The young woman with glitter on her eyes is performing songs of death and betrayal before a nearly full house at the John Anson Ford Theatre. It's Sunday night, and Mandi Perkins is at the ancient Hollywood venue with her band Of Verona to perform four acoustic songs on the outdoor stage, as part of a full evening of local singer-songwriters and bands. “Nothing left to lose, nowhere else to move,” Perkins sings, as a thick forest of trees and brush rise up to the sky on the hillside behind her.
“It's a beautiful atmosphere,” Perkins says of the amphitheater after their set. “It's an awesome experience to get onstage and just sing for pure love and touch people like that.”
What brought her band and others to the 1,200-seat space is an annual event called “Koffeehouse Music: An Evening of Independence,” which is made possible by a unique summer program to bring local culture to the Ford stage. Just days earlier, singer k.d. lang headlined this same venue for 90 minutes of epic torch and twang, one of the many nationally known acts to pass through the amphitheater each year. But unlike other big stages in the city, the Ford is a major venue with a grass-roots mission. Since 1992, its Summer Partnership Program has opened the Ford to local artists and producers by providing the venue rent-free, plus box office staff, ushers, facility management and more.
It's a program of the L.A. County Arts Commission that accepts more than 30 “partners” a year from May through October, filling the old space with homegrown rock, folk, jazz, hip-hop, dance, spoken-word, multimedia and live theater. The program offers instruction on the crucial survival skills of marketing, publicity, budgeting and everything else needed to draw an audience large enough for the Ford.
“Some companies may be able to fill a 200-seat theater, but to make that jump to a 1,200-seat theater is really tough,” says Adam Davis, managing director of the Ford. “We bring professionals in to help them.”
The main criteria, says Davis, is “artistic excellence. We're looking for the best we can get.” Applicants must demonstrate financial responsibility and the capacity to “work and play well with others,” he adds. “We don't accept partners if we think they can't hack it.”
The successes this season include July's sold-out Flypoet gathering of live spoken word, and a June show by hip-hop dance group Culture Shock L.A. Still to come Oct. 7 is “Chanson d'Amour,” a tribute to French songwriters performed by Amanda McBroom and Lee Lessack.
The result is “a diverse program of art and music that otherwise would not be seen on this scale,” says Lessack, making his second appearance at the theater. “It's such a magical venue. It's a landmark of Los Angeles County and I'm really proud to be a part of it. Because it's outdoors, there is a vastness to it, but it's so intimate.”
A short stroll away from the Hollywood Bowl across the Cahuenga Pass, the Ford Theatre was built in 1920, burned down in '29, and was rebuilt two years later. Towering above the stage are castle-like turrets appropriate to a Shakespearean moment. Back in 1988, the Ramones caused a ruckus when they erupted through 34 speedy punk tunes at the Ford, blaring right across the canyon and assaulting the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. (On the bootleg recording, Joey Ramone can be heard admiring the wide open spaces: “It's fucking great to be out here tonight in the great outdoors of Hollywood, y'know!”) For a time, rock music and other noisy genres were barred altogether from the facility.
After the Ford was taken over by L.A. County, it was tasked with a mission to reach into the area's diverse communities by Laura Zucker, executive director of the L.A. County Arts Commission. The program currently receives about 70 applications a year. Davis is hungry for many more. “We do a lot of grass-roots work, but I wish more people knew about it, and how we programmed,” says Davis. (The Ford is now accepting applications for the 2012 season until August 31. Here's more info on the Summer Partnership Program.)
“It's my favorite outdoor venue in L.A.,” says Koffeehouse founder Jeremy Koff. “I love the Greek and Hollywood Bowl, but what's so special about the Ford is that there is only 90 feet from the worst seat to the front – so there isn't a bad seat in the house. It's affordable, and you get to see some unusual acts there. It's rather eclectic. You get to discover a whole new type of art.”
The Koffeehouse showcases began eight years ago in Koff's living room and backyard in Studio City. The son of classical musicians, his tastes in popular music lean toward the folk-rock pleasantries of Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson and Sheryl Crow. A neighbor liked what he heard and suggested that Koff approach the Ford.
“They're willing to take on someone — in my case — who had no clue what I was doing at that scale, helped guide me, helped teach me, provided the venue so it's affordable, helped with the marketing in terms of getting the word out, helped subsidize the event,” Koff says. “I could not have done it without their generous guidance.”
One of the Koffeehouse acts Sunday night was the folk-rock band Satellite. For them, it was a chance to step up to a bigger stage, maybe find some new fans and inch a little bit further in their career – and all so close to that other venue just across the Hollywood Freeway. “There's something really special about playing here for us,” singer Steve McMorran says after his band's set. He adds with a grin, “Hopefully, we'll one day play the Hollywood Bowl and compare the two.”