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nytimes – Hollywood Bowl plans to open at full capacity

LOS ANGELES – They’re playing ball at Dodger Stadium, with all 56,000 seats on sale for games starting next month, and not an inch of social distance between them. Across the country, New York’s Radio City Music Hall is opening its doors and selling 5,960 seats shoulder-to-shoulder to vaccinees in a decidedly indoor setting.

As more people get vaccinated and government regulations on Covid appear to change week to week, concert halls and theaters scramble to track and determine when and how to welcome crowds again. on which they depend. For the Hollywood Bowl – perhaps the most famous outdoor venue in the country – that has meant making plans and tearing them up again, as it follows rapidly changing county and state regulations and changes public attitudes. before its scheduled opening on July 3.

The Bowl went through three different opening shots in the span of a month. Plan A, announced in early May, planned to sell only 25% of its 18,000 seats. Then, when county regulations changed, officials came up with a Plan B: sell two-thirds of the seats to the vaccinated and reserve just 488 seats less than the best for the unvaccinated.

This week the rules changed again, as California officials said that starting June 15, outdoor events could return to full capacity, with attendees being asked, but not required, to show proof of vaccination or negative test results. The Bowl has moved to Plan C: it is now preparing to sell 100 percent of the room.

“You can see how difficult it has been to navigate, especially for those of us who want to open by the summer,” said Chad Smith, general manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who runs the amphitheater, as he described in plan C. “Each time we announce the season based on the current protocol, then the current protocols change.”

The Bowl juggles the same forces that confront vacillating venues from coast to coast. Most are looking to sell as many seats as possible to recoup more than a year of lost revenue on tickets and concessions, without scaring off patrons who might not be eager to sit next to someone who doesn’t. had no luck. Finding the right balance is crucial for The Bowl, which provides most of the revenue for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which was forced to cut its budget from $ 152 million to $ 77 million to make up for the drop in revenue last year.

And the Bowl, carved out of a canyon just north of Hollywood Boulevard, isn’t just another place to catch a concert. For nearly 100 years, he has been a vibrant symbol of outdoor life and entertainment in Los Angeles and renowned across the country, famous enough to appear as a backdrop in classic films including “Double Indemnity.” , and to be commemorated in a Cartoon Bunny Bugs. The Beatles and Bill Clinton appeared on his stage.

The announcement that there would be no 2020 season – the first time an entire season had been canceled – was, for many in Los Angeles, a punch in the gut.

“We used to go to Bowl 12, 14 nights a year,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, who grew up attending the Bowl and became such a champion while serving on the county supervisory board whose the main entrance door bears the name. His Honor. “There was a deep void in my life.

Bowl rituals are shared and ingrained: Gustavo Dudamel, the Music Director of the Philharmonic Orchestra, takes the stage and uses his arms to wave the crowd to stand up for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Hollywood-style fireworks accompanying Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture. Even the helicopters that inevitably seem to fly over the sky as the driver picks up a stick.

His concerts under the stars, an eclectic program that ranges from Mahler’s symphonies to “Sound of Music”, pop and world music, begins in May and continues through November, with little risk of rain. or cold nights. (November can be risky months, as Barbra Streisand can attest after curling up in a blanket while playing as the temperature plummeted in the mid-1950s, an arctic snap by Southern California standards) .

And it is perhaps as good a place as any to measure the diversity of Los Angeles as you admire the sweep of faces from the orchestra all the way up the hill from night to night. . While the front seats can cost over $ 200, the seats at the top – “you in the balcony!” As Carol Channing would say from the stage – always go for $ 1 (not a typo) on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

The excitement over the promise of his return was on display during an inaugural dress rehearsal earlier this month as the orchestra prepared to give a special series of concerts for emergency medical workers. The crowd attending this first rehearsal, a sparse group of around 400, erupted into cathartic applause as Dudamel, smiling and waving, stepped out of a corner of the stage to begin directing, a sure sign that life could. finally get back to something close to normal. .

The rapidly changing rules will not only change the experience of members of the public. During the recent rehearsal, the musicians in the orchestra still had to sit at least six feet apart – a requirement that, if continued, would reduce the size of the ensemble by about 80 to 60 and, therefore, would limit its potential repertoire. They now expect the onstage distancing requirement to go away on opening day. But orchestra members, backstage staff, bailiffs and dealers will need to show proof of vaccination to come to work.

“It’s hard to plan when things are constantly changing under you,” said Nora E. Brady, vice president of marketing and communications for the Philharmonic Orchestra. “How many orchestra members can we put on stage? How many spectators can we have? “

These are not ordinary times and it will not be a typical season. There will be fewer shows, which means less income. “It’s a big loss,” Brady said. “We usually have 73 to 75 concerts per season. We currently have about fifty planned.

Smith said his priority was to make sure this season looks as normal as possible, all things considered, for his customers. As such, he said he was happy the state and county were moving toward approving a liberal and full steam ahead admission policy that he was confident would be in place. ‘here on the official opening day.

However, there has been deference to customers who are not ready to return. Those with box memberships – a precious commodity in Los Angeles, where they are often passed down from family to family – will be able to skip a season without losing their seats.

This is part of the real difficulty of reopening, ”said Smith. “I think there will be people who are not yet comfortable with a vaccinated and unvaccinated audience, and we are going to lose some of those clients until next summer. I also suspect that there is a huge desire to return to live performance outdoors. “

The initial decision to reserve the vast majority of seats for the vaccinated was in part a civic gesture, with the Bowl doing its part to encourage people to get vaccinated. But it was also a business decision, given that under county regulations at the time, the Bowl could sell 67% of seats in areas reserved for vaccinated, compared to around 23% in socially-only sections. distance reserved for these. not vaccinated.

“So really quickly, I said, we’re going to make this a mostly vaccinated-only place,” Smith said. “It was an economic decision as much as a decision to support people to get vaccinated.”

In many ways, it’s easier for the Bowl. Unlike other acclaimed summer venues – like Tanglewood in Massachusetts and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in upstate New York – it’s entirely outdoors: no hangars or tarps for the public. here. There are no high-tech challenges with ventilation and air filtration systems, and the risk of transmitting the virus is relatively low.

The stage is three times the size of the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage, which makes it easier to dispatch the orchestra if necessary. And the Bowl has been performing outdoors for nearly a century – through world wars, terrorist attacks, earthquakes and wildfires – giving it an almost unrivaled expertise across the country.

This period of experimentation and adjustment will also shape how the Los Angeles Philharmonic proceeds with a more difficult task in the fall, performing at Disney Hall, the 2,265-seat hall designed by Frank Gehry in the downtown area. of Los Angeles.

“It will be a gradual return to normal, which I think is the theme of everything,” said Sheila Kuehl, member of the supervisory board.

The pleasure of the Bowl is shared by the public as well as by the artists. John Mauceri, who led the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra for 16 years, said he always made a point of stopping to address the audience, in part to appreciate the immensity of the experience. (The Bowl Orchestra offers its own program, in addition to the work of the Philharmonic.)

“You are aware of this gigantic space, 18,000 people,” he said. “Talk about the speed of sound or light. If I said something funny, it literally took half a second for the sound from the stage to hit your back. You have to have the courage to wait for it to land. to get the answer back to you.

“Although a conductor turns his back on the audience, you really feel their presence,” he said. “Although the back of the neck, you know what’s going on. It’s amazing when 18,000 diverse people come together and concentrate.

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