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The Ford Amphitheatre brings the past into the future

by James Kim | The Frame

The Ford Amphitheatre undergoes the first phase of architect Brenda Levin's master plan for the space. The tower on the left will house lighting and sound. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Even people who don’t live in Los Angeles know about the Hollywood Bowl. It seats more than 17,000 people and acts as big as Paul Simon, Diana Ross and Brian Wilson will play there this Summer. But across the 101 Freeway is another outdoor theater tucked into the Hollywood hills. It’s smaller, less flashy, and it’s been around for almost a century.

The Ford historic pic

(The original interior of the Ford Theatre in 1931, which went under the name of The Pilgrimage Theatre. Courtesy of the Ford Theatres)

The John Anson Ford Amphitheatre has been closed for a year-and-a-half for a massive $65.8 million renovation that will be unveiled on July 8. The venue has been under construction since October 2014. Adam Davis, managing director of productions for the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, oversaw much of the renovation.

Ford renovation hallways

(The new crossover space is much larger than before renovations. Costume changes will happen here. Credit: Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

Davis walks through the widened corridors underneath the stage. This was one area where the old infrastructure, which had mostly remained the same since its original construction in 1931, was in dire need of a fix. "The crossover areas where artists had to go through hallways to make sure they get on stage on time was very tight," Davis says. "It was tight where, you know, you and I would have to pass and one would have to stand against the wall while the other one ran [by]." 

The initial idea for the amphitheatre was to house a religious play about the life of Jesus Christ. In 1920, author Christine Wetherill Stevenson wrote “The Pilgrimage Play” and she needed an appropriate setting. Stevenson saw the picturesque mountainside of the Cahuenga Pass, bought 32 acres of land, and built a wooden outdoor venue called The Pilgrimage Theatre.

The play was performed there every year until October, 1929, when a brush fire completely destroyed the venue. That happened the very same week of the stock market crash that led to The Great Depression.

The Pilgrimage Theatre burnt

(The Pilgrimage Theatre was burnt down due to a brush fire in October 1929. Credit: Los Angeles Public Library)

In 1931, the local community and architect William Lee Woollett rebuilt the theater — this time with concrete — so "The Pilgrimage Play" could resume performances, which continued until 1964. A lawsuit from Los Angeles County forced its closure because public funds were being used to put on a religious play, but the theatre remained.

Laura Zucker, executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, says the venue "was used sporadically, sometimes in great ways: Shakespeare, 'King Lear' — people fondly remember jazz concerts, but it was also leased to a rock and roll promoter who kind of trashed the place." 

By the late '80s, acts such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Ramones, and Jane's Addiction would play the Ford. The venue was renamed for former Los Angeles County Supervisor John Anson Ford. He was a fan of the arts, and he helped found the county's arts commission. Zucker says when she came to the commission in 1992, she inherited a facility "that really had been neglected since 1931, when it was built. It had 100-year-old fuses, it had broken lights. There was nothing really here but the shell." 

Adam Davis also encountered some technical issues when he joined the team at the Ford more than a decade ago:

At one point, one of my production managers told me the story where they had to put two wires together to turn a light on. No one was in charge of maintaining it over time.

The Ford construction

(A sound wall to block freeway noise will be installed behind the seats during construction at the Ford Amphitheatre. Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

So Zucker started off by using the amphitheatre to feature local artists and called it the “Partnership Program,” in which The Ford covers the cost of marketing and technical assistance, and gives the artists 90 percent of the box office revenue. Zucker and her team want to find artists that reflect the diversity of Los Angeles — both culturally and artistically. Most importantly, they’re also looking for artists who can fill a 1,200-seat venue.

We’re really looking for artists and arts organizations that are ready to push the envelope. We believe that in order to excel artistically, you have to take risks. If you’re not taking risks, it’s going to be boring. So we’re willing to take a chance and help artists and arts organizations fill their dreams.

One of those artists is Andrea Miller. She runs the community arts organization called Mama Earth. "We always have a tradition of mixing pop music, cultural art forms," Miller says. "Afro-Cuban dance, Capoeira. So it’s funny that it’s come full circle but in a large venue." Mama Earth has about 40 performers on stage, including dancers and live musicians, which may have been a problem before the amphitheater was renovated. Adam Davis remembers one night when the narrow hallways underneath the stage of the old amphitheater became a bit too crowded during a dance performance.

I was backstage one night, and the artists laid in this hallway all of their costumes, and they would come run through, pick them up, put them on in the hallway all cramming together and trying to get back on the stage. The capacity that was in that hallway needed to expand.

Ford Theatre new floor

(This Brazilian wood will cover the lower and upper stages as part of the renovation of the Ford Amphitheatre. Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

So Davis and his team have expanded those hallways, brightened the dim corridors, leveled the stage, and replaced the concrete surface with hardwood floors. The renovations will make things easier for performers, but there's another reason why some artists are excited about the Ford's rebirth.

Jackie Lopez is co-founder of the hip-hop dance company, Versa-Style. She performed with her group at the Ford in 2013 and will return later this year. "What separates The Ford is this community-based passion that they have," Lopez says. "It’s not just about producing a show, but it’s about building a community and believing in a certain group of people — or diverse group of people — to come and represent and tell the stories of Los Angeles. So that’s what inspires me." 

Versa-Style

As The Ford prepares for its re-opening, Laura Zucker hopes to continue to highlight the Los Angeles arts community and bring a new light to the historic amphitheater. 

This is the opposite of the Hollywood Bowl ... [where] you sit in a natural amphitheater and you look at a beautiful, but man-made shell that’s changed over time. At the Ford, you sit in a man-made amphitheater and you look at a beautiful, natural hillside environment, and that’s what will always be special here.

The John Anson Ford Amphitheatre reopens on July 8 with a performance by TaikoProject and Quetzal. 

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