Anna Ruzena Sprotte

TO LAWEEKLY
FROM ALAN RICH
HOLLYWOOD BOWL FOR BEST OF L.A. 1999
HED: THE DOINGS AT DAISY DELL
          They called it Daisy Dell back then, and if anyone wanted to compile a “best of L.A.” compendium around, say, 1907, it might very well qualify as the best of all picnic spots, back when the little village of Hollywood numbered somewhere around 5000 residents. You caught the big groaning trolleycar to Highland and Hollywood. You trekked half a mile up Highland, past Camrose and into Cahuenga Pass. You turned left into the lane lined with pepper trees, and onto the slope of a bowl-shaped depression that had probably resulted a few million years ago from a cabal among the many faultlines that honeycomb the area.  You found your spot, spread your blanket, laid out the food and dug in. Follow that route today; in the Hollywood Bowl Museum, right off Peppertree Lane, you’ll see a photograph of people doing just that, back in 1907.
          The movies came, and Hollywood’s population added another zero; Daisy Dell metamorphosed into the Hollywood Bowl — a different kind of Wonderful Place (if still pretty snazzy). In 1919 a man named William Reed, who ran a demolition company nearby, had the idea that this natural dimple in the landscape was suited, in both sight and sound, for some sort of outdoor performances. He salvaged a door from the recent wreckage of a carpet-cleaning plant and plunked it down to serve as an improvised platform, just about where the present stage is located. He trundled in a grand piano, and invited Madame Anna Ruzena Sprotte, a well-known local singer, to try out the acoustics. The result was sensational; according to ecstatic local reports, the warbling of Madame Sprotte, and the softest harmonics from a violin, carried rich and clear to the far end of Daisy Dell and probably halfway up Cahuenga Pass as well.
         (You can’t, of course, take that story, the most often-retold bit of early Hollywood Bowl lore, at face value. This happened in 1919, when people also thought the tinny woof-woof and tweet-tweet from the acoustic horn on the parlor Victrola came as close to true-to-life as hi-fi could get. If the sounds in that natural proto-Bowl were all that great, you have to ask, why was it necessary later on to build a fancy stage and install today’s kazillion-dollar sound system – which on some nights can still remind you of your granny’s old wind-up?) 
          But we’re getting ahead of ourself.
           The discovery of Daisy Dell’s acoustics was like finding the gold at Sutter’s Mill; everybody wanted a piece of the action. Having put on a mammoth outdoor production of Shakespeare’s <I>Julius Caesar<D> in Beachwood Canyon, a group of actors, musicians and businessfolk had formed the Theater Arts Alliance, and saw the Dell as the ideal spot for a performing-arts center.  On a Sunday in 1921 the Los Angeles Philharmonic – two years old then, and flourishing – and the mighty chorus of the Hollywood Community Sing began the tradition of Easter Sunrise Concerts; the Community Sing’s conductor, Hugo Kirchoffer, is generally credited with coining the name of Hollywood Bowl. One of the Alliance’s major players — Christine Stevenson, one of the nut-case Utopians who had begun streaming into Hollywood on the heels of the moviemakers, and who had actually invested in Bowl property – envisioned an ongoing program of pageants illustrating the world’s great religions, and presented the group with a million-dollar architect’s plan which the group rejected forthwith. Thoroughly miffed, Mrs. Stevenson took her money out of the Bowl, bought the property across the street and built the Pilgrimage Theater (now the John Anson Ford), where religious plays were presented sporadically until 1964.
          Downtown, the Philharmonic had outlived its early naysayers and was going strong. Founder William Andrews Clark saw the new outdoor venue as a way to get his orchestra more performing dates, and an alliance was formed. On the open platform that served as Hollywood Bowl’s first concert stage, the San Francisco Symphony’s bearded, benevolent Alfred Hertz raised his baton on July 11, 1922, and the trumpet call that ushered in Wagner’s <I>Rienzi<D> Overture also ushered in the uninterrupted sequence of “Symphonies Under the Stars” whose 78th season ended earlier this month. Tickets went for 25 cents. The audience sat on rough benches. In the next few years these benches would rot and sag, and ticket prices would soar to 50 cents. 
