From the back benches of the Hollywood Bowl, with the sounds of the Los Angeles Philharmonic floating through the warm air of a summer evening, it might seem hard to believe that this L.A. landmark is anything but a masterpiece of engineering. And to be sure, the venue's iconic band shell, speakers, and other improvements do aid the listener. But at its heart, the Hollywood Bowl still relies on the natural acoustics of the bowl-shaped valley in which it sits, an amphitheater of rock and dirt formed by an accident of tectonic uplift.
Originally known as Daisy Dell or Bolton Canyon, the enclosed valley near the Cahuenga Pass was best known as a picnic spot until 1919, when the newly-formed Theatre Arts Alliance dispatched two of its members, H. Ellis Reed and his father William, to the Hollywood Hills to find a suitable location for outdoor productions. After a long search, the Reeds stepped into Daisy Dell and discovered its natural acoustics.
"I scaled a barbed wire fence, went up to the brow of a hill," the younger Reed wrote. "Dad stood near a live oak in the center of the bowl-shaped area and we carried on a conversation. We rushed back to the Alliance with a glowing report."
Above: The Hollywood Bowl as the Reeds saw it in 1920, when it was known variously as Daisy Dell or Bolton Canyon. [USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection]
The Alliance soon purchased the 59-acre site for $47,500 and in 1920 staged concerts, graduation ceremonies, and other community events in Daisy Dell. But it was the following year that the amphitheater's best-known association began. On March 27, 1921, the outdoor venue hosted its first Los Angeles Philharmonic performance, an Easter sunrise service attended by more than 800 concertgoers. The following year, the Philharmonic played its first official summer season there. The newly renamed Hollywood Bowl has been known as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's summer home ever since.
The first concertgoers stretched out blankets over the Bowl's wild grass or sat on temporary benches as bands and orchestras performed on a simple wooden stage. As the venue grew in popularity, the Bowl installed permanent seating and in 1926, 1927, and 1928 installed a series of band shells that provided a visual backdrop and enhanced the amphitheater's natural acoustics. The 1928 shell, designed by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright), introduced the now-familiar concept of concentric arches but lasted only one season.
Finally, in 1929, the Bowl received a permanent shell, inspired by Wright's design but featuring circular rather than elliptical arches. It became instantly recognizable worldwide and, with only a few modifications by architect Frank Gehry in the 1970s and 1980s, remained in use through 2003. The current iteration—introduced in 2004—is an update of the 1929 shell, enlarged to accommodate a full symphony orchestra.
Above: The first known performance in Daisy Dell took placein 1920. Pictured here are Gertrude Ross and Anna Ruzena Sprotte on a simple stage in the bowl-shaped canyon. [USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection]
Above: In 1922, the year of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's first season at the Bowl, the venue consisted of moveable wooden benches and a temporary stage. [Loyola Marymount University Library]
Above: Another Easter sunrise service in the early 1920s. [USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection]
Above: In 1926, the Bowl's seating area was regraded and the first of the permanent band shells was installed. [USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection]
Above: In 1927, the Hollywood Bowl debuted a pyramidal band shell designed by Lloyd Wright. [Loyola Marymount University Library]
Above: In 1928, a new band shell designed by Wright featured concentric elliptical arches. It suffered weather damage that following winter and was discarded. [Hollywood Bowl Museum]
Above: This iconic 1929 band shell remained in use until 2004. It was designed by the engineering firm of Elliott, Bowen and Walz and was constructed by Allied Architects.[Pomona Public Library]
Top image: An early Easter sunrise service at the Hollywood Bowl—possibly the first service in 1921. [Loyola Marymount University Library]
Southland is made possible by a partnership between Gizmodo, the USC Libraries, and the member collections of L.A. as Subject. Written by Nathan Masters, the series explores the urban past of Los Angeles, including the lost landscapes and forgotten infrastructures that continue to influence the city we know today. This post previously appeared on KCET.org as "From Daisy Dell to the Hollywood Bowl, a Little Musical History for Summer."