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John Anson Ford Theatres will reopen in July, with historic outdoor venue refurbished

David Ng
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times

After nearly four years of renovations at a cost of close to $66 million, the historic John Anson Ford Theatres complex in the hills of the Cahuenga Pass will be taking its bow, with a public reopening set for July.

The complex's outdoor theater — first opened in 1920 as a home for the New Testament-themed "The Pilgrimage Play" and then rebuilt a decade later after a fire — is finishing a major refurbishment that county leaders hope will bring new life to the venue, which had fallen victim to Mother Nature and piecemeal construction over the years.

With a new stage, lighting and drainage system to prevent flooding, the Ford is expected to be more welcoming as a place for live entertainment and as a scenic destination offering views of the Hollywood Hills.

The summer season officially runs from July 8 to Oct. 15 and will feature multicultural programming that emphasizes local performing arts groups, a focus that for years has distinguished the Ford from its larger sibling, the Hollywood Bowl. The Ford seats about 1,245, less than one-tenth of the capacity of the Bowl.

"The Ford is an experience," managing director Adam Davis said. "It's not just about coming to see a show. It is a social experience as well."

A new picnic terrace will accommodate at least 125 people who can order from the theater's new concession services, which will include a full kitchen for the first time. Crumble Catering will develop a menu that is expected to include full dinners, according to Davis. Crumble also does the catering for Rockwell Table & Stage in Los Feliz.

The picnic terrace and concession stand are expected to be completed in August, when the county and the Ford Theatre Foundation, the nonprofit organization that helps to support the venue, will conduct a dedication ceremony.

Among the most notable changes will be a new sound barrier intended to muffle noise from the nearby 101 Freeway. Other changes will be invisible: The new drainage system will whisk away rainwater that once flowed from the neighboring hills. In the past, the theater used sandbags.

Updated landscaping will give the outdoor spaces a new feel.

The final price tag is expected to be $65.8 million, according to Laura Zucker, executive director at the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, which oversees the venue. The vast majority of the money came from the L.A. County capital projects funds, with additional support from private donors.

"It's your tax dollars hard at work," she said.

The final cost is about 17% above initial estimates, she said, largely because of unforeseen events including a change in the electrical code that triggered additional expenditures.

"As we excavated, things we thought had foundations in bedrock didn't," she said.

As part of the renovations, the Ford's 87-seat indoor theater, called Inside the Ford, will no longer exist. The space will be used for an indoor self-serve food market.

"We thought a lot about it. It was not a choice that was made lightly by any means," Zucker said.

She said the small theater and outdoor theater could not be used simultaneously because of noise crossover.

The Ford will retain much of the historic architecture. The theater was designed to resemble the gates of ancient Jerusalem as a kind of monumental set for "The Pilgrimage Play," a drama about the life of Jesus that ran at the theater for more than four decades. The play was written by Christine Wetherill Stevenson, who was instrumental in securing the land and building the original theater.

The venue was known as the Pilgrimage Theatre for years. In 1976, it was renamed in honor of the Third District county supervisor who was a supporter of the arts.

Former Third District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was the main impetus behind the current renovations. The refurbishment will help draw more local performers to the Ford, said Sheila Kuehl, the current supervisor from the district.

"My hope is that we will continue to do that [and] to bring it back to the consciousness of the county," she said.

david.ng@latimes.com

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Highlights from the summer season at the Ford

Taikoproject & Quetzal, "Concrete Saplings," July 8

Aloe Blacc, July 9

"The Fil-Am Collective Music Show," July 24

"Fiesta Mexicana XIV: Inolvidable (Unforgettable)," July 30

Lila Downs with Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company, Aug. 12-13

Eastside Luv, "English as a Second Language Vol. 3," Aug. 20

Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, "Let's Play LA!": Aug. 21

Urban Bush Women and Contra-Tiempo, Aug. 27

"Bluegrass at the Ford," Aug. 28

Pacific Opera Project, Mozart's "The Abduction From the Seraglio," Sept. 3

Versa-Style Dance Company, "Box of Hope," Sept. 17

"We Have to Go Back: The Lost Concert," Sept. 23

"¡Viva La Tradición! La Mujer y el Mariachi," Sept. 25

Overtone Industries, "The Iceland Concert," Oct. 7

Info: (323) 461-3673, www.FordTheatres.org

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