This isn’t the first time the Ford’s amphitheatre stage has undergone a major transformation… In 1938, four years after his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Hollywood Bowl, film director Max Reinhardt chose the Ford as the venue for his staging of Goethe’s Faust.
In the program notes, Reinhardt described the theatre as “the Cinderella among open-air theatres—in my opinion, the most beautiful of them all.”
Under the direction of set designer Nicolai Remisoff, the production involved the creation of an elaborate Bavarian village, including a church, tavern and prison.
Watch your wingtips!
Planning the stage’s Cinderella-esque makeover.
Remisoff (on the left, with pointer) oversees construction on stage right. (Photo courtesy of Otto Rothschild Collection, The Music Center)
The stunning completed set—the stonework and the familiar hillside backdrop are the only clues that it’s still the Pilgrimage/Ford. (Photo courtesy of The Red List)
With a breathtaking set like this, it’s no surprise that a who’s who of 1930s era Hollywood movie stars packed the audience for the premiere. An LA Times review describes fans crowding the entrance with their autograph books as stars such as Hedy Lamarr, Peter Lorre, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Gary Cooper, Olivia de Havilland and Lucille Ball arrived for the performance.
California not-so-casual: Fritz Lang, director of the silent film classic Metropolis, is accompanied by his monocle and actress Miriam Hopkins on opening night, August 23, 1938. (Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library, Herald Examiner Collection)
Rumor has it that in 1912, John Barrymore was frolicking in the Cahuenga Pass reciting soliloquies from Hamlet when he declared, “What wonderful acoustics – there should be a theatre here!” Less than a decade later, the Pilgrimage Play Theatre (now the Ford) was built on that very spot.
Since then, the rolling hills of the Ford have echoed classic verse of all kinds, from a lavish production of Faust in the 1930s to an iconic production of King Lear in the 1960s. And, though the striking outdoor space lends itself perfectly to the classics, the intimate indoor space beneath the amphitheatre witnessed the birth of some of the most influential modern theatre of the twentieth century.
From 1973 through much of the 1990s, this 87-seat black box theatre was the home of the Mark Taper Forum’s new play development programs The Lab and Taper, Too. The list of artists and productions that those programs developed is truly remarkable, from the first workshop of Tony Kushner’s landmark Angels in America and the Taper’s first presentation of a Latin American play (Jose Ignacio Cabrujas’ The Day You’ll Love Me) to the works of theatre icons like Spalding Gray, Bill Irwin and Joseph Chaikin.
The recent uncovering of The Lab’s logo during renovations sparked a desire to unearth more about this seminal period.
How did The Lab and Taper, Too end up at the Ford?
Madeline Puzo [Producer of The Lab and Taper, Too, 1979-1989]: Robert Greenwald, who is now a documentary filmmaker, was the one who saw the space and started The Lab, as a laboratory for artists to create experimental work.
How specifically did the Ford space influence the work?
Andrew J. Robinson [Actor and director]: The downstairs Ford space was like a pressure cooker. Once the doors closed, that was it. You were in the world that the artists had created. The outside was completely shut off.
Michael Jung [Associate Producer of the Taper New Works Festival]: The space could really be converted into almost any creative vision.
Robinson: During Belly [Belly of the Beast, 1984] we turned off all lights and created total darkness – and I mean total – to give the audience a feel for [the character’s] sensory deprived life in solitary confinement. People would freak out, and on a couple of occasions, beg that the lights be turned back on. One man literally crawled over people and fled the theatre.
Robert Egan [Director and Producing Artistic Director of the Taper New Works Festival]: It was also ideal for developmental theatre. It was a rough, raw space. The walk up the hill [into the venue] was a welcome procession out of the bustle of the city through nature into a surprising and sacred space for new and challenging work. It was intimate at less than 90 seats. So it was a truly embracing space to focus on new groundbreaking work.
Jung: The intimacy of the venue also allowed a special connection between the performers and the audience. We served wine and beer and snacks and often the audiences would stay after the talk backs just to hang out.
What are some of your favorite projects from that time?
Egan: I will never forget our workshop of Angels in America. It was so simple, without any of the technical pyrotechnics that would ultimately be employed in its many major stage productions around the world. I remember the Angel simply walking on stage and stepping on a black box and spreading her arms to suggest feathered wings and I saw it all. It was so powerful and it was the first time the world was hearing those magnificent words and confronting those powerful ideas.
I also remember that in that same season we heard the first three plays in Robert Schenkan’s Kentucy Cycle. Both plays went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. And it all started here in LA at the Ford!
Robinson: [Acting in] In the Belly of the Beast directed by Robert Woodruff was my one titanic production experience at Taper, Too. Belly was the story of Jack Henry Abbott, a man who spent nearly his entire life in some form of penal lock-up. Norman Mailer wrote a book of the same title and helped get him out of prison, at which point Abbott promptly murdered a young man on the Lower East Side. It was perhaps the most powerful theatrical experience I ever had.
