Natural amphitheaters in canyons have long been a place for people to gather and listen to musical performances. The sloping of the hillsides gives everyone a good view, and the addition of a band shell helps to project the sound out to the audience.
Amphitheaters are popular across the world and most big cities have one. Because of their shape, they are often nicknamed “bowls.” Of course the most famous is the Hollywood Bowl. It was built in 1922 as a community space, a performance spot for local orchestras but because of its location, it soon became a world-class venue. The closest bowl to us is the Starlight Bowl, built into a canyon in 1950 on the other side of the Verdugo Mountains overlooking Burbank.
But in the late 1940s a massive amphitheater, nearly the size of the Hollywood Bowl, was planned for Tujunga. It was proposed to seat 15,000. For comparison, the modern Hollywood Bowl seats 17,500. A local outdoor amphitheater had long been a dream for poet and playwright John Steven McGroarty, who built his home in Tujunga. And in the 1940s that dream was taken up by the Sunland-Tujunga Bowl Association.
In early 1948 the dream was kicked into high gear when an anonymous donor offered a large piece of land at the north end of McVine Avenue, less than a mile from Foothill Boulevard. The donated land had the natural “bowl” required and there was ample parking on empty land below the proposed amphitheater. Sound engineers proclaimed the site acoustically perfect. A rendering showed the amphitheater wrapped nicely in a fold of the mountains, the audience facing southwest with a bandshell at the bottom. Just behind the audience was a ridgeline and below that Big Tujunga Canyon. It was a visually spectacular location. Even before the bowl was built, 3,000 people showed up for an Easter sunrise service on the site. It was happening!
While the Bowl Association began to work on building a venue, the community got to work on creating performing groups. A Sunland-Tujunga Symphony Orchestra was formed and performed at Sunland Park and school auditoriums. An operatic group was formed with its first performance to be the opera “Carmen.” As the bowl was not built yet, “Carmen” was performed in the Pinewood Elementary auditorium to several sold-out audiences.
Perhaps the most remarkable performing group formed was the Sunland-Tujunga Chorus. It was headed by the famous Italian composer Rico Marcelli. Although Marcelli began as a composer of operas, he found his greatest fame as an orchestral conductor. He was the conductor (and composer) for many of the great silent movie houses, most famously for arranging and conducting the music for “Salome.” He later transitioned to conducting orchestras backing radio shows like Fibber McGee and Molly. He retired to Sunland. The Sunland-Tujunga Chorus debuted on KHJ radio.
Obviously, the bowl never happened. In the fall of 1948, everything suddenly fell apart. The site in a residential neighborhood was not zoned for a big venue like this, so the City of LA initially nixed the concept. Petitions were circulated in the community and hundreds signed. A hearing was set for August to work through the zoning issues. A variance was granted, but with very stringent restrictions. The seating capacity was drastically reduced to 4,000. Fire restrictions, increased water supply and paved roads leading to the bowl were made requirements, ballooning the cost of the bowl.
The Bowl Association grudgingly accepted the conditions, but a few days later the killing blow was struck. During escrow, the anonymous donor suddenly and without warning withdrew his donation offer. This, combined with the zoning restrictions, was the end for the Sunland-Tujunga Bowl Association. The president of the group resigned, and the association disbanded. Apparently all the performing groups that had formed faded away.
The bowl site was graded and developed. It’s fun to think about this major concert venue that would have rivaled the Hollywood Bowl. It probably would have changed the fabric of Sunland-Tujunga and made it a magnet for the arts. But it was a momentary flash of a dream that faded quickly.