Saturday, September 25News That Matters

Hollywood Bowl Plans to Open at Full Capacity

LOS ANGELES — They are playing ball at Dodger Stadium, with all 56,000 seats on sale for games beginning next month, and not an inch of social distance between them. Across the country, Radio City Music Hall in New York is flinging open its doors and selling 5,960 shoulder-to-shoulder seats to the vaccinated in a decidedly indoor setting.

As more people get vaccinated and government Covid regulations seem to change by the week, concert and theater venues are scrambling to keep up and figure out when and how to welcome back the crowds they depend on. For the Hollywood Bowl — perhaps the most celebrated outdoor venue in the nation — that has meant making plans, and ripping them up again, as it rides rapidly changing county and state regulations and shifting public attitudes ahead of its planned July 3 opening.

The Bowl has churned through three different opening plans in the space of a month. Plan A, announced at the start of May, called for selling just a 25 percent of its 18,000 seats. Then, when county regulations changed, officials came up with Plan B: selling two-thirds of the seats to the vaccinated, and setting aside just 488 less-than-prime seats for the unvaccinated.

This week the rules changed yet again, as California officials said that beginning June 15 outdoor events could return to full capacity, with attendees urged, but not required, to show proof of vaccination or a negative test results. The Bowl moved to Plan C: It is now preparing to sell 100 percent of the venue.

“You’re getting a firsthand look at how difficult this has been to navigate, especially for those of us who want to open up by summer,” said Chad Smith, the chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which runs the amphitheater, as he described Plan C. “Each time we are announcing the season based on current protocol — and then the current protocols change.”

The Bowl is juggling the same forces that are confronting venues reeling from the pandemic coast to coast. Most are looking to sell as many seats as possible to recoup more than a year of lost ticket and concession revenues, without scaring off patrons who might not be eager to chance sitting next to someone who has not gotten a shot. Striking the right balance is crucial for the Bowl, which provides most of the revenues for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which was forced to cut its budget from $152 million to $77 million to make up for plummeting revenues last year.

And the Bowl, carved into a canyon just north of Hollywood Boulevard, is not just another place to see a concert. For nearly 100 years, it has been a rousing symbol of outdoor life and entertainment in Los Angeles and renowned across the country, famous enough to show up as a backdrop in classic films, including “Double Indemnity,” and to be memorialized in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. The Beatles and Bill Clinton have appeared on its stage.

The announcement that there would be no 2020 season — the first time that an entire season had been canceled — was, for many in Los Angeles, a punch to the gut.

“We used to go to the Bowl 12, 14 nights a year,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, who grew up attending the Bowl and became such a champion of it while he served on the county board of supervisors that the main entry gate is named in his honor. “There was a profound void in my life.”

The Bowl’s rituals are shared and ingrained: Gustavo Dudamel, the music director of the Philharmonic, walking onto the stage and using his arms to gesture the crowd to rise for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Hollywood-worthy fireworks displays that accompany Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture. Even the helicopters that seem to inevitably whop-whop-whop overhead the moment the conductor picks up a baton.

Its under-the-stars concerts, an eclectic program that runs from Mahler symphonies to “Sound of Music” singalongs to pop and world music, starts in May and runs as late as November, with little risk of rain or cold nights. (Novembers can be dicey, as Barbra Streisand can attest after wrapping herself in a blanket while performing as the temperature dropped into the mid-50s, an arctic snap by Southern California standards).

And it may be as good a place as any to get a measure of the diversity of Los Angeles by taking in the sweep of faces going from the orchestra way up the hill from one night to the next. While seats in front can go for over $200, seats at the very top — “you in the balcony!” as Carol Channing would say from the stage — still go for $1 (that is not a typo) on Tuesday and Thursday nights.

