Shell Game: The Hollywood Bowl in Late June 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Of the many iconic sites still with us from Roaring Twenties-era Los Angeles, few are as well and widely known as the Hollywood Bowl. The venue’s first season of musical performances, all classical, was in summer 1922 and, as would be expected, the programming is far more diverse a century later.

For example, this season began a few weeks ago with a concert by Janet Jackson, after which Arsenio Hall hosted the long-running bowl jazz festival and last weekend Jill Scott performed. Former One Direction member Louis Tomlinson is on tap for this weekend, while The Beach Boys perform along with fireworks spectacular on Independence Day.

Los Angeles Times, 28 June 1929.

During the rest of the season, which ends in late September, legendary conductor John Williams; Kool and the Gang with The Village People; Sparks and They Might Be Giants; Diana Krall; Cafe Tacvba with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by the soon-to-depart conductor Gustavo Dudamel; the 90th birthday celebration of Quincy Jones; Joe Bonamassa with the orchestra; Ruben Blades; My Morning Jacket; Air Supply; Buddy Guy; Philharmonic performances; and film screenings, including Harry Potter and Star Wars movies and 2001: A Space Odyssey are, among much else, on the schedule.

One of the features that distinguishes the Bowl, aside from its remarkable natural setting, is the half-circular bandshell that has its roots in the late 1920s with a version completed in June 1929 just in time for opening of the summer season on 9 July (it ended on the last day of August). This post features, from the Museum’s holdings, a great negative, taken from an unusual angle at the north end of the venue (almost all photos of the period are from the south towards the shell and stage) looking at the back of the predecessor shell, erected in 1927, as it is being constructed.

Los Angeles Record, 28 June 1929.

Beyond the immense wooden curved pieces and the materials next to the shell, there is a good view of the almost oval-shaped seating area and, peeking out behind the ridge of the hillside at the back is a Spanish Colonial Revival residence in the Outpost Estates community. The land for the tract was acquired in 1924 by Charles E. Toberman, a figure of great prominence in Hollywood real estate and development and also a key figure in the Hollywood Bowl Association, of which he was a vice-president in 1929.

We’ll get to more about the shell in a bit, but there were some other notable news items about the Bowl in late June of that year. One was a fund-raising drive to sell summer season tickets, the effort headed by Florence M. Irish, general chair for the venue and who was long deeply involved with it. The goal was to raise $20,000 and Irish presided over a series of seven luncheons at the Hollywood Hotel, the last of which included District Attorney and former Lieutenant Governor Buron Fitts and film legend Charles Chaplin.

Times, 29 June 1929.

When the last of the fetes was held on 28 June, however, it was revealed that the amount collected was 25% short of the target, with 35 boxes and 1,450 ticket books sold during the three-week effort. One committee was awarded first prize in the campaign for coming up with just shy of 200 subscriptions (one woman alone rustled up 75) and were given a box, while one comprised of members of UCLA sorority took second place and the Hollywood Community Chorus came in third and were presented with a ticket book.

Also announced on the 28th was the slate of operatic performances to take place at the Bowl during the ensuing season, though in a condenses and concentrated concert form without the stage sets and other elements of performance in opera houses. With the venue’s orchestra, conducted by Eugene Goosens, providing interludes to supplement those portions of the pieces being performed, the idea was considered “the first experiment of the kind to be stages in a great open air amphitheatre.”

South Gate Tribune, 28 June 1929.

The operas were to be given on Friday nights as part of a soloist’s series and were “expected to appeal not only to the laymen because of their simplification and popularization of operatic themes, but to hold special allure for the serious student of music, as well.” The three presentations for the end of July through mid-August included three main singers from Georges Bizet’s Carmen; another trio (one, actually, repeating from the prior week) with renderings from Richard Wagner’s Die Walkure (The Valkyrie); and the last to include ballet with singing from Tannhauser, also by Wagner.

In all, the 32-concert season was praised in the Los Angeles Express in its 2 July edition as the result of “an unusual effort . . . to give a [well-]rounded program that will meet as far as it is possible the widely differing wishes of patrons.” Adding that “rarely in any concert season has so much talent been brought together,” the editorial closed with the assertion that

Hollywood Bowl concerts do not go over the heads of the average audience. That is their success. The programs are not, of course, the so-called “popular” music—they are the higher class music played popularly. Even one who cannot “carry a tune” finds the heart of this music. Maybe the environment helps. Southern California summer nights are magic.

Prior to the advent of the season there was an interesting event held at the Bowl at 3 p.m. on the last day of June, which was a Sunday. This was a mass meeting generally described in the local press as a demonstration or celebration of loyalty and the observance of laws, but particularly those dealing with the 18th Amendment or the Prohibition of most manufacture, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages and was said to have been inspired by remarks made by President Herbert Hoover when he was sworn into office in March.

Hollywood Citizen, 28 June 1929.

The fact was that, in the decade since the amendment was ratified and laws put into place, Prohibition was far more honored in the breach and it would be just four years later, in 1933, that the amendment was repealed and alcohol sales made legal again to mostly joyous reaction (and action) by a large swath of the American public.

This didn’t prevent the Citizens’ Loyalty Alliance, an affiliate of the National Loyalty League, from organizing what the Eagle Rock Reporter and Sentinel of the 28th called “a non-sectarian and non-partisan demonstration with special musical attractions for which an attendance of from 25 to 30 thousand is predicted.” Among those groups that were part of the alliance were churches, PTAs, scouts, women’s clubs, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Better America Foundation.

