Hollywood Bowl's Secret Backstage History: 90 Years of Doves and Flying Toilets
It's a scorching hot day, and the Hollywood Bowl staff has only a few
days left to prepare for the new season. Despite the last-minute
scurrying, the scene in production director Paul Geller's office is
calm, even if his iPhone rings with different tones every few minutes.
Geller oversees the magic place where every band, singer or soloist
wants to be -- the stage -- although he can't control everything, even
after 41 years on the job.
"We had a fox come onstage once, right in the middle of a
performance. It sat down behind the pianist for 20 minutes, like it was
listening to the music, then walked away. A family of six raccoons hung
out to listen on one of the arches once, and skunks passing through the
seats produce a 'wave' of people, too."
Geller's office is a music lover's wet dream: The walls are covered
with framed backstage passes, posters, drumsticks, picks, guitars, even a
soccer ball signed by Rod Stewart. There's a picture of Geller
(complete with impressive mustache and open shirt) at work in the early
days, and a shot of the stage filled with camouflaged soldiers during
the 1992 riots, when the National Guard set up a temporary base here.
He has even more memorabilia in storage, including a 1973 Elton John
tour T-shirt that Geller has had him sign on every visit since. John
holds the record for the most appearances here, but as to where this
rare souvenir is, Geller sighs: "It's in there somewhere."
The office isn't all a collector's heaven -- here and there you can
see blueprints, design proofs, orchestral arrangements and set lists, as
well as jelly beans, European chocolate and various types of
Like a benevolent king, Geller watches over his domain from here.
Four large flat-screen TVs line one wall, and from his desktop computer
he can zoom the numerous CCTV cameras around the area to a frightening
distance and revealing accuracy.
Geller was exploring the Bowl and the hills around it at age 8 while
he waited for his violinist father, Irving Geller, to finish rehearsals.
Starting as a temporary "runner" in 1970, he rose through the backstage
ranks and now supervises every aspect of the stage. This includes
rerigging, rechecking and reinstalling all the sound/audio systems,
which haven't been touched since last year; it's far more than just
changing a few lightbulbs.
This year the Bowl celebrates its 90th anniversary. Even though
virtually anyone who's anyone in the world of music has performed here,
this year sees the debut of the Queen of Country, Dolly Parton. There's
the usual eclectic mix scheduled -- jazz, blues, '80s throwbacks, opera,
the Buena Vista Social Club, Eddie Izzard, the L.A. Phil playing
Bollywood music, pop princess Kylie Minogue, the sing-along Sound of Music, etc.
The Bowl has come a long way from the early days, when it was a
lo-fi, improv arrangement of movable wooden benches and a rickety
acoustic stage set in the natural amphitheater known as Daisy Dell. The
first arched shell appeared in 1926, and it's been improved on ever
since, including by Frank Gehry, whose fiberglass spheres still float
above the stage. Geller has one of the white arch shell tiles from the
last renovation, in 2003, mounted on his wall, and the Bowl now boasts
excellent audio and big TV screens so you can enjoy the show no matter
where you're sitting.
Geller probably has seen more concerts here than anyone else -- even
if nearly all of them were from the wings -- and aside from the many
times he saw his father perform from a "proper seat," his first was a
doozy (and probably one of the Bowl's biggest nights):
"As far as I can remember, that was the last night of the Beatles in
1965 -- they snuck me in, I was still a kid back then -- and my first
'work' concert was the Grateful Dead, Rod Stewart or Alice Cooper. One
Serious rock was quite a change from the classical music he grew up
hearing. His father played with the L.A. Phil for 49 years and his
sister, Valerie, also a violinist, has performed with the orchestra,
too. Years later, he still can't answer the question that everyone asks:
What was the most amazing concert?
"Pink Floyd had these huge searchlights, more than 20 of them. They
all had pink gels, so when the cue came to switch on it was like a huge
fan over the Bowl."
Rick Wakeman, the Yes prog-rock keyboard wizard, "used the long-gone
100,000-gallon fountain and fire 'reflection pool' in front of the
stage, filled it with dry ice and had a huge inflatable dinosaur appear
from it. Then Elton John, in 1973, I think, had a Busby Berkeley
staircase, which movie star look-alikes -- Marilyn Monroe, Groucho Marx --
walked down while white doves were released from five pianos."
Firework displays are a perennial Bowl favorite, and one time things literally went flying: "In the 1812 Overture, prop cannons onstage puff smoke when the real mortar shells go off
backstage. Back in the good old days, when the Bowl was held together
with toothpicks and spit, Zubin Mehta was often conducting, and he was
always over the top -- he wanted 'louder and stronger!'
"Later that night during the concert, backstage little pieces of the
tiles started drifting down. Boom! Bigger pieces would drop down. Then
we heard a crash in the dressing room. The explosions had blown the air
conditioner out of the wall and blown the toilet off its mount and into
the middle of the bathroom."
This year undoubtedly will bring new surprises, frustrations and
amusements for the staff. As for concertgoers, Geller has some advice:
Look back as you leave, and you may see deer making their way down from
the wilds for a late dinner of what Angelenos have left behind.
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