by Paul R. Spitzzeri
On this Easter Sunday, we take a look back a century ago when the Hollywood Bowl was a new venue for outdoor cultural events, including one of the many Easter sunrise services held througout greater Los Angeles. On 27 March 1921, the first such event was held in the Bowl The Bowl was about as basic as it could be at that early stage with no elaborate bandshell and stage, rudimentary seating (meaning portable seating for some and planting on the hillsides for most) and parking on dirt areas rather than tidy, well-marked lots. Still, it was the location for what was, by far, the most heavily attended of the holy day services, of which there were many throughout the region.
There was some advance notice about these services with the 25 March edition of the Los Angeles Express stating, “as the Easter sun rises [on the 27th] over the hills surrounding Los Angeles the passing of dawn will be accompanied by inspiring devotional exercises commemorating the day of resurrection. Thousands will dot the hills and valleys for the open air ceremonies that have for many years featured Easter observance in and near Los Angeles.”
Among the locations listed by the paper were Mt Lowe’s Inspiration Point; Avalon on Santa Catalina Island; Mount Washington; Lookout Mountain in Laurel Canyon; Signal Hill; the Mission Playhouse at San Gabriel; the Greek theater at Owensmouth (Canoga Park); Eagle Rock; and perhaps best known at the time outside of the Hollywood Bowl, the craggy heights of Mt. Robidoux above downtown Riverside. It was asserted that “probably the largest crowds will assemble at the Hollywood bowl, where the Philharmonic orchestra [which was established in 1919], under the direction of Walter Henry Rothwell, will be heard. Dudley Buck’s ‘Invocation to the Dawn’ will be rendered by the Hollywood community chorus of 100 voices, directed by Hugo Kirchhofer. Mme Elizabeth Rothwell [wife of the conductor] will also sing.”
The Pomona Progress, in its short preview on the 26th, noted that some 75,000 persons were expected at the bowl and some 25,000 at all of the other dozen or so venues, as “the next largest Easter gathering will be on at [sic] Mount Robidoux, Riverside, and at Ganesha Park, Pomona.” The Mt. Lowe site, at a mile above sea level, was pointed out as noteworthy. The Los Angeles Times, in its edition of the same day, observed that in “greeting the joyful season of Easter with song and sacred word . . . nearly all the services will be proclaimed by trumpets and bugles at 5:49 a.m. . . [and] the highest of the hilltops have been chosen and can all be reached by auto and street car.” After noting the event at Riverside, the paper observed that “the greatest Easter service for Los Angeles is to be conducted in the Hollywood Bowl, the community art center . . . [where] there will be ample space for autos.
In its coverage the day after the service, the Times waxed poetic, as it was wont to do more than most of its contemporaries in the press, under the headline of “Paeans of Praise Rise.” It began with:
As the waning moon faded from the skies and dawn shattered its lances among the eastern hilltops on Easter morn the people of Los Angeles and vicinity began the most widely-attended and impressive out-of-door services in the history of Southern California.
. . . [at many sites] thousands upon thousands of people heard the blast of trumpets significant of the Resurrection, and joined in triumphal song and prayers of thanksgiving.
At the Bowl, the Philharmonic performed with Elizabeth Rothwell as soloist, while a prayer, Scripture lesson and an Easter address were given. The paper added that “especially impressive was the singing of ‘All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name’ by the chorus and the singing of “Holy, Holy, Holy’ by the entire assemblage. Mrs. Rothwell sang ‘The Morning Hymn’ by George Henschel and the “Prize Song” from the third act of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger “was superbly rendered by the orchestra.”
It was added that the event was held under the auspices of the Hollywood Community Chorus, launched by musician Bessie Bartlett Frankel, who was also the founder of the California Federation of Music Clubs. Her father, Albert G. Bartlett, owned one of the most prominent music stores in Los Angeles, though, in 1922 he sold the inventory to his near-neighbor Arthur Letts, owner of The Broadway department store, and went into real estate.
The Times also covered events within Los Angeles city limits at Angeles Mesa at the Baldwin Hills (formerly part-owned by William Workman and F.P.F. Temple before the collapse of their bank led to the land going to their creditor, Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, whose daughters benefited from recent discoveries there of large deposits of oil, as they did at the Montebello Hills, also lost by Temple to Baldwin!) and at Mt. Washington near Highland Park.
