Ford Theatres: The Story of an L.A. Icon

Photo courtesy of Ford Theatres
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Nestled in a picturesque setting in the Hollywood Hills, the 1,200-seat Ford Theatres has been one of L.A.'s favorite outdoor music venues for generations. Every year, the Ford hosts an eclectic calendar of multicultural events that represent music and dance styles that span the diverse communities of Los Angeles County.

The landmark amphitheatre reopened in July 2016 after a $66-million renovation designed by Levin & Associates Architects with Mia Lehrer + Associates landscape architects. The project was initiated in 2012 and required a 21-month closure of the amphitheatre - programming during construction took place at off-site venues.

Rendering of Ford Theatres terrace
Ford Theatres terrace | Rendering courtesy of Levin & Associates Architects

Improvements include new lighting and sound equipment, a new two-level wood stage, new artist green room and dressing rooms, a new loading dock, a new sound wall to block noise from the 101 Freeway, a new concessions building with full kitchen, and a new 150-seat picnic terrace.

In August 2016, the Ford Theatres project was selected as a recipient of the prestigious 2016 American Architecture Awards as one of the best new buildings designed and constructed by American architects in the U.S. and abroad, and by international architects for buildings designed and built in the United States. The American Architecture Awards are the nation's highest public awards given by a non-commercial, non-trade affiliated, public arts, culture and educational institution.

Taiko Project at Ford Theatres
Taiko Project at the Ford's grand reopening | Photo courtesy of Ford Theatres, Facebook

The grand reopening of Ford Theatres, the first show at the amphitheatre since 2014, featured performances by two L.A.-based groups: the GRAMMY Award-winning Chicano rock band, Quetzal and the acclaimed Japanese taiko drum ensemble, Taiko Project.

Laura Zucker, Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, said, “We’re thrilled to welcome the public back to the beloved Ford Theatres, which is both as intimate and historic as everyone remembers and better than you’ve ever seen it. We are grateful to all of the supporters, public and private, who have made this renovation, along with an extraordinary reopening season possible.”

Adam Davis, Managing Director of the Ford Theatres, said, “We always take tremendous pride at the Ford Theatres in presenting performances that are as diverse, exciting and vital as our region itself and this summer with the much-anticipated return to our stage, we have assembled a roster of artists that is unrivaled.”

The Ford is owned and operated by the County of Los Angeles through a three-way partnership between the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Ford Theatre Foundation.

"The Pilgrimage Play"

"The Pilgrimage Play" at Pilgrimage Theatre
"The Pilgrimage Play" at Pilgrimage Theatre | Photo courtesy of Ford Theatres

An heiress of the Pittsburgh Paint Company and a patron of the arts, Christine Wetherill Stevenson had a vision to open an open-air theatre and produce her own plays. Stevenson realized her dream in 1920, when she opened the Pilgrimage Theatre and staged The Pilgrimage Play, her adaptation of the life of Christ. Stevenson died suddenly in 1922 - the Hollywood Pilgrimage Memorial Monument (aka the Great Hollywood Cross) was erected in her memory a year later. Her play would continue to be performed every summer until 1929, when the original wooden structure was destroyed by a brush fire in October.

A new theatre, built on the same site with poured concrete and designed to evoke the gates of Jerusalem, opened in 1931. The Pilgrimage Play was performed there until 1964, interrupted only by World War II. The land was deeded to L.A. County in 1941.

John Anson Ford

John Anson Ford in 1959
John Anson Ford in 1959 | Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1976, the Pilgrimage Theatre was renamed the John Anson Ford Theatre in honor of the late L.A. County Supervisor and his important contributions to the arts in Los Angeles. Among his many achievements, John Anson Ford helped found the L.A. County Arts Commission, encouraged the Board of Supervisors to support the building of The Music Center, and led L.A. County's acquisition of Descanso Gardens.

The theatre was used intermittently for Shakespearean theater, jazz concerts, and dance performances until former County Supervisor Ed Edelman revived the historic theatre, spurring the creation of the Ford Amphitheatre Summer Season (originally called "Summer Nights at the Ford") in 1993 and obtaining funding for capital improvements to the facility.


Lila Downs and Grandeza Mexicana at Ford Theatres
Lila Downs and Grandeza Mexicana at Ford Theatres | Photo courtesy of Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company, Facebook

Ford Summer Season
A program of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, the Ford Summer Season was conceived for L.A. County music, dance and theatre groups to perform their productions in a major venue. Since its launch in 1993, the program has blossomed, supporting hundreds of local arts organizations and producers over the years. The Ford Summer Season runs from May to October.

Groups and producers are selected for the Summer Season through a competitive application process and receive front-of-house, production and marketing support, while keeping the bulk of the box office proceeds.

In addition to its multidisciplinary Summer Season, the Ford presents interactive arts events at its amphitheatre in Hollywood and at public sites across L.A. County. Events at Ford Theatres are presented in partnership with Los Angeles County arts organizations and producers.

Ford Theatres Signature Series with Aloe Blacc
Signature Series with Aloe Blacc | Photo courtesy of Ford Theatres

Ford Signature Series
The Signature Series pairs world-renowned performers with L.A. County artists, creating a one-of-a-kind experience. Singer/songwriter Aloe Blacc kicked off the 2016 Signature Series with an evening that celebrated the music of Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell and other music icons. Joining Blacc on stage were local musicians Woody Aplanalp, The Brothers Band, Cambalache, The Concentrates and Fabiano do Nascimento.

Another highlight of this year's series was GRAMMY Award-winning singer/songwriter Lila Downs and Ford regular Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company.

JAM Sessions
The interactive JAM Sessions series invites participants of all skill levels to release their inner artist with samba, tap dance, ukulele, Bollywood, son jarocho and more. JAM Sessions take place at the amphitheatre and public sites throughout Los Angeles County. These free events are participatory and centered around movement and music. All ages are welcome.

Big World Fun at Ford Theatres
Big World Fun | Photo courtesy of Ford Theatres

Big World Fun
Music and dance events that represent the diverse cultural landscape of Southern California are presented at Big World Fun on Saturday mornings in July and August. Performances are appropriate for children ages 4 to 12 and their families. Children are admitted free and tickets for adults are $5. 

Ford Theatres Live

Ford Theatres Live
Photo courtesy of Ford Theatres

If you missed a show at the Ford that you really wanted to see, not to worry. Each year, LA Channel 36 records 12 of the Ford Summer Season shows for their Ford Theatres Live series. Past episodes are available online. Episodes shot in 2016 will be airing on LA Channel 36 beginning this fall. Check your local listings.