The excitement at the promise of its return was on display at an inaugural dress rehearsal earlier this month as the orchestra prepared to give a special series of concerts for emergency medical workers. The crowd watching that first rehearsal, a sparse group of about 400, broke into cathartic applause when Dudamel, smiling and waving, emerged from a corner of the stage to begin conducting, a sure sign that life may finally be returning to something close to normal.

The swiftly evolving rules will not only change the experience for audience members. At the recent rehearsal, the players in the orchestra still had to sit at least six feet apart — a requirement that, if it continued, would cut the ensemble’s size from about 80 to 60 and, accordingly, limit its potential repertoire. They now expect the onstage distancing requirement to be gone by opening day. But orchestra members, backstage staff, ushers and concession workers will need to show proof of vaccination to come to work.

“It’s a struggle to plan when things are shifting constantly underneath you,” said Nora E. Brady, the vice president for marketing and communications for the Philharmonic. “How many orchestra members can we put on the stage? How many audience members can we have?”

These are not ordinary times and this will not be a typical season. There will be fewer shows, which means less revenue. “It is a significant loss,” said Brady. “We typically have 73 to 75 concerts in a season. We have about 50 right now planned.”

Smith said it was his priority to make sure that this season seemed as normal as possible, all things considered, for its patrons. As such, he said he was glad that the state and county were moving toward approving a liberal, full-steam-ahead admission policy which he was confident would be in place by the official opening day.

However, there has been deference to any patrons who are not ready to come back. Those who hold box subscriptions — a valuable commodity in Los Angeles, where they are often handed down from family to family — will be able to skip a season without forfeiting their seats.

This is part of the real difficulty in reopening,” Smith said. “I think there are going to be some people who are not comfortable yet with audiences that are vaccinated and unvaccinated, and we will lose some of those patrons until next summer. I also suspect that there is a huge desire to get back to live performances outdoors.”

The original decision to set aside the vast majority of the seats for the vaccinated was in part a civic-minded gesture, the Bowl doing its part to encourage people to get inoculated. But it was a business decision as well, given that under the county regulation in force at that time, the Bowl could sell 67 percent of the seats in areas reserved for the vaccinated, compared with about 23 percent in socially distanced sections set aside for those not vaccinated.

“So very quickly I said, we are going to make this a majority vaccinated-only venue,” Smith said. “It was an economic decision as much as it was a decision to support people getting vaccinated.”

In many ways, the task is easier for the Bowl. Unlike other acclaimed summer venues — like Tanglewood in Massachusetts and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in upstate New York — it is entirely outdoors: no sheds or audience tarps here. There are no high-tech challenges with ventilation and air filtration systems and relatively low risk of transmission of the virus.

The stage is three times as large as the stage at Walt Disney Concert Hall, making it easier to spread the orchestra apart should that prove necessary. And the Bowl has been doing outside concerts for nearly a century — through world wars, terrorist attacks, earthquakes and wildfires — giving it an expertise almost unmatched across the country.

This period of experimentation and adjustment will also shape how the Los Angeles Philharmonic will proceed with a more challenging task come fall, performances at Disney Hall, the 2,265-seat venue designed by Frank Gehry in downtown Los Angeles.

“It’s going to be a gradual return to normalcy, which I think is the theme for everything,” said Sheila Kuehl, a member of the board of supervisors.

The pleasure of the Bowl is shared by audiences and performers alike. John Mauceri, who conducted the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra for 16 years, said he always made a point of stopping to address the audience, in part to appreciate the vastness of the experience. (The Bowl Orchestra offers its own program, in addition to the work of the Philharmonic.)

“You are aware of this gigantic space, 18,000 people,” he said “Talk about the speed of sound or light. If I said something that was funny it literally took a half a second for the sound from the stage to hit the back. You have to have the courage to wait for it to land for the response to come back to you.”

“Although a conductor has his or her back to the audience, you very much feel their presence,” he said. “Though the back of your neck, you know what’s happening. It’s extraordinary when 18,000 diverse people come together and are concentrating.”