The Ford Theatres hasn’t had it easy living in the shadow of the Hollywood Bowl. Every summer locals and tourists alike pack its famous sister across the Cahuenga Pass while the Ford’s subtler charms largely go unnoticed. One of L.A.’s all-powerful county supervisors once even compared the under-the-radar amphitheater to a plain Jane secretary who’d look sexy if she just took her glasses off now and then.
But with a $65.8 million restoration nearing completion this fall, the glasses are finally off. After a nearly two-year hiatus, the Ford finally reopened its Jerusalem-style gates on July 8 with a new stage, a sound wall to block noise from the nearby 101 freeway and enhance acoustics within the amphitheater itself, and a new grab-and-go market. Even more dramatic changes will include an open patio restaurant and dining terrace to come later this fall, where patrons can sit for a pre-show meal with beautiful views (of the Hollywood Bowl).
Much like its calendar of events, the Ford’s history has been unapologetically eclectic. First built out of wood in 1920 by a Pittsburgh paint heiress, it spent the first half of its life exclusively as home to the Pilgrimage Play, a religious production. In 1941, the lands were donated to the County, and in 1964 the play was forced to shutter. After World War II, it became an open-air wok for a chop-suey of productions, hosting everything from Shakespeare under the stars to music legends like the Ramones and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
In 1993 the County formally took over programming at the theater with a 12-performance calendar called "Summer Nights at the Ford." That yearly slate has blossomed to 70 shows in the county’s attempt to present L.A.’s cultural breadth. This year you’ll find flamenco, mariachis, Outfest screenings, North and South Indian dance, cabaret shows, noir recreations, and bluegrass, to name just a few. And this renovation is just the first phase of the County’s grand ambition to transform the Ford into a cultural incubator. The end goal is to raise enough money to convert the Ford’s current tiny front parking lot into a plaza with a restaurant, 300-seat enclosed theater, box office, gallery space, and an 100-seat experimental space. (Three levels of parking would go below ground.) Local artists will be able to workshop their shows in the small theater, then scale up with the goal of reaching the main 1,200-seat stage.
Yet, the Ford’s true distinctiveness comes as much from the venue itself as its calendar. While the Hollywood Bowl’s vast rows of benches make it L.A.’s epic backyard, the Ford is more like a patio under the stars. Nestled in a wooded canyon, the location transports you even before the lights dim, as if you’ve stumbled across some secret ritual in the middle of the night. Where the Hollywood bowl is a sojourn, the Ford is a rewarding chance encounter.
Of course, Los Angeles has no shortage of compelling venues with beautiful histories—including the Greek Theater in Griffith Park and the Wiltern in Koreatown. But none have the Ford’s primal intimacy, a feeling akin to what the ancient Greeks must have experienced while watching Aeschylus under the stars. It’s a sui generis sense of enchantment that springs forth from the untamed geography, which so defines the quintessence of the city. Before, the Ford’s aging facilities made you work to love it. Now the facelift will allow one of L.A.’s truly hidden gems to shine as it never has before.
2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E; 323-461-3673; fordtheatres.org.