The Ford Theatre’s Major Makeover

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Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Ford Theatres in 2014. Photo by Gennia Cui.

At nearly a century old, the historic John Anson Ford Theatre was in desperate need of repair. After being closed for nearly two years for renovations, the theater will reopen on Friday, July 8 with a new stage, lighting, sound insulation, catering and other amenities.

At nearly a century old, the historic John Anson Ford Theatre was in desperate need of repair. The iconic venue sits in the hills of the Cahuenga Pass, across the 101 freeway from the Hollywood Bowl.

After being closed for nearly two years for renovations, the theater will reopen on Friday, July 8, with a captivating set of Japanese drumming from TAIKOPROJECT and son jarocho music from Chicano rock band Quetzal.

Architect Brenda Levin, known for upgrading LA City Hall, Dodger Stadium, Griffith Observatory, Wilshire Boulevard Temple and other local landmarks, has overseen the transformation of the theater, with a new stage, lighting, sound insulation, catering and other amenities.

“The John Anson Ford Amphitheater, in many ways, was potentially underutilized and under-appreciated as a state-of-the-art performing arts venue. And I think it will be neither anymore,” Levin said.

Because it’s set into the side of a canyon, rainwater flows down the hillside and through the theater, so it needed a new drainage system. In the past, the theater used sandbags. The site walls were replaced with concrete retaining walls clad in stone.

The hillsides were redesigned by Mia Lehrer + Associates, the design team behind Vista Hermosa Park. Lehrer was recently awarded the commission to design First and Broadway Park in LA’s Civic Center.

Performers have a new stage on which to dazzle audiences. The old one was off-center and off-axis, and made of poured-in-place concrete, which was hard on dancers’ feet. The stage is still two levels, but has been replaced with a Brazilian Walnut hardwood floor.

They’ve also created dressing rooms, showers and a green room for performers, carved out beneath the amphitheater seating. There’s also added a loading dock with direct access to the stage.

The Ford’s 87-seat indoor theater, called “Inside the Ford,” has been replaced with an indoor grab-and-go food market. But a 240-250 seat enclosed theater will be built into an elevated plaza on the south side above the parking structure, allowing the Ford to operate during the amphitheater’s off-season.

Because sound bled in from the freeway and concerts at the Bowl, they’ve added acoustic paneling and a 40-foot high sound wall on top of the existing concrete wall. It has reflective material on the outside to keep away noise and absorptive material on the inside to improve sound inside the theater.

“In some ways it’s going to almost be more effective in this sense of enclosure within the canyon with this addition of the sound wall,” Levin said, “because it completes the last remaining facade of the amphitheater, with a more effective response than what was there before, which was just some plywood walls.”

About $66 million has been spent on these upgrades. The funding came from L.A. County capital projects funds and the support of private donors.

The programming reflects the cultural mosaic of Los Angeles. The Ford partners with local arts organizations to celebrate LA-based artists, such as Aloe Blacc and Quetzal. The summer season officially runs through Oct. 15, and will also feature Broadway productions, flamenco, and music and dance from Mexico, the Philippines, India and Africa.

The renovations are not complete. There’s a picnic terrace and concession stand that are expected to be completed in September. There’ll be a full kitchen for the first time. Crumble Catering will develop a menu that is expected to include full dinners.

The theater is located in a 32-acre park, and most of it is wild. Another aspect of the master plan is to create a public hiking trail, with views of the Hollywood Sign and Griffith Park.

Another improvement to come will feature a transit plaza for vans and shuttles to drop off visitors. And the stacked parking system will be replaced with an above-ground parking garage to reduce the traffic jams before and after every performance.

The Ford is the smallest of the city’s outdoor amphitheaters, with 1,200 seats. The Greek has five times as many, and the Bowl has more than 10 times as many seats. And the Ford feels different to sit inside. Rather than sitting on a hillside looking down at the stage like at the Bowl, audiences at the Ford look at a stage framed by the canyon on three sides, with a tree-covered hillside behind it.

“The Ford is kind of the flip of the Hollywood Bowl, its neighbor right across the freeway,” said Laura Zucker, executive director at the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, which oversees the venue. “At the Hollywood Bowl you sit nestled in a wonderful hillside and you look at this terrific man-made shell designed by Frank Gehry. And at the Ford it’s just the reverse. You sit in a man-made amphitheater and you look at a wonderful natural backdrop.”

Another thing that stands out about the Ford is the unique architecture, which has been referred to as neo-Judaic. The outdoor theater first opened in 1920 as a home for the New Testament-themed “The Pilgrimage Play,” and was designed to resemble the gates of ancient Jerusalem.

The play was written by Christine Wetherill Stevenson, who helped secure the land and build the original theater. The play about the life of Jesus ran there for more than four decades, and the venue was known as the Pilgrimage Theatre.

The original wooden theater burned down in a fire in 1929 and was rebuilt in 1931. The towers remain but the paint has been stripped off, so audiences can now see the concrete.

In 1976, it was renamed in honor of John Anson Ford, the Third District county supervisor who was a strong supporter of the arts in LA, helping to create the Arts Commission and the Music Center.

Sheila Keuhl currently fills that seat, but before her was Zev Yaroslavsky, the main impetus behind the current renovations.

“We were at a crossroads with the Ford. Either we were going to fix it, or it was going to become literally a historical monument. One where people would be able to come there, look at it and say, ‘there used to be a time when artistic performances were done here, but no more,’” Yaroslavsky said.

“What we’ll have now is a theater that’s going to last a hundred years, and continue to be a major star in the constellation of arts and culture in Los Angeles.”