The John Anson Ford Amphitheatre celebrated its reopening with a civic dedication ceremony on July 14. On hand to cut the official ribbon were LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and former County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. The all-female mariachi band Las Colibri greeted guests at the welcoming festivities, which marked the culmination of more than three years of construction. Dancers and musicians from the international theatre troupe Viver Brasil led the parade of attendees into the unveiling of the renovated theatre, and later returned to the newly reconstructed stage to present the ribbon with an accompanying performance.
Founded in 1920 by Christine Wetherill Stevenson, a playwright, heiress, and establishing patron of the nearby Hollywood Bowl, the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre initially served as a quasi-religious venue for Stevenson’s own Christian-themed plays. The Pilgrimage Theatre, as the site was known until 1976, was first rebuilt in 1931 after a fire destroyed the original structure. In 1941, the theatre became county property, and was later renamed the John Anson Ford theatre in honor of a former County Supervisor who championed public support of the arts (and not, as some cinephiles may believe, the legendary American film director). Relics of the religious background can still be seen in the iconic cross on the hillside and the Pilgrimage Bridge that cuts across the 101 Freeway to connect the two Cahuengas. The renovations by LA architect Brenda Levin and her firm have also preserved some of this non-secular history in details such as the cathedral doors and stone crucifixes at the wings of the theatre.
Levin, who was also among the speakers at the ceremony, commented on the unique challenges the site presented. In addition to the normal complexity in “deconstructing and reconstructing” a historical edifice, Levin noted that the project required the combined efforts of landscapers, engineers, and builders to “augment the extraordinary canyon setting” and “find inventive approaches to waterproofing” the site (which suffered flood damage a few years ago). The crowning achievement of this process is the sound wall at the rear of the theatre, which prevents noise interference from the freeway and Hollywood Bowl while also complementing the natural setting with a muted green and blue palette and wood battens.
The upgrades to the infrastructure even begin with such basics as functional hot and cold running water. As Yaroslavsky, who began the project at the end of his four-decade tenure career in local government, quipped in his remarks, “No single venue needed more bringing into the 21st century.” The “Zev”, a new terrace named for Yaroslavsky, also includes a dining patio and cafe from Crumble Catering. On the more technical side, the Ford now features 522 theatrical lighting fixtures, as well as a state of the art AV system and film projector for potential screenings and premieres.
Moving forward, the Ford Theatres will present an eclectic slate of performances to mark the reopening. Inaugurating the new stage will be the iconic tap dancer Savion Glover, followed by the irreverent LA-based Chicano/Latino theatre trio Culture Clash. Much of the programming focuses on diverse and international artists like Viver Brasil, the Senegalese vocalist Yousso N’Dour, and the Afro-Cuban ensemble Sintesis, all of which highlight the unique cultural makeup of LA. Yet the lineup also includes more experimental performances such as the collaboration between electronic musician Tim Hecker and the dance company of Jacob Jonas and the astronomy-themed In the Cosmos, which features award-winning actors JK Simmons and Sterling K. Brown.
Adam Dunlop-Farkas is a freelance journalist and screenwriter who lives and works in Los Angeles. All Photos by Corinne Stikeman.