Monday, October 24, 2016

Sounds of Silence: Why does Highland Park’s community bandshell sit empty most of the year?

Another quiet afternoon at the Sousa-Hiner Bandshell

Weekends usually find Sycamore Grove Park in Highland Park busy with families celebrating birthdays, kids jumping around the playground and customers lined up at the mariscos trucks parked on Figueroa. But in midst of the lively parties and noisy kids, the bandshell in the center of the park is usually quiet, the rows of bleachers nearly empty.

In fact, the Sousa-Hiner Bandshell is rarely booked for concerts or events. A recent call to the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, which manages the facility, revealed that you could pretty much book the bandshell any day this summer without a problem. But there are few takers, with some residents blaming high fees charged by the department for allowing the bandshell to sit silent most of the year.

For example, when the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council inquired about booking the bandshell for a series of free, outdoor movies this summer, the organizers decided to drop that idea when they were informed of the costs:  $400 for the first two hours in addition to a $75 reservation fee, a $50 electrical hook up fee and a $150 refundable clean up deposit. Additional hours would cost $75 each. Despite being associated and overseen by a city agency, the Highland Park neighborhood council members were told the fees could not be waived.

“Our goal is to eventually move these movie night events to the beautiful Hollywood Bowl-eque bandshell that we have in Sycamore Grove Park, a community asset that is woefully underutilized,” said council board member Aaron Salcido.

It “makes no sense to use city money to pay for a city venue,” said fellow board member Terri Bonsal.

Given the city’s financial condition, it does not look like the Recreation and Parks Department is about to waive or lower those fees.

The park bandshell has not always been such a quiet place.  A bandshell  of some kind has been located in the park for nearly a century, with an August 1905 L.A. Times story saying that a bandstand was to be erected as part of an improvement project (It’s not clear how long the current bandshell, which was expanded and remodeled about 50 year years ago, has been in operation.)

During the decades, the Sycamore Grove bandshell  has hosted countless concerts and events, ranging from 1960s peace rallies to Iowa state picnics. On a June night in 1922, about 3,000 people descended on the park and bandshell to listen to their favorite radio artists. A Times story describes the scene of as members of the Times Radio Club gathered in the park:

Never has the eerie, moonlit facade of the Southwest Museum gazed down from its lofty aerial lookout upon a finer or more enthusiastic throng. Never have the graceful arms of the venerable sycamores embraced more loving the shell-like rostrum where sat as honored guests ….the gracious men, women and little folk whose artistry so many times lent keen delight to the sounds of Southern Californians.

In 2006, the bandshell was named in honor of dentist-turned band teacher Edward M. Hiner, who lived across the street from the park, and conductor and composer John Philip Sousa, who visited Hiner several times over the years.

Some of the groups that have used the bandshell in recent years speak highly of the location. Organizers of Lummis Day, a celebration of Northeast L.A. culture and history, used the bandshell for several years at a  reduced rate. But the festival was forced to move after Recreation and Parks raised its fees, said Eliot Sekuler with the Lummis Day Community Foundation.

“In 2010, their fee increased drastically, beyond our ability to pay,” Sekuler said.  “We moved to Heritage Square Museum in 2010 and have been very happy with that location.”

Last June, the bandshell hosted bands and storytellers as part Urban Rancho, a series of events that promote sustainable gardening and living as well as local history and culture.

“I thought it was great,” said Katherine Parra of Urban Rancho. The park staff was very helpful, even filling in gopher holes and handling clean up, she said.

But, Parra, concedes, she could not have used the bandshell without the help of Council District 1, which handled the permitting and fees, she said. Without similar help, Parra said she could not afford to hold the event at the bandshell.

“Why can’t we have our own version of Levitt Pavillion,” Para said in reference to the MacArthur Park bandshell that hosts summer concerts. “It’s sad it’s not used being used.”

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  1. The zero budget option is to cut the f*&ing locks and jack the power from an unguarded outlet. Lord only knows what type of world we would live in if self expression and public arts performances were to spontaneously break out. I think this is a strategic part of a plan to prevent us from participating in our own lives – and maintaining our dependence on the television and movies for “culture”.

  2. I agree with ubrayj02, our “parks” in LA have become spaces of grass with an ever ending list of what you can’t do in the park! this would be the perfect place for a movie night or summer concert series.

