The Ford Theatres in the evening.

photo by: John Anson Ford Theatres

January 24, 2018

Pride of Los Angeles: The Newly Renovated John Anson Ford Theatres

  • By: Nicholas Som

In the shadow of Los Angeles’ legendary Hollywood Sign, amongst the trees and sun-bleached rocks of the Cahuenga Pass, you’ll find the John Anson Ford Theatres. One of the city’s oldest performing arts venues, the 1,200-seat outdoor amphitheater has entertained audience members for decades, with groups as storied as the Ramones and the Red Hot Chili Peppers among its past guests.

It’s difficult to imagine that the newly-renovated Ford, which today features a broad array of artists from diverse backgrounds, was originally constructed solely for one production. But at the time of its genesis in 1931 as the Pilgrimage Theatre, that was exactly the case.

Christine Wetherill Stevenson, heiress to the Pittsburgh Paint Company fortune, had written a Pilgrimage Play that interpreted the life of Jesus Christ as depicted in the Bible’s Gospels. Stevenson hoped to stage her play at the future site of the Hollywood Bowl, which would officially open in 1922, but the Pilgrimage Play failed to make the cut. Her response? To purchase 28 acres of land right across the street and build a stage of her own.

This first incarnation of the Pilgrimage Theatre was a rudimentary wooden structure, but with the Arroyo Canyon serving as a dramatic natural backdrop, Stevenson knew she had chosen the perfect location. The first performance of the Pilgrimage Play took place on June 27, 1920, and the play soon became a summer tradition. A 1929 brush fire put that tradition in serious jeopardy, turning the stage to ash. Fortunately, thanks to significant public support, the property’s owners seized the opportunity to build a more majestic amphitheater, especially in the wake of Stevenson’s premature death in 1922.

The stage of the Ford Theatres in 1947.

photo by: John Anson Ford Theatres

The stage of the John Anson Ford Theatres in 1947.

The new and improved Pilgrimage Theatre wrapped up construction in 1931. Designed by William Lee Woollett, the theatre was built out of board-formed concrete in the neo-Judaic style, evoking the ancient gates of Jerusalem. Its distinctive stage had two levels, with the back half slightly elevated above the front. Yet despite its eclectic, grandiose features, maintaining a sense of closeness with the audience remained a priority.

“It feels like a much more intimate venue than its 1,200 seats [would indicate],” says Heather Rigby, managing director of the Ford. “The furthest seat from the front of the stage is less than 100 feet away.”

The county of Los Angeles acquired the deed to the theatre in 1941, and the Pilgrimage Play continued to be performed every year until a 1964 lawsuit brought it to its end; such an overtly religious production was deemed unfit for a county stage. Just like that, the Pilgrimage Theatre had lost its namesake. It was renamed the John Anson Ford Theatre in 1976, after a former Los Angeles County supervisor who spearheaded several campaigns in support of the arts (such as the restoration of the Hollywood Bowl and the construction of the Music Center downtown), and opened their lineup to new acts.

Hosting performances of everything from Shakespeare and chamber music to punk rock and jazz, the Ford reinvented itself as a venue for all of Los Angeles over the following decades. Today, series of performances like “IGNITE @ the Ford!” showcase artists from around the globe, introducing area natives to a wide range of cultures. Then there’s the Artists Partnership Program, which allows up-and-coming performers to bring their acts in front of larger audiences, providing technical assistance along the way.

“We’ve had a lot of artists who started with us, producing on a small scale, who learned what it takes to present themselves in a much larger venue, and that translated to understanding what was needed to tour and land bookings,” says Rigby. “I think being able to provide that level of technical capability and showcasing their work in the best possible terms is really wonderful, something we’re really excited to do at Ford.”
The view from the stage of the Ford Theatres.

photo by: Tom Bonner

The Ford's deteriorating concrete stage was replaced with wood.

But before the Ford could take that step forward, it needed to be stabilized and upgraded, having been left largely untouched since 1931. That was the goal of the Ford’s recent renovation project, which began in earnest in September 2014.

The theatre had long fell victim to water intrusion issues; its location inside a canyon meant sandbagging its main hallways and dressing rooms in the winter to forestall runoff. The sound from the Hollywood Bowl across the street had also become an issue. As Rigby recalls, “If there was a show going on across the street with a loud audience, you’d hear the audience yelling intermittently, and that was kind of disturbing.”

Architect Brenda Levin addressed these issues in her design for the Ford’s renovation. Compatible stone-clad retaining walls were installed behind the stage and a new drainage system was constructed underneath, keeping the rainwater at bay. And a proper sound wall was behind the audience, helping external noise stay that way.

Of course, drainage improvements and a sound wall constituted only a small portion of the project’s $72.2 million price tag. The Ford received fully-modernized sound and lighting equipment, a reconstructed stage that retained its trademark two-level design, a new picnic and performance terrace, and a restoration of the structure to its original unpainted concrete.

The Ford reopened its doors from July to October 2017 for a partial season of shows, with work still ongoing. But now, the Ford Theatres is fully equipped to serve Los Angeles’ residents better than ever. Its first full season of shows since the renovation will launch in May 2018.

The next step? Mastering the new technology and continuing to cultivate a diverse lineup of productions. Says Rigby: “There are a lot of groups we haven’t worked with yet that we want to develop ongoing relationships with. That’s going to be our big focus going forward.”

Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

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