November 15, 2021

Photo Essay: The Greek Theatre, Upon Griffith Park's 125th Anniversary

Colonel Griffith J. Griffith donated the 3000-acre parcel of land that's today known as Griffith Park to the City of Los Angeles back in 1896—125 years ago. But in 1919, he also carved out some money for two specific construction projects inside the park boundary: Griffith Observatory and a Greek-style outdoor amphitheater. 
The aptly named Greek Theatre opened in this natural canyon area of Griffith Park off Vermont Avenue (reportedly chosen because of its excellent acoustics) with its first concert in 1931. But it took a little longer to become the popular outdoor concert venue it is today. 
As it did with many LA area buildings, the military took it over during World War II. 

It wasn't until the late 1940s and 1950s—when outside promoters began to bring touring acts to perform there—that it began to hit its stride. Its longest operator was the Nederlander Organization, which managed and booked the venue for 40 years until 2015. (The City of LA has now taken over that responsibility.)

Over the course of the last 90 years, some structural and cosmetic changes have been made—including paving over the street that passed right in front of the Greek's front entrance and styling it with a Greek "key" pattern. 
The original front doors are no longer used. And the tiny box office windows have been replaced by a separate box office outbuilding. 

The stage used to be entirely open-air, but a roof was added to protect the performers and crew members from the elements (most likely, the late-day sun, since it rarely rains in Los Angeles).
The stadium-style seats have been swapped out a few times—and by the looks of them, the current set (which dates back to the 1980s) might be ready to retire soon, too. 

Among the original elements of the Greek Theatre are the light towers that rise up from the back of the seating section. 

Many of the old-growth trees in the back have been removed—maybe because they were unhealthy or even dead (one fell and crushed multiple cars and sent a woman to the hospital earlier this month). 

Or maybe it was because of the safety concerns over the so-called "tree people" (as name-checked by Neil Diamond during his Hot August Night double live album, recorded at The Greek)—the folks who famously didn't buy tickets to the shows but would climb the trees at the top of the canyon bowl so they could watch and hear. 

On that same live album, Neil Diamond calls The Greek Theatre "the place that God made for performers when they die." He adds, "It's performers' paradise."

The orchestra pit has been filled in, and the seating capacity has expanded and contracted over time, but the Greek Theatre still draws the crème de la crème of musical performers, both past and present. I saw Al Green perform there in 2012.

Although some of the more Grecian (or Classical) architectural elements designed by S. Tilden Norton and Frederick Hastings Wallis (of Norton & Wallis) and Frederick H. Heath (of Heath, Grove & Bell) have been removed over the years...

...some have been preserved, while others have actually been restored...
...including the grilles on the windows on the side of the building. 

The columns of the stage's wings have been painted black and covered, so they're not visible to the audience—but you can still see them when you're backstage. (And technically, the change that covered them up is reversible.)

Getting to go onstage and backstage was a rare treat...
...offered by Los Angeles Conservancy as part of Griffith Park's 125th Anniversary celebration on November 13, 2021.
And because the tours were organized by a preservation-minded organization, our docents pointed out historical details that I just eat up—like the three doors that used to serve as the performer entrances to the stage. 

Some of the dressing rooms are located in former pipe organ rooms, whose ceiling hatches (or "louvered openings") would open up to let the music out... it could be heard by the audience. 

The upper level dressing rooms—reserved for the big stars and their entourages—also feature original (although improved) skylights. 

Of course, the music lover in me was tickled to see the celebrity photographs...

...and autographs, too. 

Happy Birthday, Griffith Park! I just keep finding more reasons to love you even more.

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