Puzo: Oh yeah, In the Belly of the Beast was an incredible production. I couldn’t have been prouder of being a part of that. We didn’t think it would go anywhere, then suddenly it went to Sydney, then it went to the main stage and then it went to New York.
I’m also really proud of is Struck Dumb with Joseph Chaikin. Joe had aphasia, but wanted to perform again after he had a stroke. He was terrified the whole time, but he wanted to do it.
I remember [the director] Robert Woodruff asked Joe, “How will you learn your lines?” And Joe said, “I can’t.” Woodruff asked, “How will you remember your blocking?” And Joe said, “I can’t.” And Woodruff laughed and said, “Well, you’ll have no trouble keeping it fresh!” And that was true; it was a life-changing performance.
Egan: Another highlight for me was watching Luis Alfaro roller skating around the stage in a black slip during a moving piece about the trials and tribulations of being gay and Latino. It was incredibly brave, imaginative and funny. I think the projects and the Taper staff truly reflected the dynamism and diversity of Los Angeles at the time.
Diversity and inclusion have been big topics of conversation lately. Could you tell me a little more about how that factored into Taper, Too’s programming?
Jung: We always looked for diversity of content and experiences and searched for unique voices that represented the American tapestry and particularly a perspective on Los Angeles.
Egan: I really think that is why huge crowds would line up in front of the theatre. They were there to see new plays that spoke to the diverse, political, complex social world in which they lived.
We premiered artists from many different communities – I first saw the work of Luis Alfaro, George Wolf, John Fleck, Tony Kushner, John Belluso, Han Ong and many more in that space.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Puzo: There was also a professional development element to the Taper, Too. As a producer, I believed that our responsibility wasn’t simply to the audience, but also to our artists and the artists in your community.
We welcomed LA theatre artists and gave them the opportunity to develop and show their work. That’s what Taper, Too was about.
Robinson: It was another theatrical world then, kinder, more generous, more appreciative to theatre artists.
Puzo: And the work these artists did at the Ford was life-affirming and life-changing. It was an incredible time where the forces of creativity aligned and some profound work came into being.
The raiders of the lost Ford (a.k.a our awesome construction crew and production staff) have unearthed some exciting artifacts that offer a look into the Ford’s storied past. Looking at the treasures that have been uncovered, we can’t help but wonder about the story behind each one. Was it a famous actor playing Jesus in the Pilgrimage Play who used that spirit gum to apply his false beard? What rock ‘n’ roller imbibed from that vintage Coors can? What ballet dancer pirouetted in that decaying slipper?
What stories emerge for you? Let your imagination go wild and share your thoughts by commenting below, Tweeting or Facebooking us!
Ever since legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky launched their landmark concert series at the Ford in 1961, the Ford Theatres has been known as the place to experience world-class performances in a serene, outdoor setting. But don’t let the classical music and the pastoral façade fool you—the Ford has hosted some of the biggest, and rowdiest, names in rock.
Back in the late ’80s, the Ford served as a launch pad for an impressive lineup of LA-based rock superstars including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who, newly reorganized, performed one of their first shows ever on our stage in October 1988.
Guitarist Dave Navarro came back the following year with Jane’s Addiction, who played a string of seven sold-out concerts at the Ford in April 1989, a series that the local band still sites as a seminal moment in their rise to rock stardom.
In fact, in 2011, lead singer Perry Farrell traded his leather corset for a suit and wingtips during two anniversary concerts commemorating the band’s original run at the Ford. Similar to the 1989 gigs, the concert included a pre-show drum circle on the Ford’s Edison Plaza. Check out this video documenting the performance here.
The late ’80s also saw a sort of punk renaissance at the Ford with bands like The Meat Puppets, X, Social Distortion and The Pogues rocking out on the Ford’s stage.
There was a minor blip in the Ford’s run as a West Coast CBGB that involved The Ramones and some cross-freeway noise. As a result, the County temporarily banned “rock ‘n’ roll concerts” at the venue.
Luckily for fans of the Ford, within just a few years, rock ‘n’ roll managed to make its way back into the theatre’s line-up, just in time for the release of Alanis Morissette’s iconic album Jagged Little Pill. LA Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn described Morissette’s 1995 sold-out shows at the Ford as “spectacular” and pronounced that: “Morissette is an artist whose time has surely come.”
Other breakout performances followed, including pop star Jewel and Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós. In July 2002, Norah Jones performed on our stage just months before collecting five Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist and Album of the Year.
Since then, the Ford has hosted countless icons of pop and rock including the Counting Crows, Emmylou Harris, Blues Traveler, Elvis Costello, Wilco, Blur, Natalie Merchant and many more.
Nestled in the Hollywood Hills, the Ford is that rare venue that combines the excitement and energy of an outdoor arena with the intimacy that comes with seeing your favorite band in a small club. Maybe it’s our size that makes the Ford the perfect bridge for up-and-coming local talent reaching for stardom. As for which new rock band on the cusp of making it big will blow audiences away on the Ford’s new stage…hard as it may be, we’ll have to wait and see.
