Friday, August 25, 2006

Hollywood Bowl

Although I used to go to the Hollywood Bowl occasionally when I was much younger, I didn’t become a real fan until we moved back to LA twelve years ago. Every time the summer schedule arrived in our mailbox there would be a flurry of phone calls and emails back and forth to Karen while we decided which concerts to attend. We even stood on line for three hours one year to make sure we got good seats for the most coveted concerts. In those days, we were happy to sit with the masses on the Bowl’s notoriously uncomfortable wooden benches. The trick was to arrive early enough to snag a vinyl seat cushion, which the ushers gladly rented for fifty cents. Not only could you use the cushion to claim your seat—which tends to shift when you’re sitting with twenty people on a wooden bench!—but your rear end was also a tad more grateful for the extra padding.

Then something dramatic happened. About five years ago, the Bowl installed individual, stadium-style “super seats” in the section directly above the exclusive box seats. They are more expensive to reserve, but a lot more comfortable. We bought super-seat tickets for one concert and that was it. The next year Tim and I decided to subscribe to mini-season super-seat tickets and have never looked back!

My musical tastes lean more towards the popular (e.g., Jerry Goldsmith, Pink Martini, and last year’s fabulous staging of “Camelot”), while Tim prefers traditional jazz. We both love pop standard vocalists, however, and so over the years have seen Tony Bennett (several times), Diana Krull (terrific), Mel Torme (his last Bowl performance), Peggy Lee (her last Bowl performance), Rosemary Clooney (her last Bowl performance, too), Van Morrison (singing jazz), Al Jarreau (not so good), John Pizzarelli (a fave), and others too many to remember. This week was big band music, featuring the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, the Stan Kenton Orchestra 2006, and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band. It was our last concert of the season.

A big part of the Hollywood Bowl experience is getting there. We learned a long time ago that the best way to travel to the Bowl is by bus. Indeed, several shuttles transport concertgoers from around the county. Our own Culver City bus leaves 90 minutes before the show and often takes an hour to arrive. Needless to say, traffic around the Bowl is always a nightmare.

Culver City is such a wonderfully diverse community that the bus ride presents an interesting microcosm of humanity: racially-mixed couples, people of all ages and lifestyles, and everyone excited to be going to the Bowl. On the weekend, riders may pass around a bottle of wine or champagne to get into the mood. But even without libation, there’s always lots of laughter and good cheer on our way north. I like the bus ride because it gives me a chance to catch-up on changes to the mid-Wilshire/La Brea district where we lived when we first returned to LA. The pasta restaurant where we used to eat is now a sushi bar, and, oh, look at that tiny pizza parlor tucked between those two vintage clothing stores!

Food is another big part of the Hollywood Bowl’s culture. Most people arrive early enough to eat in their seats or create an impromptu picnic on the surrounding park grounds. We’ve seen some elaborate displays of three-course meals accompanied by candelabras and fine china. We, on the other hand, are more simple folk and usually just bring sandwiches from Pavilions or a rice bowl from El Pollo Loco. I’ll never forget the time Tim snagged last minute free tickets from someone at work, prompting me to quickly throw together a salad before running out the door. When we got there we discovered we were sitting with rich folks in the box seats. There I was scooping homemade salad out of a recycled butter tub while the people next to us sipped from crystal goblets! I was mortified.

Wednesday’s concert was the perfect way to end this year’s season. The Gerald Wilson Orchestra got the ball rolling with a rousing opening number. Turns out Tim had met Mr. Wilson many years ago when he sat in on his “history of jazz” class at Cal State Northridge. Tim, of course, was trying to impress a girl who wasn’t worth the effort and so stayed for only one class session. Still, the moment was memorable enough to share with me thirty years later on the bus ride home.

Wilson’s orchestra was followed by Stan Kenton’s group, which really got our feet tappin’. “That bongo guy is insane!” Tim whispered. Sure enough, his hands were flying a hundred miles a minute! I was thrilled to learn later that it was Alex Acuña, former percussionist for the Weather Report, a fusion-jazz band I had listened to in my pre-Tim days.

For all its enormity (18,000 seats), the Bowl can be stunningly quiet when everyone sits in polite silence. Over the years, I’ve heard the frets on John Pizzarelli’s guitar and the rattle of music stands before the band begins to play. The natural bowl-shaped contour of the amphitheater certainly heightens the acoustical effect.

The concert ended 10 minutes before the 11PM curfew, so we gathered our belongings and headed downhill past the pitiful ventriloquist singer, who covers his mouth with one hand while moving the lips of a raggedy old dog puppet with the other, and the solo saxophonist, who uses the acoustics of the pedestrian’s tunnel to enhance his own sound. Someone had lit vanilla-scented incense in the tunnel, so it smelled more pleasant than usual. We emerged on the other end to bus fumes and burnt diesel. The evening was rapidly drawing to a close.

As festive as the bus ride is heading toward the Bowl, the complete opposite is always true going home. Sometimes a passenger or two might hum a ditty from that night’s concert; but usually we’re all too tired to even talk. Plus, it can be an excruciatingly long wait before we even move, especially if we’re at the back of an immobile line of buses. Rarely do we get home before midnight.

But Wednesday was a happy exception—by some miracle, we left the parking lot by 11:15PM and were soon barreling down Cahuenga Blvd. I had visions of actually being in bed before 12 o’clock, when the bus suddenly stopped at Wilshire and La Brea. It seems one of the riders had gotten on the wrong bus and was negotiating with the driver. “PLUH-EEZE don’t go back to the Bowl!” I silently pleaded as the other passengers began to stir. Instead, Mr. Lost quickly exited our bus and dashed across traffic (don’t look!) to catch the bus on the opposite side of the street. Apparently he needed to get to Chatsworth, another two hours (by bus) heading north.

Twenty-five minutes later, we were safely in bed when Tim drowsily mumbled, “I guess the summer is now officially over.” But I’m not ready to give up on it yet...


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