Is the Hollywood Bowl southern California's most beloved performance space? Quite possibly. Where else do folks brag not just about seeing an act, but about attending a venue itself? Seating 17,376 patrons, it hosts shows six-out-of-seven nights a week –Tuesdays and Thursdays are classical, Wednesdays jazz and the weekends reserved for pop, rock and fireworks. It's like summer camp for L.A. music lovers, except that bringing your own booze is actually encouraged.
Its 91st season came to a close on September 30th with Wilco and Joanna Newsom. It opened on July 11, 1922 with a classical program called “Symphonies Under the Stars,” conducted by Alfred Hertz. With only a simple tarp and wooden structure as a stage — and crude movable benches for the audience — the acoustic quality wasn't much back then. But the structure could be removed for dramatic productions like Camelot and the immensely popular Easter services, which first put the spot on the map.
Folks saw a trip there as a quickie-vacation, just minutes from the city but tucked into the Santa Monica Mountains with native plants like the California sycamore, coastal live oak and lilac bushes surrounding. While many believe the Hollywood Bowl got its name from its band shell, it actually refers to the natural curve of the earth where the seats are placed, helping it earn the title of the largest natural amphitheatre in the U.S.
In 1927 architect Lloyd Wright (aka Frank Lloyd Wright Jr.) improved the venue's acoustics with a pair of designs, considered the best sonically in its history. Alas, they were short-lived after concertgoers deemed his first — a pyramid shell made of wood with a Southwestern influence — too avant-garde. His second, a fiberglass band shell made up of concentric segments resembling one large arch, was destroyed by the winter elements. But that second design acted as the inspiration for the iconic shell that remains today, as well as for many other outdoor amphitheatres around the world.
For its first two decades the Bowl was the home exclusively to symphonies and sopranos, but that all changed when Frank Sinatra performed with the L.A. Philharmonic on August 14, 1943, marking its first performance of a pop musician. The ensuing decades saw musicians of all genres, from Brahms and Bernstein, to the Jackson Five and Juanes. The Beatles played on August 23, 1964, before a hysterical sold out crowd who screamed so loud that no one could hear the music (including the performers themselves).
The atmosphere at the Bowl normally, however, is more casual. As part of the venue's culture, small groups show up early to have picnics and drink wine together. It's quite rare for a performance space to encourage outside food and drink, but bringing your own bottle is a longstanding Bowl tradition — perhaps only rivaled these days by kids smuggling in joints.
Though not everyone who shows up is lucky enough to sit at boxes with those wacky folding tables, the Bowl does offer a certain democracy. Divided into five “promenades,” it offers everything from private cubicles to benches. (Plus, if you're “parked in” there's no leaving until the show's over.)
Some bands try to mask the grandeur of the shell with large set pieces and props — we're looking at you Roger Waters — and if you're sitting too far back, even the lackluster screens can be hard to see.
Still, on a clear night, simply being in the pleasant environs among friends makes for a great evening, no matter who's playing.