Ann Jensen is the Ford’s Assistant Box Office Manager. While the theatre is under renovation, Ann is serving as the Ford’s archivist and historian.
While the Ford is closed for construction, Assistant Box Office Manager Ann Jensen has been cataloging and organizing historic photographs and programs. Below she reveals how she solved one of the Ford’s most perplexing mysteries…
The photo above has been hanging in the Ford Theatres offices for years, quietly perpetuating a lie. The woman in the photo is identified in the caption as “Pilgrimage Play playwright, founder and benefactress Christine Wetherill Stevenson” and is dated 1931. This woman, however, bears little resemblance to the Christine Wetherill Stevenson pictured in the photo below, taken in front of the original Pilgrimage Theater in 1920:
It’s hard to believe she could have aged so much in 10 years, not to mention the fact that Stevenson died in 1922. So, who is this emphatic-looking woman and what has she done with the real Christine Wetherill Stevenson?
I had to know, especially after I found even more images of the mystery woman, such as this one:
After eliminating the obvious suspects — for instance, the ladies armed with shovels and rakes below are some of Stevenson’s fellow members of the Theatre Arts Alliance (later the Hollywood Bowl Association) — I started some digging of my own through the LA Times archives.
After comparing photos of various mature ladies and wading through the period’s purple prose, I spotted a familiar figure in an article dated December 30, 1930.
The caption revealed that our mystery woman was the oft-widowed Clara Burdette, aka Mrs. Robert Burdette, aka Clara Bradley Wheeler Baker Burdette.
After further research I learned that Clara was the chairman of the committee to rebuild the Pilgrimage Theatre after a 1929 fire destroyed the original wooden structure. She spoke at the groundbreaking on December 14, 1930, the date the first photo above was taken. According to the LA Times, Mrs. Burdette turned a spadeful of earth and rededicated the spot to “the constructive and spiritual good of the community and to a noble expression of art, education and culture.”
Like Stevenson, Clara Burdette was unconventional and determined. A prominent Southern California suffragette, she was instrumental in the formation of the California State Federation of Women’s Clubs and a founding member of the Ebell Club of Los Angeles. Clara was also particularly good at getting things built — she served on committees or donated funds for such buildings as the Temple Auditorium, aka Philharmonic Auditorium, located at 5th and Olive Streets and demolished in 1985, and Pasadena Hospital’s maternity wing.
According to additional LA Times coverage, Clara proposed several visionary, if somewhat impractical, improvements to what is now the Ford. The theatre was to be “the only outdoor playhouse in the world” with upholstered seats, “heating facilities” to make it available year-round and a winding escalator to carry patrons up the hillside. Though none of her suggestions made it into the Ford’s current round of renovations, we are sure she would be proud to see her beloved theatre flourishing on the eve of its centennial.
There’s a kind of freedom that comes from dancing under the open sky. The movements become broader and bolder, influenced by the breath of the breeze and the calls of the birds. The jumps gain buoyancy and elevation, reaching up unconstrained towards the stars.
Indeed, it was such freedom that visionary, playwright and theosophist Christine Wetherill Stevenson explored by staging performances in outdoor settings throughout Los Angeles. It was she who purchased the land and built the original amphitheatre on which the Ford now sits. Remarkably influential in early Los Angeles, Christine was an ardent supporter of dance and rubbed elbows with the likes of Ruth St. Denis, Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham, titans of the modern dance world.
And the Ford’s love affair with dance is still going strong almost a hundred years later: in 2014, LA Weekly recognized the amphitheatre as the best LA venue for summer dance.
Christine would be proud.
Click the images below to explore the Ford’s remarkable place in modern dance history!
Prior to founding the Ford Theatres, Christine staged a production of The Light of Asia, a play recounting the life of Buddha and featuring modern dances choreographed by the legendary Ruth St. Denis, in the summer of 1918 at the Krotona Stadium in Beachwood Canyon.
Founder and dance-lover Christine Wetherill Stevenson standing by the Pilgrimage Play Theater, now known as the Ford Theatres, in 1921.
Valley Concert Dance Theatre performers enjoy a sunny Southern California day in 1979 as part of Dance Kaleidoscope, LA’s annual multi-week dance festival that ran from 1976-1985 and 1988-2001.
Pilobolus, a renowned dance group named for a fungus, performs at the Ford in 1986. Founded by Dartmouth College students in 1971, this group focuses on partnering and physical interaction among performers.
LA-based Viver Brasil brings Afro-Brazilian color and rhythms to the Ford in 2005. The company is leading multiple JAM Sessions this summer throughout LA County.
Complexions Contemporary Ballet takes the stage at the Ford in 2013 as part of the inaugural Signature Series. This world-caliber dance company performed together with LA’s own Lula Washington Dance Theatre.
Ezralow Dance transforms the Ford as part of its world premiere in 2014. This was the last show at the Ford prior to the beginning of construction.
Photos curated by Ann Jensen, Assistant Tickets Services Manager.