphitheatre
Catwalk view of the Ford Amphitheatre

Brenda, you were in charge of renovating and restoring this place. What was your mindset going in?

Brenda: I think it's a combination of renovation and reconstruction. For the performers themselves, much was focused on the stage. It's now a beautiful stage and is approximately the same size, but it is a much more hospitable surface for all types of performances. 

In addition, the technology of the theater was important. None of that has been improved over the years. Much of the focus was on the infrastructure for technology. You're looking at all new theatrical lighting and audio-visual systems.

A Martinez interviews architect Brenda Levin.
A Martinez interviews architect Brenda Levin. Austin Cross

Brenda, one tidbit that I found interesting: Earlier in your career, you worked for famed architect John Lautner. He studied under one of the most famous architects of all time: Frank Lloyd Wright. People who know about Frank Lloyd Wright know that he is big on organic architecture — harmony between structures and nature. It seems as if that idea is alive and well here at the Ford. 

It very much so is. I think what you've just noticed is what is unique about the Ford, which is that you are set in a canyon, you are surrounded by nature, and that you are looking at performers who are set in nature as well.

Most other amphitheaters across the country, and — of course — the Hollywood Bowl across the freeway, the audience is looking at a shell of some kind. The shell is providing some of that acoustic balance. At the Ford, you are absorbed in nature, and the built architecture is behind you. They're separating you from 21st century Los Angeles.

A Martinez interviews Olga Garay-English, executive director at the Ford (left) and architect Brenda Levin.
A Martinez interviews Olga Garay-English, executive director at the Ford (left) and architect Brenda Levin. Austin Cross

Press the blue play button about to hear the full virtual tour. 

Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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