L.A. Officials Herald Newly Renovated Ford Amphitheatre, Call It "Transformative"

Amphitheater at Night
Tom Bonner

Originally budgeted at around $50 million, the project ballooned to over $70 million. But the end result complements the city’s already unrivaled collection of outdoor venues.

Los Angeles County officials unveiled the fully renovated John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, which adds a new jewel in the city’s already unrivaled network of outdoor theater venues. At Friday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, some officials heralded it as the greatest midsized outdoor theater in the country.

Elements of the 97-year-old complex situated in the Cahuenga Pass next to the 101 Freeway remain intact, but the cruder elements that had long plagued the 1,200-seat amphitheater have been exorcised and updated. Tucked deep into a vertiginous hillside at the base of several ravines, the theater presented multiple engineering challenges throughout its three-year renovation.

“There were 1,000 decisions that had to be made, and all those decisions — as a composite — resulted in some design compromises,” said architect Brenda Levin of Levin & Associates Architects, who oversaw the project and called it one of the most challenging of her career. Levin, arguably the most sought-after architect in the city for high-profile restoration projects, has previously helped restore numerous other iconic L.A. landmarks, including the Griffith Observatory, The Wiltern, the Bradbury Building and City Hall.

Much of the $72 million renovation focused on updating the complex’s almost-medieval irrigation and drainage system that had previously resulted in frequent flooding. Now, beneath the new and expanded Ipe-wood stage is a water capture-and-drainage system that should dramatically reduce, if not eliminate, the threat of flooding and landslide closures.

“This project had its challenges. It was a very expensive project, and there is no way to put lipstick on that,” said former county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who was an early champion of the project before handing it off to his successor, Sheila Kuehl, who was also on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Originally budgeted at around $50 million, the project ballooned to over $70 million. “No L.A. facility needed [a renovation] more than the Ford Theatre, and we now have a venue that is bigger than the sum of its parts. This is a transformative project,” said Yaroslavsky.

In addition to the new stage, several brand-new structures were built to incorporate on-site office space for full-time staff. There is a new and dramatically expanded backstage artists’ area that was built beneath the stage into the bedrock and two new elevators for improved accessibility around the complex, which now offers a concession kitchen and an outdoor dining terrace that was named in honor of Yaroslavsky. A catwalk and control room were added to service the newly installed state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems. The acoustics of the theater got a further boost from a sound wall built along the upper lip that will serve to block out unwanted sounds from the nearby 101 Freeway and ambient sounds drifting from concerts at the Hollywood Bowl.

The summer-season programming kicks off this weekend with Savion Glover and will present a mix of theater, dance and musical acts that range from Senegalese vocalist Youssou N’Dour to singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright.

Originally built in 1920 to stage The Pilgrimage Play, the theater was originally called the Pilgrimage Theatre before it was renamed in 1976 after county supervisor John Anson Ford. The original structure was destroyed by a brush fire in 1929 and then rebuilt with poured concrete and stonework in an ancient Judaic architectural style.