Eagle Rock Reporter and Sentinel, 28 June 1929.

House of Representatives member Joe Crail was to be chair of the event, but Dr. A.M. Wilkinson of the Federated Church Brotherhoods of California presided, while Los Angeles mayor-elect John C. Porter, Governor C.C. Young, and Judge Paul J. McCormick of Hoover’s law observance committee were featured speakers (Fitts was slated to also offer an oration, but had to bow out of appearing because of a schedule conflict). Added late to the bill was Australian temperance advocate Graccio Houlder, who spoke on “Law Observance and International Good Will.”

Though the anticipated attendance was predicted by the Los Angeles Times to be north of 30,000, the 1 July edition of the Los Angeles Express reported that the crowd was in the several thousands, perhaps indicative of how little general support there was at the time for Prohibition. The keynote was said to be the reading of excerpts from Hoover’s inaugural address, as well as remarks about a newly established federal commission “to study the crime situation.” McCormick told the crowd,

Actuated by loyalty to our republic, and to its institutions, animated by fealty and respect to the President, we come here on this the Lord’s Day to pledge anew our allegiance to the constitution [Constitution] and all valid laws pursuant thereto.

The orator identified two main problems confronted by the country: “the anemia of indifference on the part of the people and the cancer of intolerance of the people,” while he also scored public officials for their intolerance, though the paper’s summation didn’t include specifically why McCormick felt this way. The Times, however, in its coverage from the same day, recorded that the Judge added, “we respect and obey laws not only because we bind ourselves to do so, but because the superior authority obliges us to do so.”

Los Angeles Express, 1 July 1929.

Governor Young, while acknowledging that some would not agree with Hoover’s views on crime, argued that the people and officialdom could not choose which laws to obey and which to defy as “obedience of law is the only safe-guard of the people.” He went on to state that “the people are getting too indifferent to all laws” and it was essential to uphold these “if our nation is to hold up its head among the countries of the world.”

As for Porter, the son of a Protestant minister and who was said to have uttered that Los Angeles was destined to be “the last stand of native-born Protestant Americans,” he proclaimed that “Christians have a place in the politics of the nation, State, county and city” and added “I hope you will back me” once he took office on the 1st “in enforcing the laws here, as you show you are backing the President.”

Times, 1 July 1929.

Governor Young, Mayor Porter, Police Chief James Davis (who was replaced at the end of the year after three years in office, but returned for another five until the recall of mayor Frank Shaw), McCormick and Crail were photographed with their right hands raised and swearing to an oath administered by Wilkinson and which went:

I hereby pledge allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and the laws thereof, and agree loyally to observe all the laws of the land, and especially agree to abstain from the purchase of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes [medicinal use was excluded]; and I will refuse to participate in all transactions with illegal liquor, inasmuch as the Eighteenth Amendment is a part of the Federal Constitution.

Also included were an Assembly member and a number of municipal and superior court judges, while the pledge was also taken by the assemblage.

California Eagle, 28 June 1929.

Notably, some of the press accounts briefly observed that, among the entertainment at the rally, was “the rendition of negro spirituals by 200 colored singers.” In its 28 June edition, the Black-owned California Eagle featured advertisements for 100 singers to participate in a Los Angeles Community Chorus that would compete with three other cities (Oakland, Pasadena and San Francisco) in a contest at the Bowl on 29 July. Yet, it appears the event was cancelled.

Finally, with regard to the shell, there was one erected in 1927 and designed by Lloyd Wright, son of the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, for a performance of the operetta Robin Hood and which replaced a 1926 shell by Allied Architects (formed as a consortium to design public structures.) Wright’s edifice was one influenced by the indigenous people of the American Southwest, though it has also been referred to as Mayan-influenced.

Citizen, 29 June 1929.

Lloyd Wright’s son, Eric, also an architect and who died just this past March, wrote in a 2000 article in the Times that the 1927 shell “restored the original acoustical properties of the site,” but the edifice, built in ten days for only $1,500, was thought to be too garish by the conservative Association board members. The following year, Wright was asked to come up with a circular version, though he warned that providing proper projection of sound would be problematic.

His solution was a one-quarter elliptical shell with plywood rings, costing some $6,000, and Wright carefully designed the rings to maximize the acoustics and it was so effective that no amplification was needed, while lighting the orchestra was done by hiding the fixtures at the rear of the rings. While the shell was made to be removable, the penny-pinching Association demurred from spending $500 for this and the edifice was damaged by winter rains.

Times, 30 June 1929.

Allied Architects took advantage of the situation by stepping in and convincing the powers that be to allow it to design a permanent shell and made it half-circular, but the metal frame, covered with transite, and other elements devalued the acoustical balance Wright created. The result was a $33,000 shell that, Eric Wright noted, did not provide the good sound the environment demanded and the weight destroyed the rollers so that it couldn’t be moved!

Yet, the Hollywood Citizen of 29 June paraphrased Bowl general manager Raymond Brite as saying that the shell “is expected to prove [to be] the last word acoustically as well as in beauty of proportions and durability of material.” Brite also highlighted the portability element, touting that the shell could be moved by a tractor on roller-bearing wheels on tracks. The Times largely used the same verbiage in its article of the same day, but with a photo showing the steel structure without the applied transite.

Any readers of this post attending Hollywood Bowl concerts this season might take a little closer look at the venue and its iconic shell, which, however, was dramatically remodeled (Eric Wright recommended it be replaced) in 2003-2004, with Gruen Associates, which was the firm that oversaw the restoration of the Homestead for the City of Industry, handling the project.

Leave a Reply