A Brief History of the John Anson Ford Amphitheater

The 1245-seat John Anson Ford Amphitheater, located in the Hollywood Hills, is owned and controlled by the County of Los Angeles and located in a county regional park. The Amphitheatre is considered to be one of the oldest performing arts sites in Los Angeles still in use. The open-air amphitheater sits on a forty-five acre park located in the Cahuenga Pass, nestled against a backdrop of cypress and chaparral. It is fairly intimate — no patron is more than ninety-six feet away from the stage. The Amphitheater offers a wide array of performances featuring world music, jazz, dance chamber music, theater, pop music, and family events during the months of May through October.

The Amphitheater was constructed in 1920. Designed in Judaic architecture to resemble the gates of Jerusalem, it was originally built as the site of the "Pilgrimage Play Theatre" where an annual twelve-part Passion Play depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ was presented.

The original facade of the Pilgrimage Play Theatre.


A later renovation — I do not know the date of the photo (from a scenic souvenir postcard).


(The music for the Pilgrimage Play was written by noted composer of that era, Arthur Farwell, with additional "scenic" music by Dane Rudhyar, noted mysticist proclaimed as "the father of karmic astrology." Go figure THAT out...!)

Many local actors and actresses performed in the annual Pilgrimage Play. While attending Hollywood High School, Fay Wray appeared in the Play. Exhilarated by this brush with show business, she decided to try her luck as a film actress. Other actors who graced the Pilgrimage Play Theatre included Gale Gordon [who portrayed Judas Iscariot], Peggy Converse, Rachel Ames (of soap opera General Hospital fame and character actor Addison Richards.

The Pilgrimage Play was performed until 1964 when a lawsuit forced its closure — the argument against it was that public funds were being expended on a religious play. Thereafter, the structure slowly deteriorated until the late, previous County Supervisor John Anson Ford got funding for capital development in the early 1970s.

(I found a very glowing and effusive commentary about the Pilgrimage Play, which I have appended below because I found its flowery narrative captivating.)

In 2000, a 1.6 million-dollar renewal of the entryway to the theatres was commenced. The new entryway features winding paths that create a more ongoing climb from the box office, a waterfall, two dozen species of trees and plants, and pocket picnic areas. At the top of the entryway is Edison Plaza, a gathering place where customers can eat, shop and pick up information about the theater.

[The preceding information was gathered from various web sites and printed literature from the Amphitheater Foundation]




The following narrative was extracted from Letters from a senator's wife by Frances Parkinson Keyes (D. Appleton and company, 1924)

The entire Californian visit was a stimulating and splendid experience from start to finish. But no one event left, I believe, so vivid an impression upon me as the performance of the Pilgrimage Play which I saw — the beautiful story of the life of Christ enacted on a five-acre tract of mountain-side among the hills of Hollywood — a setting strangely like Judea in many of its aspects.

For three summers now the sylvan theater where it is given has been crowded to its full capacity night after night. I do not wonder — for it seems to me that in very truth America has an Oberammergau of its own now, and that a great spectacle is being shown, and a great message delivered, which all of us who can should see and hear.

It is nonsectarian and noncommercialized in its auspices; the costumes, which, with infinite care and at tremendous expense, have been brought over from the Holy Land, are not only historically correct but aesthetically perfect....

There is great splendor of color and wealth of detail in all the episodes, and among the hundred and fifty persons in the presentation, there are some who interpret their parts very wonderfully — Mary, the Mother of Jesus, John the Beloved Disciple, Judas Iscariot, Mary Magdalene, and Herod. The actor who impersonates Jesus is very convincing, and very spiritual, with a rare beauty of face, voice and carriage; but he is essentially, from beginning to end, the "Man of Sorrows" ....

The play opened, after an organ prelude, with a prologue of prophecy in Bethlehem: high on the mountains, bathed in a deep violet light, was suddenly revealed an angelic figure, and, more slowly, there gathered together at the foot of the hills the trembling band of shepherds. "And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."

The inspired voice had scarcely ceased when in the center of the stage we saw the Stable, the Manger surrounded by rays of glory, Mary bending over it with her illumined face, the watchful figure of Joseph, joined, before the picture faded, by the shepherds who had "come with haste," and the Wise Men who had seen the Star and "rejoiced with exceeding great joy."

The glory of the Christmas message — not only that the birth of Christ was a holy thing, but that, through His coming, the birth of every child and the eternal miracle of motherhood have been made sacred forever, has never seemed to me quite so vivid and so true as it has since I saw it presented before me among those silent hills, under that soft, summer sky.

All the scenes in the life of Christ were magnificently presented; but the ones which moved me most profoundly, nevertheless, because they seemed to touch every human life so closely, and because that touch, in this interpretation, became such a beautiful and living thing, were those laid in the Upper Chamber where the Last Supper was eaten, and in the Garden of Gethsemane, where, deserted by the friends who could not watch with Him one hour, Jesus poured out the anguish of His soul when He asked that, "if it be possible, let this cup pass from me."

But after Calvary comes Easter Day — and comes, remember, only three days later. This was the note upon which the Pilgrimage Play closed — not with the picture of the heavy-laden sufferer bearing His Cross, but with the heavenly vision of the Resurrected Christ, and the words "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world."

And this, I think, is the greatest truth in the world.


Page One

Page Two - Photos

Page Three - Photos

Page Four - Photos

(Page Five - History of the Ford Amphitheater)


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