        Still, on the Bowl’s best nights, there could be 20,000 music-lovers in those rickety seats, and the crowd got its money’s worth and then some – not just the familiar masterworks, but adventurous repertory as well. Hertz himself conducted nearly 100 concerts in the first few years. The young Fritz Reiner conducted Stravinsky; England’s Sir Henry Wood and Eugene Goossens introduced other contemporary works. Aaron Copland, whose jazzy Piano Concerto had already kicked up one <I>scandale<D> in Boston, faced down a musicians’ revolt here too, when he played the work at the Bowl in the summer of 1928. 
          Not only the benches were rickety, of course; the great miracle of Hollywood Bowl’s first decade was, in fact, the very fact of its survival. The unconventional heiress Aline Barnsdall, who owned the Frank Lloyd Wright house in the park that now bears her name, helped fund the 1923 season and retired the debt on the property. A firebrand by the name of Artie Mason Carter, with no particular fortune of her own, badgered Hollywood’s new money – notably Mr. and Mrs. Cecil B. DeMille – into getting this precious cultural resource into something like stability. There was a big plastic bowl set up at the top of Peppertree Lane, to collect the pennies and dollars of the crowds for whom the Bowl and its offerings had become one of life’s essentials. On the last night of the Bowl’s first season, Mrs. Carter went on stage to burn the mortgage. 
          As financial stability came on, so did physical stability. Eventually the rickety benches were replaced by more solid construction; the hillside was landscaped into its present balloon configuration, and the heavy spenders got to sit in boxes just like at the Metropolitan Opera. The Bowl got its first real stage shell in 1926, an elaborate wood-and-canvas affair covered with exotic paintings but sporting lousy acoustics. The young architect Lloyd Wright, who had worked with his father Frank on the Barnsdall house, now came on the scene.  His first set, in 1927, was a tall pyramid, part of it cannibalized from the scenery he had recently  built for the Warner Bros. epic <I>Robin Hood.<D> Almost everybody loved it, but the weather gods did not. Wright’s 1928 set, a sleek, curvilinear Deco fantasy, fared less well with the patrons, and even worse with winter storms. The time had come for a permanent structure; this, created by the local firm of Allied Architects, preserved the sweeping curves of Lloyd Wright’s design – as does the Bowl’s perennial logo — but in a more lasting material.  Wright’s second design had cost $8,000; the new one cost four times as much, but has lasted  — plus or minus such adornments as Frank Gehry’s line of organ-pipe-like tubes or the present “Starship Enterprise” set of acoustic reflectors – seven decades.  My take on Hollywood Bowl’s  first decade is tinged with amazement. Think of a city with no real cultural roots, its population growing beyond any rational means of containment, with a brand-new symphony, no opera to speak of, a few struggling theaters and a lot of nut-case activity clustered around a growth industry itself anchored in unreality. Find a hillside with remarkable acoustics, handily accessible to traffic patterns, and set up a strong but irrationally ambitious program of hard-core symphony concerts (plus a few nights of opera staged or otherwise). Exhilarate the crowd with Tchaikovsky and Strauss waltzes; puzzle them with Stravinsky. It’s a lucky happenstance, of course, that Los Angeles has the right weather for outdoor  summertime; in my 20 years here one concert has been rained out, and there was another at which management gave out free plastic ponchos. You can’t do that in New York or London. 
           The Bowl had its share of nut-case events in its early years – and, perhaps, a few later as well. I’d have given anything to have been there on the night of Percy Grainger’s wedding on the stage, on August 9, 1928, to a Swedish poet Ella Viola Ström. One of the world’s great eccentrics in mind and deed, Grainger conducted the concert, and created a “bridal song” called <I>To a Nordic Princess.<D> Then they went hiking, in Glacier Park. Ten years later there was a complete <I>Die Walküre,<D> with Wagner’s mounted Valkyries galloping down Cahuenga Pass while hurling out their “Ho-yo-to-ho”s; alas, I missed that one too. 
          I didn’t mean this as a history lesson, exactly. You can get that at the exceptionally well-arranged show at the Bowl Museum, which is open year-round. The pictures are enchanting enough, and there’s music to sample on speakers and earphones. You can hear a vast aural panorama of Bowl events, including commercial recordings by one or another “Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.” On one, a 1926 performance of Dvorak’s <I>Carneval<D> Overture led by Eugene Goossens, reportedly the first-ever outdoor recording ever made of a symphony orchestra, you can hear an airplane flying overhead during the quiet, slow section. Déjà vu, at the Hollywood Bowl, can mean plus ça change.