L.A. History of Open-Air Theaters

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Written by Julio Martinez

Photo credit: Music Center Archives/Otto Rothschild Collection


John Steven McGroarty (1862-1944), born and educated in Pennsylvania, moved to Los Angeles in 1901, having already established himself as a lawyer, a city administrator and a corporate executive with a mining company. So naturally, upon settling in LA, he took up poetry, playwriting and journalism, becoming a columnist with the LA Times. In 1909, McGroarty edited the LA Times centenary edition. His growing interest in local history led him to script The Mission Play (1911), a three-hour pageant on the history of the California Missions, chronicling their founding in 1769 through secularization in 1834, ending with their “final ruin” in 1847. Beginning in 1912, the play was presented in the township of San Gabriel’s Plaza Park, adjacent to its historic mission, attracting audiences from around the world.  During the ensuing years, McGroarty expanded the work to four ½ hours, with a cast of 150, gathering audiences of over a thousand, far beyond the effective capacity of Plaza Park. The play eventually moved indoors to newly constructed Mission Playhouse. McGroarty went on to become a two-term Congressman and was deemed Poet Laureate of California. 

The Mission Play (1912)

As the City of the Angels expanded into the 20th century, the desire to experience art and culture grew expedientially. By the year 1916, the population of LA had grown to 852,459.  Despite being dwarfed by New York City’s 5,595,802, Angelenos considered their town to be a metropolis. A steady infusion of top-level international artists and touring companies had the upwardly mobile local citizenry wanting to create a center for the arts that would eclipse transcend the efforts of their snobbish neighbors to the north in San Francisco. The artsy folks living around the Beachwood Canyon area in the Hollywood Hills decided to make a real statement. After five months of preparation and rehearsals, Beachwood Canyon hosted an epic staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for one night only on May 21. 


Beachwood, a natural amphitheater where every sound is amplified, was the ideal location. The bowl shape of the future Beachwood Village provided the perfect contours of a theater. Conceived as a tercentennial commemoration of the Bard’s death, the production involved 5,000 players, including the student bodies of Hollywood and Fairfax High Schools. It featured Tyrone Power Sr. as Marcus Brutus and Douglas Fairbanks as Young Cato. Other notables in the cast were William Farnum (Cassius), DeWolf Hopper (Casca) and silent film ingénue Mae Murray, who gave her all as a barbaric dancer. The Battle of Philippi was re-created by sword-wielding actors who fought their way up Beachwood Drive onto a vast stage constructed on the future site of Beachwood Village. 


The burgeoning Hollywood film industry lent its support. The lavish sets came courtesy of D.W. Griffith, Jesse Lasky, Thomas Ince, Mack Sennett and Universal Film Corporation. Easily accessible via the Franklin Avenue Streetcar, the play attracted an audience of 40,000 and was a huge success, with $2,500 profit from ticket sales donated to Actor’s Equity. The success of the 1916 Julius Caesar led directly to the Theosophical Society’s 1918 production of The Light of Asia, a pageant based on Edwin Arnold’s epic poem on the life of Buddha, which was also a hit. The Theosophist folks renamed themselves The Theatre Arts Alliance and started searching for a location to stage large outdoor theatrical pageants. They come upon an acoustically perfect natural glen in an area along Highland Avenue known as Daisy Dell. At a cost of $47,500, The Alliance bought fifty-nine acres of what would become the site of Hollywood Bowl in 1919.

The setting for “Juius Caesar” in Beechwood Canyon (1916)

One year later, in 1920, local heiress, Christine Wetherill Stevenson, began searching for land, in order to build a theater specifically for religious pageants. She heard of an acoustically ideal area located directly across the Cahuenga Pass from newly constructed Hollywood Bowl. The legendary John Barrymore anecdote concerning this area was in fact relaid to writer while interviewing character actor King Donovan (husband of actress Imogine Coca). As a 20-year-old aspiring actor, Donovan had been regailed by “the Great Profile” on the wonders and dangers of Hollywood. In 1912, Barrymore was enduring a summer repertory tour that included Rochester, Manhattan and Los Angeles. While in L.A, the 30-year-old actor was motoring about town when his Packard broke down in the wilds of the Cahuenga Pass. His two companions decided to hike the few miles back to town, but Barrymore insisted on staying with the motorcar.  When his fellow motorists returned a few hours later with help, they couldn’t see their friend but they could certainly hear him bellowing a Hamlet soliloquy from nearly a quarter mile into a canyon. Following his voice, they found the actor projecting from an outcropping of a large boulder. “What phenomenal acoustics,” he declared. “They should build a theater here.” In 1920, that is exactly what Christine Wetherill Stevenson did. She purchased 29 acres of land across the street from the Hollywood Bowl and built the Pilgrimage Theater.  


