By Andy Hedden, Special to the Independent
Originally built in 1940, the 2,600 seat Irvine Bowl, home of the Pageant of the Masters, is arguably the most unique and charming amphitheater in Orange County.
On Oct. 10, 1939, Festival of Arts President Frank Hevener announced that a permanent site for the Pageant of the Masters would be created. Already a long-standing Laguna tradition, it had moved like a gypsy from makeshift venues within the city. Hevener scouted several locations with architect Roy Ropp and they agreed on a steeply sloped 25-acre parcel in Laguna Canyon, then part of the Irvine cattle ranch. Owner James Irvine agreed to donate the land, with the caveat that the city would provide tax allocations and that the Festival would also contribute. The site was deemed a recreational park, open to the public, with amenities such as festival grounds, tennis courts and a “temporary theater.” When Irvine died in 1947, the Irvine Recreation Park and Bowl was deeded to Laguna Beach with no further payments due.
In 1953, local architect and Festival board member Don Williamson was contracted to make major renovations. His vision included the now historic proscenium, and outside staging areas so that multiple pieces could be set up and shown in succession. He also designed turntable stages, very advanced. His plan provided for better infrastructure as well – expanded set and costume shops, offices, larger dressing rooms and a new stage. The original stage had spots so frail that one could fall through the floorboards if not careful. Plus, futuristic weather-resistant fiberglass benches replaced splinter-ridden wooden benches.
Even though the new seats were low maintenance, they still needed touching up. In 1957, then resident and famous movie star Bette Davis was asked by Pageant director Hap Graham to come down and help out with “a few chores.” A huge fan of the Pageant, the actress, who owned several homes in Laguna, stepped up, grabbed a bucket of white paint and a brush, and repainted numbers on the seats.
The bowl played host to many great shows beyond Pageant productions. Now defunct Opera Pacific staged a memorable production of “The Music Man” there. In the “Wells Fargo Wagon” number, a stagecoach drawn by four horses charged into the bowl and roared to a halt in front of the orchestra pit. Another defunct cultural organization, Ballet Pacifica, held many fine dance performances there. There were also amazing concerts – Kenny Loggins, Ben Vereen and Ella Fitzgerald, just to name a few.
So, why is the bowl only used for the Pageant now? Many reasons. First, city rules stipulate that bowl renters must be non-profit organizations. This financially limits how any producer could fill the space and break even. And it’s not just a matter of financing, but also logistics. A venue of that scale requires more than a great show, but infrastructure of crew, musicians, sets, props, lighting, and ushers.
“It’s too big for something small and too small for something big,” said Dan Duling, pageant scriptwriter and 31-year historian.
That holds true for concerts as well with an added variable – neighbors. Imagine having loud music rocked into the hills below your home.
But the bowl still reaches beyond the Pageant in its benefit to the community by hosting the LBHS commencement each year. Grads ascend the outside aisles and descend the inside ones, passing through flower festooned arches that the junior girls make by hand and hold high. When the grads get their diplomas, they strut across that magnificent stage as photos of them are blasted onto a huge screen. It’s a truly moving experience.
The venerable venue is scheduled for yet another renovation this fall, including the replacement of over 150 trees on the adjoining hillsides, much of which were lost in the 1993 firestorm. Whatever the future holds, what started as a temporary theater will always be a bowl full of cherries.
Andy Hedden is a lifelong resident.