  3. What a sad waste of a public resource. This is why Europe does it better than we do, because they invest in the people, rather than charging us for something our tax dollars already paid for.

    • You mean the UK, where avg income tax is 40%? Yes, they get more free stuff & don’t have to pay for something their taxes already pay for.

  4. I drive past that bandshell almost every day. And in the almost 5 years I lived here, I’ve never seen it used once.

    Opening up the bandshell for summer movie nights and concerts is a great idea.

  5. Maybe it’s waiting for a group of people to take up that cause. The Levitt was also underutilized, but it takes sponsors, someone with organizational and connections. Anyone? I’ll help. Who’s with me?

  6. Thanks for letting me know about the fees, I’ve been talking w/some bands about doing early evening or afternoon shows here, and a combination Movies and Music would be awesome too, but $400 is a steep initial cost. Maybe with this article the ball can start rolling to “find a way” to get the fee reduced, or find some contributor/sponsor to help out with this and other cultural experiences at this bandstand. Poor Figueroa, still not getting the Highland Park love that York’s ‘Miracle Block’ is getting. So much great potential still in this whole NE area for the young and old and all cultures to be enjoying.

  7. I was just saying how the last time I really enjoyed Lummis Day was when it was int he park there. Heritage Square just seems to hot, too dusty, and just way too crowded when everybody show up.

    Oh and the Urban Rancho is awesome. I hope they have more of those.

    They should really let people use this for free, when they are providing free entertainment to the community. What a waste for it to remain closed. Plus it’s nice to encourage people to go to the parks. Probably could work way better than those useless exercise machines they keep installing everywhere.

  8. As a blue collar performer I am always on the lookout for a place to do a busking show when I’m not working on the road and that location would work pretty well I think. Unfortunately the price is way too high for a simple busking show.

  9. A few years ago, our band was booked to do an afternoon show and a family having a kids birthday party close to the shell complained that the music was ruining their party.

    • Good. All us natives need is for hipsters to assume control of our traditional spot for birthday parties and family gatherings. A safe and inexpensive place for family is much more important to our community than having to tolerate the “art” of unknown and uninvited artists. Emphasis on uninvited. Popular musicians and performances that the community actually desires is another thing but keep the exclusive and experimental stuff to weekdays that won’t interfere with family weekends.

      • Well guess what, I’ve been a resident since birth (over 40 years ago) and I WOULD DEFINITELY WELCOME concerts in the park, and other community events that invite more than gangs and homeless to Highland Park! Birthday parties should not be the only “welcome” events at the park that is FOR EVERYONE!

  10. Hi All! Thanks for the support! In order to make any progress on this, we need to be able to show a stong community demand for its use. Working toward that, the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council is hosting our second outdoor movie night on Saturday, June 29th at 7:30pm at the Highland Park Recreation Center. We had 175 people attend our first one last month and are aiming for 250 at this next one. We need people like you to come out and attend so that we can make a case for hosting more events like this at the bandshell! Hope to see you there!!

  11. Back when I attended Sycamore Grove School in the 80s my teachers (Rev. Cruver and Randal Crags) would organize us kids to have the ultimate dodge ball games on the band shell every Friday or walk the Arroyo Seco and race our tiny homemade boats. But memories of standing on the bans shell stage, leaping, ducking, and diving out of the way of fore-square balls thrown buy my peers who lined up to get a shot at one another, never leaves my thoughts. I love those gophers, those Sycamore trees, the now defunct Sycamore Grove School, the bridge over the Pasadena Freeway, and the huge shutter that covers that band shell. Lets get together and play some dodge ball until someone finds a way to make some use of that poorly managed piece of awesomeness.

  12. Wow, I haven’t thought about this stage in ages. Way back when, I remember a charity benefit of some sort being held there. There were a lot of performances, but what I remember most is that Jonathan Winters was in the audience. I don’t think he performed, but my father was a great fan and I remember him shaking his hand. I also remember that Ann B Davis was there too, and she looked just like her character “Alice” from the Brady Bunch. Same rolled up hair and all. Then there was that crazy cement pond that filled up with water during the summers. Does anyone know if that is still there? One of these days I have to revisit this park.

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