LOS ANGELES — The Hollywood Bowl is Hollywood famous: a 17,500-seat amphitheater carved into a canyon that has for nearly a century provided an outdoor stage for a parade of starry performers: The Beatles. Dudamel. LCD Soundsystem.
The John Anson Ford Amphitheater is something else. Hidden a canyon away, it has just 1,200 seats and a stage that was always slightly off center, creating a challenge for performers and audiences.
For nearly a century, the Ford suffered the indignities of being the scrawny kid next door, enduring the jarring sounds of, say, a Black Sabbath performance roaring over the canyon, or the rumble from Highway 101, which runs by it, as a classical ensemble soldiered on. The dank warren of dressing rooms under the stage and the absence of an area to load equipment were constant challenges as the county-owned theater scrambled to book performers.
But that may be about to change.
Last week, workers were putting the final touches on sleek state-of-the-art lighting towers and a network of new dressing rooms, as a long-anticipated $75 million restoration project comes to an end with an inaugural performance by Savion Glover, the tap dancer, on July 15. A concrete stage has given way to one made of handsome ipe, a Brazilian hardwood. The sandbags once piled up in the basement — after a calamitous storm sent rivers of mud down the hillside, over the stage and into the dressing rooms — have been carted away.
The unveiling of the refurbished Ford — paid for by Los Angeles County with some private donations — comes at a moment of a flurry of activity on this city’s cultural scene. The Marciano Art Foundation just opened a museum in the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple on Wilshire Boulevard, and construction is underway at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, next door to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which itself is slated to be replaced by a new $600 million museum designed by Peter Zumthor. The Hollywood Bowl has in recent years upgraded its sound system and installed four video screens (to the distress of some of its more tradition-bound patrons).
Los Angeles has always been a place known for its bounty of concert venues, from old soundstages to cemeteries. The year-round temperate weather puts a special premium on outdoor sites, which have been known to put on shows right through November.
“But the Ford is really unique,” said Sheila Kuehl, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors whose district includes the theater. “Our outdoor venues are very, very big — except for the Ford. So it’s an amphitheater experience in these beautiful hills that is also very intimate.”
Under the renovation, soundproofing panels have replaced sheets of plywood, promising to do a considerably better job of muffling the sounds of the Hollywood Bowl and the highway. The off-kilter stage has been centered on a new control booth hanging over the seats at the back of the Ford.
And the new sound system? “We are in a position to be the best-sounding 1,000-seater in the United States,” said Gilberto Morales, the lead audio engineer for the theater.
The project was overseen by Brenda A. Levin, a Los Angeles architect with a considerable reputation for renovating some of Los Angeles’s most historic structures, including the Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Dodger Stadium.
“I just thought this was an underutilized facility — and a secret,” Ms. Levin said one morning as she walked around the theater, bustling with workers. “People just didn’t know about this. They know about the Hollywood Bowl. We’ve been in L.A. for 40 years. I’ve probably been here three times.”
The Ford had its charms — where else could you watch, during a performance of the band Milo Greene, a family of deer wander across the rough hillside that serves as the back of the stage?
“That was supermagical,” said Graham Fink, a guitarist and vocalist for the band, based in Los Angeles. “Where does that ever happen at a concert anywhere?”
Mr. Fink said the lack of modern equipment had discouraged bands from performing at a location that he described as otherwise enchanting. “The finances of doing shows there was hard because you could make a lot more money at more modern place with more modern capacities,” he said.
What distinguishes the Ford from almost every major outdoor amphitheater — the Bowl, Tanglewood, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center — is the absence of a shell. It is open on three sides.
“The context is the natural environment — the canyon itself,” Ms. Levin said. “How do you be sympathetic to the fact that you are in the middle of a canyon? Here, you’re totally encompassed in that natural environment.”
The Ford, named for a county supervisor who represented this part of Los Angeles for 50 years, might be stepping it up a bit, but, unsurprisingly, it will probably not be able to hold its own against the Bowl when it comes to the biggest-name acts.
Ms. Zucker said she expected the two venues will be more complementary than competitive, with a roster of acts that is slightly more eclectic than the more mainstream fare typically programmed at the Bowl: the Pacifico Dance Company, Wind Whisperers From India, not to mention Thelma Houston (“Don’t Leave Me This Way”) one night and Rufus Wainwright singing songs written by Canadians on another.
“The Bowl is almost 18,000 seats,” said Laura Zucker, the executive director of the Los Angeles Arts Commission. “The Ford is 1,200. They are completely, completely different animals.”
Mr. Morales, as he tested the new sound system, recalled the challenges of competing concerts as he welcomed a new era in the battle of the bowls.
“That’s really going to make our relationship much more neighborly,” he said gesturing at the soundproofing panels. Mr. Morales paused to take note of the way some of the higher-profile performances end at the Bowl. “Nothing much we can do about the fireworks.”