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The History Of The Ford Amphitheatre, Which Reopens After 21 Months Of Renovations

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The Ford Amphitheatre reopens this weekend after being closed for renovations nearly two years. Laura Zucker, executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, tells LAist that what began 21 months ago as a renovation is more like a reinvention. The theater itself has a particularly interesting history, beginning almost a century ago with a wealthy heiress who decided she'd build her own theatre—twice—to produce the plays of her dreams. Christine Wetherill Stevenson was the heiress to the Pittsburgh Paint Company who had a great desire to put on plays in Hollywood, inspired by a 1916 production of Julius Caesar that took place in Beachwood Canyon.

Stevenson was an interesting woman, who also happened to have a lot of money. According to Assistant Box Office Manager and resident historian Ann Jensen, Stevenson was a member of the Theosophical Society. The Theosophical Society formed in 1875 in New York, and, as the name might imply, studies religion and philosophy as well as art and science. Stevenson was interested in world religions, and wanted to put on religious plays. She began in 1918 with Light of Asia by Sir Edward Arnold, which followed the life of Buddha, at a small outdoor theater at Vista Del Mar Street. But Stevenson wanted more.

So, she and her friends formed the Theatre Arts Alliance and built the Hollywood Bowl. The site, a picnicking area known as Daisy Dell, was selected in 1919, and the first Easter service was held there in 1921.

Stevenson really wanted to put on a play she had written about Jesus Christ called the Pilgrimage Play, which she had adapted using the New Testament. Her friends weren't hot on this idea, so she decided to build yet another open-air theatre across the street from the Bowl.

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In June of 1920, Stevenson debuted her Pilgrimage Play, and it was a hit. It was quite popular in young Hollywood, which was imagined then as a Christian community. This was before the Scientologists moved in, of course. According to an account written by Stevenson's secretary, Stella Day, she was devoted to producing the best play she possibly could:

She went to Palestine to learn the topography of the Judean hills - to study the customs of the people with whom Jesus associated and to bring back to the production correct and original costumes for every figure in the production. The costumes were very beautiful and their original cost was some $6000. The cover for the Lord’s Supper Table she pulled down with her own hands from a Jewish stall, in Jerusalem. As a student of Whistler in the outskirts of Paris, she fitted empty picture frames into glorious French sunsets, and from this study developed coloring for the lighting of the Pilgrimage Play. She was not entirely pleased with her lighting [and] sent an electrical wizard to Oberamagrau to see what he could glean from that production that might add greater beauty to this Sacred Drama in the California Hills, untiring in time, money and effort.

Stevenson would die shortly thereafter in 1922, just 44 years sold, and the glowing white cross that now stands over the theatre was constructed in her memory. Jensen said she was unable to find out how exactly Stevenson had died at such a young age, though her death certificate attributed her passing to a "change of life" issue and others claimed she worked herself to death producing her play.

Though Stevenson was gone, her work would live on. The Pilgrimage Play continued to run mostly uninterrupted until the 1960s. There were, however, some snags.

In 1929, the theater was destroyed by a brush fire. At the time, Jensen explained, the theater was made of wood, so the flames easily overtook to the structure. In 1931, the theater was rebuilt, this time out of concrete. In 1941, Stevenson's family deeded the theater to L.A. County, who ultimately renamed Pilgrimage Theatre the John Anson Ford Theater in 1976, after Supervisor John Anson Ford, who had worked in the district for over two decades. In the mid-40s, they built two towers on either side of the stage proscenium.

There were times when the theatre did not run Stevenson's play. In 1938, they instead produced Goethe's Faust, the famous tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil, directed by Max Reinhardt. The performance was attended by the likes of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Gary Cooper, and Lucille Ball. Reinhardt described the Ford as "the Cinderella among open-air theatres—in my opinion, the most beautiful of them all."

They also skipped a year during the Depression and during the construction of the Hollywood Freeway, and during WWII, they used the theatre as a dormitory for soldiers passing through Los Angeles. In 1964, a lawsuit surfaced alleging that using county money at a county-owned theater to produce a religious play defied the separation of church and state. Stevenson's Pilgrimage Play ran for the last time in 1964.

The play then became home to jazz music and Shakespeare, including a production of King Lear directed by John Houseman. The 70s and early 80s saw music and dance performances.

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However, Jensen said that the theatre was sometimes depressingly empty.

"If you look at newspaper coverage of [the theater] for the history of its existence, every 10 years, someone was writing an editorial on how the theater is underutilized," she said.

In the late 80s, a rock promoter secured a three-year lease on the venue, and the theater hosted acts like Jane's Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Concrete Blonde, the Ramones and Red Kross. That all ended shortly before Laura Zucker came on board in 1992.

"The facility, at that point, had been trashed," Zucker told LAist. "It still had its magical bones—nothing has ever been able to destroy the Ford—but think century-old light fuses going out one after another. Very little that wasn't concrete was left standing in any form. It had never been painted. Or loved!"

Prior to working with the Ford, Zucker had run a smaller operation called the Back Alley Theatre in the San Fernando Valley. She saw the value in a rare mid-sized venue like the Ford, which holds 1,200 seats. By comparison, the Hollywood Bowl has 18,000. The very last row of the Ford is a mere 96 feet from the stage.

"I was told that part of the job was going to be to figure out a way to revitalize the Ford," Zucker said. "I still remember the day I stepped into the space. I felt what Christine felt. It is sacred ground. It is a magical confluence of forces to have this amphitheater in this particular canyon. And it was clear that this could be a fantastic place for a wide variety of organizations, presenting all of the diverse cultures of Los Angeles, to be able to step up their game and perform in a larger venue than they were used to."

In 1993, they developed a partnership program with several arts organizations. That year, they saw only a dozen performances, but that number had grown to 100 events during their last season in 2014, after which the theater closed for renovations.

"The idea [with the partnership program] is that we offer box office services and low-cost theater rental and production and planning, and hopefully to get these smaller organizations a chance to grow and flourish and expand their audience," Jensen explained.

Zucker said that many of the changes that have been made in the last 21 months might not be ones returning audiences will notice.

"A lot of what we've done is not going to be visible to audience members because a significant amount of it deals with water mitigation," Zucker explains. Before, water ran through the canyon, but now, "water goes around with all new retaining walls and a water routing system that carries water away from the amphitheater."

There are also all-new artist services located underground, such as dressing rooms and green rooms, and an all-new wood stage that has been leveled for the first time in the theater's history and allows water to drain through it. This, unlike the concrete stage of the past, will be ideal for dance performances, Zucker says. There are also new lighting towers and equipment, and they're in the process of putting in a new sound wall. Future changes will include a new picnic terrace, loading dock and concessions building, and a possible parking facility. Zucker says that these renovations will ensure the theatre remains for yet another 100 years. They're also working on a book about the venue's history to come out in 2020, the year the theater celebrates its 100th birthday.

Going to the Ford will be largely the same for audience members, though there is now a second shuttle that will stop at a parking lot near Cherokee and Hollywood Boulevard that guests may reserve, in addition to the shuttle that departs from the Metro Red Line Station in Universal City across from Universal Studios Hollywood.

Upcoming performances include TAIKOPROJECT + Quetzal tonight, Aloe Blacc on Saturday, Outfest July 13 to 16, and Forever Flamenco on July 23.

The John Anson Ford Amphitheatre is located at 2580 Cahuenga Blvd East in Hollywood