After journeying to the Holy land to obtain authentic fabric, utensils and props, Stevenson scripted The Pilgrimage Play, based entirely on her adaptation of the four Gospels according to the King James version of the Bible. The first performance was held on June 27, 1920, with noted actor Henry Herbert portraying Jesus. Performances were given every summer in the original structure until it was destroyed by fire on October 24, 1924. A new theater, with seating capacity of 1,312, was built of concrete, replicating ancient Judean architecture, and the play reopened in 1931, continuing until 1940. On October 17, 1941, the Pilgrimage Play Association deeded the property to the County of Los Angeles, and the performances resumed after World War II. But in 1964, a lawsuit brought against the County for using a County facility exclusively for religious performances put an end to Stevenson’s desire to put the Bible on stage. In 1976 the theatre was renamed for former County supervisor, John Anson Ford, and is currently operated by the LA County Arts Commission. 


The third large-area open theater built in the Hollywood Hills was the Griffith Park-based Greek Theatre. It was constructed in 1929, but its inspiration dated back to 1882. That’s when Griffith J. Griffith, a former penniless immigrant from South Wales who made his fortune in gold mining speculation, settled in Los Angeles. Purchasing Los Feliz Rancho, four thousand acres of fine land northeast of the city, Griffith settled into the life of a farmer and family man, growing ever fonder of his adopted town and wishing to be a contributor to its recreational and cultural life. During Christmas week of 1896, Griffith made a present to the city — three thousand acres of his Los Feliz Rancho to be used as a park on the condition that it be kept in its natural state, remaining “a place of recreation and rest for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people.” Griffith Park was an immediate success with the town’s citizenry. When Griffith died in 1919, it was discovered his will contained instructions to set up a trust fund of $1,000,000 for the construction of an observatory and a Greek-inspired ampthitheater where residents of the city could come for the best entertainment in the world. 

Universal Amphitheatre (1972)

The cornerstone was laid in late 1928, and the 4000-seat structure was officially dedicated on Sept 25, 1930. Five evenings of opera made up the first season at the Greek. Used for a variety of purposes dring thr 1930s, it served  as a military barracks during World War II. The first use of the Greek as a legit house occurred when a San Francisco entrepreneur produced two-week runs of Show Boat and Anything Goes during the summer of 1948. In 1951, under the management of Gene Mann, a full summer tuner season was presented, including Finian’s Rainbow (Ella Logan and David Wayne), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Gertrude Niesen), Miss Liberty (Kenny Baker), The Desert Song (Brian Sullivan, Helen Bliss, Sterling Holloway) and Rio Rita (John Raitt, Pinky Lee). A 1955 highlight was the Broadway hit, 3 For Tonight, starring Harry Belafonte and the dance team, Marge and Gower Champion.  During this time, lease of the Greek was turned over to James Doolittle, who modernized the structure and expanded its booking philosophy. In 1975, Greek Theatre management segued to the Nederlander family, who further upgraded and modernized the facility, enlarging the seating capacity to its current 6,162. 


Of the three Hollywood open-air facilities, the Hollywood Bowl made the greatest impact as a legitimate theater facility. In August 1934 the great Austrian director Max Reinhardt (who founded the Austrian Salzburg Festival in 1920) staged his epic adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Hollywood Bowl. It featured 13-year old Mickey Rooney as Puck and the stage debut of 18-year-old Olivia de Haviland as Hermia. Interviewed for Drama Logue Magazine in 1987 during his tour of A Funny Happened On the Way to the Forum, Rooney recalled, “Max’s stage version at the Bowl was sheer magic, but the film version (which also featured Rooney and the film debut of de Haviland) that Warner Brothers put out a year later was a piece of crap. Warner replaced Max’s experienced stage actors with studio contract players who didn’t know The Bard from a turd.” Reinhardt’s big dream was to establish an annual Salzburg-style festival at Hollywood Bowl, beginning with Maurice Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird in 1939. Plans were under way but WWII put the Bowl’s theatrical ambitions on hold.  

