Forgotten Founder Dr. T. Perceval Gerson believed that in the midst of a “world cataclysm” we should “do something about it, and now.”

For the first time in 98 years, there will be no Summer Symphonies Under the Stars at the Hollywood Bowl. The LA Philharmonic announced the 2020 season’s cancellation in May, stating that in order “to protect our artists, audiences, staff, and community from the spread of COVID-19” the Bowl would go silent this summer. [1]

To say this is a disappointment to Angelenos is a vast understatement. Outdoor concerts at the Bowl are a beloved summer tradition in Los Angeles and a favorite gathering place for family and friends. As Jessica Gelt of the LA Times put it: “The Hollywood Bowl is summer in Los Angeles…the sun melting like deep-yellow butter over the hills, stars blinking awake in the darkening dome of the sky. The Hollywood Bowl is music: resplendent strings, cascading guitars, heart-beat drums.“[2]

For many, the cancellation of the 2020 season drove home the notion that this pandemic is not going away any time soon, a particularly jarring realization considering no other manmade catastrophe, not depression, nor war, nor civil unrest, nor natural disaster has ever merited the cancelation of a Bowl season before. 

But what does this have to do with the Bowl’s founding? The launching of a performing arts movement that would eventually become the Hollywood Bowl was sparked in large part by another pandemic, the 1918 Spanish Flu. 

In the summer of 1918, Dr. T. Perceval Gerson attended a pageant about the life of Buddha, “The Light of Asia,” at the Krotona Theatre in Hollywood, and he was delighted by the performance. He later described it as a “thrilling drama, which brought spiritual inspiration to so many.” Gerson was so inspired that he gathered fifty friends and acquaintances together the following night and invited the pageant’s sponsor, Christine Wetherill Stevenson, to discuss the possibility of launching a fine arts movement in Hollywood.

Gerson would later recall why he felt this moment in time so urgently demanded action:

At the time our country was involved in stupendous World War I. It was a time when the world was aflame and men dying – days of international bitter ill-will and desperate uncertainty and all America’s resources were being called upon. At the time a pandemic of virulent influenza also was raging, claiming tens of thousands of lives, devastating our land and exacting a grim toll in most other lands.

It appeared few could be lured to what some considered trivial, at least untimely, when distress and disorganization were so widespread. But there were others, the Bowl pioneers among them, who reasoned that if ever the time was ripe to turn from the ugly and destructive to the construction and healing balm of the true and beautiful, this was the opportune moment.[4]

Gerson told the group that while many “beautiful” performances “had come and gone” in Los Angeles, “very little has been done to give them permanence.” He continued: “in view of the impressive productions of 1916 [3] and 1918, we felt it to be a challenge…of the vision and spirit of our Southland that should be met…we should create our own.” The group enthusiastically agreed, and by the end of the evening they recorded the names of all present, raised modest funds, and appointed a committee to launch the project, with Gerson as Chairman. This was the official beginning of what would eventually become the Hollywood Bowl. 

Percy 97 (1)
Dr. T. Perceval Gerson. Photo courtesy Dean Arnold.

Gerson’s professional training and his personal idealism made him especially suited to recognize this moment in time as a force for change. As a young boy growing up in Philadelphia, he studied art, music, literature, drama, and science, and eventually he pursued a career in medicine. As an adult, he published articles on these subjects while practicing medicine on the East Coast, and in Hollywood after 1903. Gerson’s brand of idealism also derived from his affiliations with many Progressive era notables, among them Charles Lummis, Clarence Darrow, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and Upton Sinclair. He subscribed to liberal and radical publications like the Nation and Mother Earth, and he served as President of the Severance Club for decades. As a Progressive era idealist, he believed heartily in the power of the human spirit to enact change. As a physician, Gerson had firsthand knowledge of how deeply the 1918 flu pandemic ravaged the lives and livelihood of Angelenos. Cultural projects, he was convinced, were a vehicle to achieve his ideals.  

There has been online chatter recently that suggests the cataclysm of 2020 should be seen as a reckoning and an opportunity, much in the same vein Gerson saw 1918 as an “opportune moment” for birthing something new and beautiful. And the Hollywood Bowl founders certainly did. 

LAPL-1922-00041571
Hollywood Bowl, July 1922. Courtesy Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

*NOTE: I refer to Gerson as the ‘Forgotten Founder’ because he has been mostly written out of the Hollywood Bowl’s founding story. His radical social and political views created conflict with other Bowl Board members at times, and several members accused him of Socialist leanings and a lack of patriotism. Gerson was removed from the Bowl Board in the 1940s as a result.


[1] The consequences have been disastrous for the LA Phil, which has issued a plea for support. The contribution page can be found here: https://www.hollywoodbowl.com/faqs/coronavirus-covid-19

[2] Jessica Gelt, “Hollywood Bowl Canceled for the First Time in 98 Years; So Long, L.A. Summer,” Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2020.

[3] Hollywood luminaries organized a single outdoor performance of Julius Caesar held in Beachwood Canyon to commemorate the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death in 1916. Hollywood Bowl founders like Gerson cited this performance, along with The Light of Asia, as an inspiration for the Bowl movement. Julius Caesar took place in Beachwood Canyon, in the Hollywood Hills. Proceeds from the performance benefited the Actors’ Fund of America. Forty thousand people reportedly flocked to the single outdoor performance, although only twenty thousand seats were available inside the stadium. “Promise to crowd outdoor theater; ‘Julius Caesar’ seat sale starts with rush,” Los Angeles Times, 19 April 1916.; “Not for Screen: Plan Big Production, Actor Folk to Put on ‘Julius Caesar’ Out of Doors,” Los Angeles Times, 19 March 1916.

[4] Gerson quotations, p. 16-17 in: T. Perceval Gerson, “Hollywood Bowl: A Personal Narrative (unpublished Manuscript, n.d.),” T. Perceval Gerson Papers, Collection #724, Box 2, F: 10, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles. Although the manuscript is undated, records indicate Gerson wrote it in the 1930s or later.

Further reading:

Andrea Thabet, “‘From Sagebrush to Symphony’: Negotiating the Hollywood Bowl and the Future of Los Angeles, 1918-1926,” Pacific Historical Review 89:4 (Fall 2020).

Bill Keveney, “Hollywood Bowl Cancels Summer Season,” USA Today, May 13, 2020. 

Hadley Meares, “Closed Movie Theaters and Infected Stars: How the 1918 Flu Halted Hollywood,” The Hollywood Reporter, April 1, 2020.

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