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Rock star : Santa Barbara Bowl turns 75

April 3, 2011 9:14 AM


The Santa Barbara Bowl is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

Yet there are many in this community who remain unaware of its spectacular setting in a natural amphitheater carved out of a canyon near Milpas and Anapamu streets and within blocks of downtown Santa Barbara.

And even fewer probably know about the venue's fascinating history that began at the height of the Great Depression in January 1936 as a WPA (Works Project Administration) program to provide jobs for men who needed employment.

In December 1935, approval was received for the $77,000 project, and work began soon after, according to a Santa Barbara News-Press article dated Aug. 29, 1962.

The late Wallace C. Penfield was a county planner at the time, and one of his jobs was designing WPA projects.

Santa Barbara Bowl
Rick Boller is executive director of the Santa Barbara Bowl, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Almost 5,000 can be seated at the amphitheater that was built in 1936 at the height of the Great Depression to provide jobs for men who were out of work. THOMAS KELSEY/NEWS-PRESS
Santa Barbara Bowl
Construction to renovate the Bowl stage and restrooms under it was a major project in 2002. RAFAEL MALDONADO/NEWS-PRESS FILE
Santa Barbara Bowl
Fred Ziesenhenne and his older brother, Rudolph Henry Ziesenhenne, grew up in a home that was surrounded by the Bowl, where they frequently played between performances. COURTESY PHOTO

Colorful details about the construction were revealed in a piece he wrote for the spring 1973 issue of Noticias, the quarterly bulletin of the Santa Barbara Historical Society.

"Veteran County Supervisor Sam Stanwood ('Old Sam' as he was affectionately called) came into my office and in his inimitable drawl said 'I want you to come up and take a look at a piece of property Old Pink Whiskers wants to give us for a place to put on our Fiesta pageant.' Old Pink Whiskers was none other than Mr. George A. Bachelder who had developed the Riviera and who, at that time, was a leader in many cultural activities of Santa Barbara ..." wrote Mr. Penfield.

In his piece, "The Santa Barbara County Bowl: Some Recollections," he wrote that "Sam ... was the long-time (1927 to 1947) almost perennial President of Old Spanish Days and had been in charge of the logistics of the Fiesta since its inception. He was a notorious 'sandbagger' who used everybody and every facility he could beg or borrow to put on the Fiesta for as little money as possible, and he usually succeeded."

Fiesta or Old Spanish Days is an annual event, still held during the first week in August, to celebrate the history, customs and traditions of the American Indian, Spanish, Mexican and early American settlers. It begins with Fiesta Pequena at the Santa Barbara Mission on a Wednesday evening and ends on Sunday. Included are parades, parties, receptions, rodeos and numerous festivities.

One of Mr. Stanwood's pet projects was the pageant, written, produced and directed by Charles Pressley and performed every evening during the Fiesta, according to Mr. Penfield.

"In the design of the Bowl, Sam set down ironclad, but simple, specifications with two major objectives. First, the Bowl must be built to serve the Fiesta with proper display features for the beautiful Palomino and Camarillo Arabian horses, and second, the revolving stage must be included to accommodate Charlie Pressley's pageants," wrote Mr. Penfield.

"So a path was built from the top of the east side of the canyon to allow the torchlight procession of horses to wind slowly down the hill onto the stage - truly an unforgettable sight. The stage was huge to accommodate the revolving section and a grassy space provided between the audience and the stage for exhibitions of horsemanship."

The seating capacity was set at 3,500 people and arranged in a flat semi-circle on the side hill. The area under the stage was used for dressing rooms. Today, there is seating for almost 5,000.

For advice on acoustic problems, Leopold Stokowski, the famous conductor who lived in Montecito at the time, was consulted.

"Of course, he could think only of a symphony concert and recommended a great shell as in the Hollywood Bowl, but Charlie Pressley's pageants won out, and it was never built," wrote Mr. Penfield.

The revolving stage came to a dramatic end several years after the Bowl was finished on Aug. 12, 1936, when "Santa Barbara received one of its characteristic sky-dropping storms. The little creek in the Bowl canyon became a torrent, and the drain inlet was plugged with debris, causing flooding underneath the stage. The poorly compacted fill and rickety foundations of the revolving stage reacted in natural fashion, and the whole underside settled into a crazy house of weird angles and sunken floors ...

"So, we replaced the foundations with reinforced concrete and replaced the whole stage, straightened up the dressing rooms, but ended the career of the revolving stage," wrote Mr. Penfield.

Numerous photos of the construction process were taken by the late Rudolph Ziesenhenne, a well-known begonia hybridizer who had his home and nursery at the base of the canyon, next to what is now the Bowl parking lot.

His son, Fred Ziesenhenne, 64, has many fond memories of growing up in the home with his father, mother Margaret, and older brother, Rudolph Henry Ziesenhenne, who lives in the Los Angeles area.

Santa Barbara Bowl

"I remember my father telling me about the dynamite charges that were set off to clear the area where the seats are now. One of the blasts sent a big piece of rock down the hill and severed the trunk of huge oak tree in half," said Mr. Ziesenhenne, who works with the energy management system at UCSB and lives on Foothill Lane with his wife, Linda Curtis, and four daughters.

"One of the huge boulders was full of marine specimens, and a big chunk was sent to the Smithsonian Institution. If you look at rocks in the walls and other places at the Bowl, you can still see fossils," said Mr. Ziesenhenne, who spent many happy hours playing with his brother and other friends at the Bowl between performances.