Effort to establish live outdoor theater venues continued through the 20th century. In 1971, under the leadership of CEO Lew Wasserman, Universal Studios built an open-air amphitheater to rival nearby Hollywood Bowl.  Its 6,189 seats rendered it the third largest mid-sized venue in California. In the summer of 1972, Universal Amphitheater opened with a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Presenting a mix of concerts and live stage shows, the Amphitheater’s theatrical highlight was the July 1994 LA premiere of Des McAnuff’s staging of The Who’s Tommy. But in 2011, the Amphitheater closed and was torn down to make way for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park.

13-year-old Mickey Rooney as Puck in Max Reinhardt’s “A Misummer Night Deeam at The Hollywood Bowl (1934)

The prospect of live theater open air in Los Angeles was enhanced by the great success of the New York Shakespeare Festival, led by Joseph Papp. In 1973, the Free Public Theatre Foundation (FPTF) and its performing arm, Los Angeles Shakespeare Festival, were launched, under the leadership of Peg Yorkin (then wife of TV producer Bud Yorkin). With the blessings of LA City and County administrators, the company immediately mounted an ambitious As You Like It at the Pilgrimage Theatre (now the John Anson Ford) and touring productions of Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors, which offered free performances in parks throughout the LA area.  It is estimated over 22,000 people were treated to the Bard during that first season. Despite high operating costs and no paying audience, FPTP still managed to pay Equity salaries.  


The flow of Shakespeare continued for seven seasons, mounting well-attended stagings of Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Othello (starring Raymond St. Jacques) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (featuring Susan Tyrrell and Cleavon Little).  Other notable FPTP thesps included Amy Irving, Mare Winningham and Roger Kern. But the Shakespearean times were “a changin.”  In 1980, LA Shakespeare Festival became the Free Public Theatre in 1981, the word “free” was no longer in the title and the Public Theatre moved indoors. 

In 1979, the Orange Country bedroom community of Garden Grove took up the Shakespearean call when producing director Thomas F. Bradac petitioned for an actual summer Shakespeare season in a neighboring amphitheatre that had already been planned for construction.  Despite grumblings from members of both the mayor’s office and city council that Garden Grove residents didn’t want Shakespeare in their community, there was enough official support in 1980 to establish the Grove Shakespeare Festival.  Scheduled to make its debut in a brand new 540-seat amphitheatre, the season promised Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing, starring South Coast Rep regulars Ron Boussom and Annie Long portraying Petruchio/Kate in the first play and Benedick/Beatrice in the latter. But an injury to Boussom and construction problems with the theater delayed the Festival until to July 1981.  Co-produced by Santa Ana’s Rancho Santiago College, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, followed by As You like It, were both helmed by new artistic director John Allison, with Bradac serving as producing director.

Stephen Sachs, Michele Casey, David Chemel in The Grove’s 1981 “A Midsummer Night’s Dream"

By 1982, Allison was gone and Bradac, elevated to producing artistic director, offered a four-play season that placated the non-Bard citizenry with such tuners as Oliver and Side By Side By Sondheim preceding Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet. Over ten more seasons, Bradac produced and/or directed 110 productions, garnering critical accolades but a decided cold shoulder from city administrators who still claimed Shakespeare had no place in Garden Grove. In 1988, the mayor and a majority of the city council voted to rescind the subsidy Garden Grove Shakespeare Festival needed to survive. During the voting, one councilman actually proclaimed, “This is a blue-collar, hard-hat community is incapable of enjoying anything more sophisticated than the (Texas) Chain Saw Massacre.”  But Bradac managed to push on until he was finally ousted in June 1991.  Acclaimed LA helmer Jules Aaron filled in as Grove director until he was replaced by off-Broadway vet, W. Stuart McDowell. Meanwhile, Bradac formed a professional theater troupe, Shakespeare/Orange County, to operate at Chapman University. By 1994, Grove Shakespeare Festival was no longer viable. Today, Garden Grove’s Festival Amphitheatre is occupied every summer by the Thomas F. Bradac-founded Shakespeare/Orange County. It is thriving and attendance is just fine. 

Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.