Greek Theatre 75th anniversary
Theater nestled in L.A.’s Griffith Park is a gift that keeps on giving to performers and fans alike.
By Deborah Wilker
A special report from The Hollywood Reporter and Amusement Business, the international journal of out-of-home entertainment.
In 1896, when Los Angeles pioneer Griffith J. Griffith gave the city 3,000 acres of his Los Feliz Rancho to be used as a park, he did so with just one condition.
“It must be made a place of recreation and rest for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people,” Griffith told the Los Angeles City Council. “I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happier, cleaner and finer city. I wish to pay my debt of duty in this way to the community in which I have prospered.”
The land that would become Griffith Park would also soon become home to one of the world’s great performance venues, the Greek Theatre. Now, more than 100 years after Griffith’s initial gift — and 75 years after the grand opening of the Greek — his mission for “a happier” city stands, and the theater continues as a favorite among performers and fans.
“I’ll tell you why,” says legendary theater owner and producer Jimmy Nederlander, whose company manages the Greek. “It’s the location. It’s not where they usually build amphitheaters today, out on 10 miles of desert surrounded by a parking lot. This is a beautiful outdoor setting, like going camping in the woods. And it’s intimate.”
No doubt, the theater’s pristine environment — nestled in a canyon and fully surrounded by centuries-old trees — creates a calming vibe for all who visit.
“The Greek is a special place for artists because their friends and families are here, and they’re under a much different level of pressure than they are elsewhere,” says Mike Garcia, the theater’s general manager. “It can be kind of stressful when you’re performing for your friends, and I think the Greek just has a very calming atmosphere and it makes for a nice, easy day.”
And even though today’s fans can enjoy these shows from modern luxury boxes complete with elegant teak lawn chairs, little about the place has really changed. A recent $8 million renovation that also modernized food and beverage service, the boxoffice and the front-door plaza, among other areas, was painstakingly planned to keep the theater’s character, architecture and surroundings just as it always has been.
Through the decades, theatrical stars and musical performers covering most every imaginable genre have graced the venue. From early 20th-century opera stars presented by Enrico Caruso Jr. to today’s top rock acts, among them the White Stripes, the Strokes, Nickelback and so many others, the Greek has presented something for just about all tastes. Nat King Cole, the Who, Ray Charles (who marked his 10,000th concert at the Greek), Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jackson Browne, jazz greats such as Ramsey Lewis and Nancy Wilson, Tori Amos, Carole King, James Taylor, John Mayer, Phish, Tony Bennett, Marc Anthony, Robert Plant, Earth, Wind & Fire and Liza Minnelli are just a few of the musicians who have played there. Even “Weird Al” Yankovic has taken a turn on the Greek stage.
The theater has honored several of its top-selling performers by including them on its Wall of Fame, which celebrates those who have sold 100,000 tickets since the wall was created in 1992. Inductees include Carlos Santana, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mathis, the Gipsy Kings and Chicago.
In fact, Belafonte, who performed at the Greek just last year, was a fixture at the Greek throughout the 1950s and ’60s and has sold 721,894 tickets at the venue during his wide-ranging career. Neil Diamond, who recorded his seminal live album “Hot August Nights” at the Greek in 1972, holds the record for the most tickets sold during one stand — 84,672 from 14 nights in 1986.
Nederlander, whose company manages, owns and operates 25 theaters and amphitheaters worldwide, has seen his share of memorable performances during his more than six decades in the family business, but he says Greek shows by Judy Garland in 1957 and some of Frank Sinatra’s last shows in the early 1990s stand out.
“Judy was just a charming woman,” Nederlander says. “She had a certain something on that stage that all great stars have — a magnetism in her voice that attracted people. So did Frank. He was a terrific guy.”
But initially, Nederlander says, Sinatra was reluctant to perform at the Greek.
“When we told him he couldn’t land his helicopter on the (adjacent) golf course, he said he wouldn’t play,” Nederlander recalls. “So I called up Tom Bradley, who was the mayor at the time, and I said, ‘I wanna get Frank in here. Can you make arrangements?’ He said, ‘Yes, I will,’ and Frank landed his helicopter on the golf course.
“I don’t think anyone has done it since. It was a one-time thing for Frank.”
Of course, most musicians, particularly those on the rise, are so thrilled just to be booked into the place, they’d arrive by tricycle if need be.
Walter Parazaider, founding member of the rock band Chicago, said one of his group’s early performances there remains a pivotal moment in his life.
“We’ve done a lot of special shows at the Greek Theatre over the years, including a memorable week with Bill Conti conducting a full orchestra behind us; the L.A. Ballet company performed to our songs as the opening act. But one thing that always stands out to me is one of our earlier Greek shows,” he says. “My daughters, who were quite young at the time, were seated in the orchestra pit. I could see them jump up with the crowd to give us a standing ovation. It’s like they finally figured out what Daddy did for a living, and it made me feel like I’d really made it.”
Bette Midler also has fond memories of the Greek, and like many superstars, she says that playing there early on contributed greatly to the feeling that she had “made it” in showbiz.
“Well, I had heard all about it, and when I got there, yes, it did cross my mind — I did have that feeling,” she says.
But Midler, a staunch environmentalist who has raised millions to clean up parks, gardens and highways in New York, says it’s also the setting that stirs her.
“It really is magical,” Midler says. “It has the moon and the stars and the wind blowing through the trees. It’s very kind of otherworldly. It’s like being in a sylvan glade or something. And you really do feel like it’s been made especially for (music), and that a lot of care was taken when they built it.”
Greek lore has it that during one of Midler’s shows roughly 20 years ago, a family of raccoons crawled out of the rafters and joined her on stage, a moment she embraced by quietly moving toward them and then incorporating them into her act.
“Now that was one of the most magical nights of my life,” Midler says with a laugh. “Actually, they climbed up from the pit and we sang … I think I sang ‘Shiver Me Timbers’ to them. I wasn’t afraid of them because I used to have them in my backyard all the time.”
Those kinds of small moments — feeling as if you’re in your own backyard, whether watching or performing — is something that Garcia says has been paramount to the theater’s success.
“For starters, it’s the right number of seats,” Garcia says. “We’re not too big, we’re not too small. Yet when an artist plays here it always feels very intimate, even if you’re in the last row. It’s a very tight 6,000 seats. I think the cache here is that the bigger artists are willing to scale down in order to have a more intimate experience for multiple days, as opposed to just kind of getting in and getting out.
“And the acoustics are phenomenal,” he says. “When they selected this location for the amphitheater 75 years ago, they actually brought in the premiere opera singer of the day, Ellen Beach Yaw, to help decide where the theater should go. Colonel Griffith had five different spots in the park where he thought the theater could be built, and he started taking her around. And on the second stop, she said, ‘I don’t want to go any further. This is the perfect spot.’ ”
Published Sep. 15, 2004