Separate short articles covered sunrise ceremonies in Glendale, Burbank, Eagle Rock (also within Los Angeles city limits, however), and Pasadena, while a longer one discussed the Mount Robidoux service, at which it was estimated there were some 20,000 persons. It was noted that Boy Scouts patrolled from midnight and lit the paths for attendees walking the twenty minutes to the summit, while almost 800 cars made the drive up. The Y.M.C.A. offered free coffee and cake from 3 a.m., as well.
There was also a report from out in the eastern San Gabriel Valley that:
Puente and vicinity celebrated the ushering in of Easter morn by appropriate [wonder what “inappropriate” would have been?] services on the commanding hill [perhaps Workman Hill, the highest point in the vicinity] on the crest of Turnbull Canyon. Rev. Richard W. Gentry, pastor of the Covina Christian Church, delivered the address. Rev. H.G. Burgess, pastor of the Puente Community Church, was in charge of the services. Prayer was offered by Rev. W.H. Blackburn of Otterbein [Rowland Heights], and the Scripture was read by Frank M. Colville of Puente. About 250 attended the services.
Another notable Easter event took place at the Los Angeles city jail, where, the Times reported, “seventeen girls held in the women’s quarters on various charges, were given an opportunity to feel the spirit of Easter when Policewoman Wells treated them to an ‘egg hunt.'” Alice Stebbins Wells was, in 1910, the first woman in the country to be made a police officer with arrest powers and went on to be, in 1928, the first president of the Women’s Peace Officers Association of California. In 1934, she was appointed the Los Angeles Police Department’s historian and remained in that position until she retired in 1940 after three decades of service.
The article continued that “three dozen colored hard-boiled eggs and scores of the candy variety were scattered in inconspicuous places while the girls were taken into another room.” A Board of Health physician, a Public Defender’s office nurse, and Wells then let the inmates loose “and, like a bunch of kids, they made a wild scramble for the hidden Easter delicacies.” Wells was quoted as saying, “the girls enjoyed it and Easter comes but once a year even on the ‘outside.'”
With regard to the 1921 service at the Bowl, it proved to be an inspiration for other programs. The Times reported that “as a result of the enthusiasm arising from the Easter sunrise service in the Hollywood Bowl three Shakespearean productions are being planned for this spring.” The drama students at Hollywood High School were going to present Twelfth Night, the Hollywood Studio Club was going to mount The Tempest, and professional talent was to be used by H. Ellis Reed of the Theater Arts Alliance for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Reed and his father William chose the site, known as Daisy Dell, on behalf of Christine Wetherill Stevenson, Pittsburgh Paint Company heir, who organized the Alliance. Disputes over the use of the Bowl site, however, led Stevenson to buy land across Highland Avenue, where The Pilgrimage Play became a major success at what is now the John Anson Ford Theatre.
With support from local wealthy women like oil heir Aline Barnsdall, the Alliance continued to operate the bowl for a few years, but it became abundantly clear that the venue would not do well financially under private management, so, in 1924, the Bowl was deeded to Los Angeles County and the non-profit Hollywood Bowl Association established to operate the venue.
As for today’s featured photo from the Homestead’s holdings, it was taken by Hollywood shutterbug Charles W. Beam, who was well-known before his death in the early Thirties for his many photos of the Bowl, including some views of a Women’s Peace Meeting at the venue for Armistice Day in November 1921. It looks as if Beam stood on the hillside at the northeast portion of the natural amphiteater looking down to where the famed bandshell would later be built, while the area across, comprised of chaparral-covered hillside and what looks like an oak tree here or there, looks to be where the seating areas are now.
Down in the flat area, the basic stage area can be discerned with the bright white paper of the scores are on the stands for the Philharmonic’s musicians. There looks to be some seating for persons directly in front of and to the sides of that set-up, while a great many people are standing nearby and folks are seated on the surrounding slopes. A white cross is at the upper right at what would, apparently, be the west side of the venue. While there might be a couple thousand attendees in the photo, it would be surprising if there was anywhere near the 75,000 persons who were expected to attend.
In any event, this is a great early photo of the Hollywood Bowl, where the first organzation was set up in fall 1920 and where the first official season of Philharmonic concerts began in summer 1922, and its very first Easter Sunrise service. In our pandemic period, the Philharmonic has offered its 26-minute recording of this year’s service, including some additional program elements.