L.A.'s Amphitheaters "Trying to Make Lemonade" Amid "Challenging Time" of COVID-19

Kevin Winter/Getty Images; Amy Sussman/Getty Images; AFP via Getty Images

Audience members at the Rose Bowl during the Tribeca Film Festival’s Live From Tribeca Drive-In event in July; aida Essence Hall performed at Drive ’N Drag at The Rose Bowl on July 31. A sign outside the closed Hollywood Bowl.

The Hollywood  Bowl and other venues shut down due to the pandemic have turned to audience-free performances and drive-in shows to survive summer 2020.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Los Angeles’ signature outdoor venues — the Hollywood Bowl, Greek Theatre, Rose Bowl, the Ford and a bit north, the Santa Barbara Bowl — canceled their slate of summer shows and prepared for the worst, making 2020 the first summer without concerts at the city’s amphitheaters.

"It’s been the most challenging time," says Rose Bowl GM Darryl Dunn, "but we’re trying to make lemonade."

For each venue, that lemons-into-lemonade approach looks different. The Rose Bowl, which saw the loss of three sold-out BTS concerts and UCLA football, has turned to drive-in performances and screenings, hosting the altered Tribeca Film Festival in July and a Disney FYC drive-in for The Mandalorian in August, with plans for more shows. 

"It’s something we never thought that we would be, a pop-up drive-in theater, but we are, and it’s gone over really well," says Dunn. Multiple projects are also filming at the Rose Bowl, though Dunn would not provide details.

The Greek Theatre, which is working to line up shoots as well, is using this time for renovations to its terrace seating areas and selling historic theater pieces on its website while also prepping to do live-streamed shows from the venue.

The Hollywood Bowl is already leading the charge on that front. On Sept. 25, it will launch Sound/Stage, an online series of Los Angeles Philharmonic shows recorded at the Bowl with no audiences in the past few weeks. That follows its six- episode In Concert at the Bowl KCET series, presenting best-of- the-past-decade performances. The Bowl’s kitchens also offer a "Supper to Go" program, where guests can curbside pick up meal packages from its kitchens, with names like “the 101,” “the Angeleno” and “the Mulholland Drive.” "I’ve heard from people who pick up their food and then have a picnic in their living room while watching the show," says Hollywood Bowl president Gail Samuel. The L.A. Phil, which took over management of The Ford this year, also has "almost an entire digital" Ford season scheduled, Samuel adds, with recorded dance performances, panels and craft workshops.

Outside of the city, the Santa Barbara Bowl is looking to do audience-free live events, but with an in-person component: “One of the cool things about the Bowl is it sits in a neighborhood,” says Goldenvoice talent buyer Moss Jacobs. “Even if you're not going to a show, if you live in the neighborhood or work in the neighborhood, on a summer's night you can hear the sound.” Taking inspiration from wildfire benefits the venue hosted in 2018 with Katy Perry, Ellen DeGeneres and Jack Johnson, the shows will fundraise for frontline workers and combine both the live-streamed visuals and real-life sound; the plan was originally set for the fall but is now likely on hold until the spring. 

Though these venues are charging ahead, that’s not to say they have not been hit tremendously hard; the Santa Barbara Bowl has launched a “2020 Shortfall” fundraiser that seeks to raise $612,000 to offset its operational costs — so far it’s raised $145,000. The Hollywood Bowl, which is not bringing in any revenue from its virtual events, has had to furlough and cut wages for some of its workers and has begun a "Play Your Part" fundraising campaign. The Rose Bowl has an $11.5 million bond debt and has dipped into reserves to pay its bills.

Still, hopes are high for a strong return to live shows in 2021.

“We are prepared to sprint,” Dunn says. “When the green light comes, and we know it will come, we are ready to go.”  

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.