Striking a Chord: The Hollywood Bowl, ca. 1923

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It’d been some years since I’d been to the Hollywood Bowl, but I was there last night for the first of the three-night July 4th Fireworks Spectacular.  The venue was pretty much full, meaning there were probably 20,000 people there, to hear and see the program featuring the excellent Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Thomas Wilkins, the talented a capella group Pentatonix, and, of course, the fireworks show.

Naturally, as I sat before the start of the show soaking in the ambiance of the famed venue, I thought to the several dozen artifacts in the Homestead’s collection related to the Bowl.  Today seemed like a particularly opportune time to highlight one of them.

Today’s “Striking a Chord” artifact is an early photograph of the facility before the first of its several band shells was built in 1926.  Clearly, the occasion was for the longstanding traditional annual Easter Sunrise services, which began in 1921, though whether the image was taken before or after the service isn’t known.

Aside from the fact that the stage was shell-less and the strikingly large cross at the base of the hillside to the north, the photograph shows the bench seating that was installed at the facility about 1923, which is also just before the stage area was decorated with classical Greek columns and other details.  Parking adjacent to the venue was still on dirt roads, a far cry from what followed later.

Hollywood Bowl pre shell 1920s
This snapshot from the Homestead collection shows the Hollywood Bowl about 1923 before its iconic curved band shell was built and either before or after the annual Easter sunrise service that’s been a Bowl tradition for 96 years.

The origins of the Bowl date to 1919 when a group called Theater Arts Alliance, Inc. purchased for about $47,000 just under 60 acres in Bolton Canyon, also long known as Daisy Dell, which had been a popular place for picnicking when Hollywood was a rural area.  Events started to be held at the rustic locale the following year.

In 1920, a new group, the Community Park and Art Association formed and took over the property after the Theater Arts Alliance dissolved.  In the first few years, theatrical performances, band concerts, pageants and other events were held before an organized season of programs was created.

In summer 1922, the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed its first concert at the Bowl, inaugurating what is now 95 years of performances by the orchestra, and summer concert seasons were becoming very popular.  Attendance was boosted significantly when, in 1926, the Pacific Electric streetcar system was built on Highland Avenue adjacent to the Bowl.  Of course, the automobile was becoming the dominant mode of transportation at the same time.

After the venue was given to the County of Los Angeles in 1924, the Hollywood Bowl Association became the facility’s governing body and major changes came quickly.  Two years later, Allied Architects, which formed to provide affordable design services to government entities, came up with the first arched proscenium for the stage, designed by Myron Hunt, a well-known architect in greater Los Angeles.

However, the following year, Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, Lloyd, came up with a pyramid shaped shell for that season, though that distinctive look didn’t last long.  In 1928, Wright was asked to go to a semi-circular design and his shell allowed for the panels to be adjusted for acoustical reasons.

Yet, again, a change was ordered and for 1929, another Allied Architects project led to a 55-ton shell on rails that could be moved.  The curved shell form became the iconic aesthetic look that the Bowl has maintained, even though that late 1920s shell was later replaced, ever since.

For more about the history of the landmark venue, check out the Hollywood Bowl Museum page on the facility’s website.  Meantime, there are plenty more great photos and other artifacts connected to the Bowl that will be featured in the “Striking a Chord” series, so look for those in future posts.


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