The Hollywood Bowl Plays Itself: A History of Film Music at the Bowl
LA Phil 100: Centennial Reflections • SEP 2019
Pictured above: from Black Movie Soundtrack II, August 2016
Founded in 1919 and the summer home of the LA Phil since 1922, the Hollywood Bowl is Hollywood’s most enduring landmark – older than both Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (1926) and the Hollywood Sign (1923). In fact, the Bowl is almost as old as the Hollywood film industry itself.
Unsurprisingly, the venue has played a starring role in film, and film music performed there has delighted audiences for decades. This month’s Centennial Reflections highlights historic moments in Bowl film history, leading up to the latest chapter in the story: Black Movie Soundtrack III on September 25th.
The Hollywood Bowl in Film
The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and “Father of the Bowl” conductor Alfred Hertz appeared on screen in the first major movie set at the venue: 1928’s Jazz Mad. The film starred character actor Jean Hersholt as a forgotten emigre composer whose life is turned around when his long-lost masterpiece is heard by audiences at the Bowl.
In the scene, both Hertz and Hersholt’s character are seen conducting the Bowl orchestra, but sadly we don’t know what they sounded like as it was a silent film. (Hersholt took a liking to the place and later served as a director of the Hollywood Bowl Association, helping to save the venue from financial collapse in 1951.)
Lobby Card for the 1928 silent film Jazz Mad
Over the next nine decades, the Hollywood Bowl would serve as a frequent film location. In the 1937 version of A Star Is Born, Janet Gaynor’s character looks out at the audience and exclaims, “Look at all the people! Everybody in the world.” In 1972, Peter Falk’s Columbo solved a murder at the Bowl involving a socialite not dissimilar to Bowl patron Dorothy “Buff” Chandler. In 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful, the Brat Pack snuck in after hours to help Eric Stoltz woo Lea Thompson.
The most cinematic Bowl break in, however, came in 1945’s Anchors Aweigh, when Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly slid down a hillside and ran down the aisles to see Bowl regular José Iturbi leading a masterclass of 18 students performing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in unison.
Director George Sydney (himself a musician) used elaborate crane shots to show the scale of the venue up from Iturbi’s hands to 18,000 empty seats above. To create the sound of 18 pianos, Sydney looped the playing of just four pianists, one of whom was a 16-year-old André Previn.
Film Music at the Hollywood Bowl and the Origin of Black Movie Soundtrack
America in Space featured film scores and new works about exploration. (Photo by Rob Blum)
Since John Williams and Ernest Fleischmann first thought of the idea 41 years ago, film music has become standard repertoire at the Hollywood Bowl. Annual traditions like the Sound of Music Sing-A-Long and Williams’ Maestro of the Movies concerts draw sell-out crowds, while new scores are regularly added to the canon of modern classics at concerts like this summer’s America in Space night featuring music from Hidden Figures, Gravity, First Man, Apollo 13, and The Martian.
Williams’ and Fleischmann’s experiments with “movie” nights in the 1970s helped to legitimize film scores in the minds of classical music audiences in Southern California and around the world. The Bowl has played an important role as Hollywood’s concert hall ever since.
In 2014, the Hollywood Bowl again became a platform to recognize music that had not been given the attention it was due. Fresh off his Oscar nomination for Django Unchained, film producer Reginald “Reggie” Hudlin began working with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on a concert celebrating black movie music.
Hudlin’s first move was to reach out to legendary composer, producer, and bass guitarist Marcus Miller. “It sounded like an idea that had been happening for the last 15 or 20 years,” Miller said in an interview in 2014. “I couldn't believe it. No, it had never been done ... We were thinking, maybe do something small at the Film Academy. 200 people. The next thing we know ... we're looking at a full Hollywood Bowl!”
Hudlin and Miller recruited actor, comedian, and musician Craig Robinson to host a concert they named Black Movie Soundtrack that featured Bilal, Anthony Hamilton, Public Enemy, Lalah Hathaway, Princess (Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum), and En Vogue and music from Do the Right Thing, Boomerang, Shaft, The Bodyguard, Purple Rain, and countless others.
“When you sit in the theater, and you see someone who looks like you. That’s a really big thing. We remember that so much, because we didn’t see it,” Hudlin recalled of his childhood. “The most emails I ever got in my life after one show was after Black Movie Soundtrack. It wasn’t just about this music, it was about being proud of the history.”
“Music is powerful on its own. Film is powerful. When you combine them, it’s incredibly effective. It’s how you change the world. We began to realize how important this is. To see black people on the screen at the age of 13, it changed my life. I can’t tell you what seeing someone like yourself represented does for your self-esteem, your sense of who you are.”
“This concert is like a hug for your soul.”
Reginald “Reggie” Hudlin, Craig Robinson, Marcus Miller
Hudlin had started planning for Black Movie Soundtrack by writing up a list of songs that “needed” to be included – it numbered 130. “I asked [LA Phil Vice President of Presentations Laura Connelly] how many songs can we do? She said twelve, if you're lucky. I said: LOOK AT THIS LIST!” Connelly assured Hudlin that they were just getting started.
Hudlin, Miller, and Robinson teamed up again in 2016 for Black Movie Soundtrack II, featuring Kenneth ‘Babyface’ Edmonds, Charlie Wilson, Gladys Knight, and Common. At the top of that show, Hudlin promised “I’m already planning a third installment. I’ve still got 100 songs to go.”
That third installment will be September 25th featuring El DeBarge, Dionne Farris, Chaka Khan, Meshell Ndegéocello, Raphael Saadiq, Charlie Wilson, and BeBe Winans. We hope you’ll be there to experience the next chapter in the history of film music at the Hollywood Bowl.
To learn more about the LA Phil’s history and its road ahead, look for our limited-edition, two-volume Centennial publication: Past/Forward: The LA Phil at 100, available online and at the LA Phil Store.