Born 10 years after the Bowl was built, Mr. Ziesenhenne, a Santa Barbara native, remembers watching preparations for the annual Fiesta pageants.

"I used to sit on the rock wall, which is still to the left of the Bowl entrance, and watch the trucks that drove up from Hollywood with lighting for the stage. When the trucks came by, we knew Fiesta was here," he told the News-Press during an interview at the Bowl box office, housed in the adobe at the parking lot entrance.

Now grandmothers, Judy Pearce, 69, and Pamela Webber, 80, participated in the pageants at the Bowl.

"The performances usually ended with a wedding (scene) where the out-of-town guests were the riders coming down the hill. I decided I wanted to be one of the riders rather than a dancer," said Mrs. Pearce, a Carpinteria resident.

Since 1946, she has been riding in the Fiesta parade - "not all of them"; this year will be special because her 70th birthday, Aug. 5, is the same day as El Desfile Historico, the horse parade.

Mrs. Pearce was part of the group called the Santa Barbara Bowl Riders.

"During Fiesta, the horses were kept in a county yard, where the Historical Museum is now at the corner of De la Guerra and Santa Barbara streets. Before our appearance in the Fiesta pageant, police on motorcycles would escort us along De la Guerra Street and up Garcia Road to the ridge behind the Bowl," recalled Mrs. Pearce.

"People who lived on Garcia Road would have parties to watch us go by. It was all very festive," she said.

Mrs. Webber, co-owner of the Best Western Plus Pepper Tree Inn since 1962, said she and her daughter, Jeanette, 58, were Santa Barbara Bowl Riders for about four years on their quarter horses.

"The back of the stage wasn't there, and the shrubs weren't as high, so the audience could really see the riders coming down the hill in full Fiesta costume, ruffled everything. It was exciting and fun, and everyone loved it," she told the News-Press. "The population of Santa Barbara was 25,000 then, and Fiesta was a big thing."

Besides the Old Spanish Days productions, the Bowl was also used for concerts and recitals, notably the San Francisco Pops Orchestra with Arthur Fiedler and special programs by the Music Academy of the West.

When World War II broke out, the Fiesta pageants stopped.

During the 1960s and 1970s, rock concerts became popular and the Bowl became a sought-after spot for legends of music such as Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell and Bob Marley. In the '80s, the Bowl became a major rock venue still managed by Old Spanish Days.

By the time the nonprofit Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation took over in 1994, the facility was in bad shape.

Led by Sam Scranton, who became executive director, the Foundation began a fundraising campaign, earning enough to buy a piece-meal stage roof for $180,000 in 1995 to handle heavier lighting, and in 1996, approximately $500,000 was raised to replace the power, water and sewage lines, according to a News-Press article dated Aug. 26, 2001.

A new drainage system was installed in 2000, at a cost of $300,000, to prevent winter rains from flooding the stage, an annual occurrence since the Bowl was built.

Meanwhile, the Bowl attracted big-name performers like Santana, Sting and Paul Simon.

When Mr. Scranton retired in 2009, Rick Boller took over as executive director of the thriving venue that has become a favorite with top stars in the world of music. Among those lined up for the 75th anniversary season are Katy Perry, Peter Gabriel and Steely Dan.

The 2011 season opens with two nights of Janet Jackson on Saturday and April 10.

A native of Santa Barbara, Mr. Boller, 41, began working at the Bowl box office in 1992, and eventually became business administrator and assistant general manager to Mr. Scranton.

During an interview in the box office, he talked about the improvements that have been accomplished as part of what is called "The American Classic Campaign" that was launched in 2004 under the direction of Paul Dore, president of the board of directors for the Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation.

"More than $20 million from individuals, corporations and foundations have provided significant improvements to the Bowl," he said. "Included are the Wendy McCaw Terrace for sponsor and donor receptions; the Pavilion, a superstructure above the stage that houses the lighting, sets, props, lifts and video walls; and the Angie and Stephen Redding Gate that opens into the Jerry Garcia Glen, just inside the Bowl grounds."

A gift from the Brittingham Family Foundation, the wooded area features a bronze sculpture of the late Greatful Dead guitarist-singer Jerry Garcia's picking hand, which has one finger missing.

"Jerry Garcia lost the middle finger of his right hand at the age of 4. It was chopped off with an axe by his older brother while the two were chopping wood," explained Mr. Boller.

Scheduled for completion in the next several years are the Overlook, an upper-level terrace with concessions and restrooms; upgraded patron seating; and the Dreier Administration Building and Box Office that will replace the Bowl's 1950s-era box office and main headquarters.

Mr. Boller said that having an outdoor amphitheater in a residential area can pose problems, which have been resolved.

"Having a 10 p.m. curfew for performances helps, and we have a long-standing amicable relationship with the neighbors. Open communication keeps them happy. They know that if they have a concern, they can pick up the phone and give me a call," said Mr. Boller.

As for the next 75 years, the young executive director said his first priority will be "to continue fundraising and to finish the Master Plan renovations that we have set out to complete. In addition ... we will continue to further the Santa Barbara Bowl Education Outreach that provides arts education and programs to school-age children in the community.

"It will continue and always be the Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation's goal to present diverse artists that appeal to the community and our patrons. Lastly, the organization would like to ultimately further develop endowments in order to provide long-term funding for facility maintenance and repairs, programming and arts education," said Mr. Boller.



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