Built in 1929, the history of the Greek Theatre dates as far back as 1882. That's when Griffith J. Griffith, who came to America as a penniless boy from Glamorganshire, South Wales and made his fortune in gold mining speculation, settled in Los Angeles. Griffith purchased the Los Feliz Rancho, four thousand acres of fine land northeast of the city and settled into the life of a farmer and family man, growing ever fonder of his adopted town. It was during this period that he wrote "Sometimes I ask myself, what have I done to perpetuate the prosperity of my city?"
Construction - 1929
During Christmas week of 1896, Griffith appeared before the Los Angeles City Council to make a present to the city -- three thousand acres of his Los Feliz Rancho to be used as a park. The enormous gift, equal to five square miles, was to be given to the city unconditionally -- or almost so. "It must be made a place of recreation and rest for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people," he said. "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 remained in its natural state for 16 years, a public park without rival in the world. But still, Griffith was not satisfied that he had fully "paid [his] debt of duty," and, accordingly, he reappeared before the City Council in 1912, again during Christmas week, with another gift in hand -- $100,000 for the construction of an observatory within the park. It was an idea whose time had not yet come, however, and the Council declined Griffith's offer. When he died in 1919, it was discovered that his will contained instructions to set up a trust fund of $1,000,000 for the construction of the observatory and also for a Greek Theatre, where residents of the city he loved, could come for the best entertainment in the world.
The site was selected almost immediately after Ellen Beach Yaw, a noted local soprano, demonstrated the wonderful natural acoustics of the park's natural canyon. But complications in settling Griffith's estate delayed the actual construction nearly a decade. The design for the building, prepared by the Board of Park Commissioners after an extensive survey of Greek theatres, incorporated a number of improvements and modernizations on the standard Greek Theatre plan, including a massive underground garage. The cornerstone was laid in late 1928, and the building was officially dedicated on Sept. 29, 1930 to Sept. 29, 1929.
That ceremony was an appropriate taste of things to come, combining the finest in classical (including Ms. Yaw) and contemporary music, an Indian episode and an excerpt from Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.
Dedication - 1929
Unfortunately, for almost a quarter of a century, the Greek Theatre was not used to its fullest capacity. During the 1930s, it was used only a handful of nights each season. During most of the 1940s it operated even less often -- and was used as a barracks during World War II.
The first systematic use of the Greek came when it was already more than 18 years old. A San Francisco-based theatrical producer had the idea of bringing legitimate stage shows, including Showboat and Anything Goes, down for two-week engagements throughout the summer.
In the 1950s, Los Angeles showman James Doolittle saw potential in the crumbling theatre and set out to make his dream a reality. The $1,000 Doolittle paid for the lease was only the start of funds he was to pump back into the Greek. He redesigned the theatre, changing the house and backstage equipment so it could compete with other 1950s theatres.
In 1975, the management of the Greek passed over to the James M. Nederlander
Companies whose other open-air theatres across the country provided the wealth of expertise needed for again modernizing the Greek. The Nederlanders repaired, renovated and rejuvenated the theatre with their philosophy of providing "something for everyone." By mobilizing their nation-wide network of talent buyers and offering a broad base of attractions -- from contemporary to classical artists -- the Nederlanders have been able to fulfill Griffith J. Griffith's original dream of offering Los Angeles the best entertainment in the world. In 1983, the Nederlanders took the Greek Theatre one more step into the future by expanding the seating capacity to 6,187. A 1995 earthquake retrofit brought the capacity to its present 6,162.
The Greek Theatre, under the direction of the Nederlanders, has made a great impact on Angelenos and has become a continuing source of excellent income for the City of Los Angeles. In addition to hosting legendary musical performances too numerous to mention, the Greek Theatre has served as the site of dozens of school graduations and as a backdrop for many TV shows and motion pictures.