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Julia McHugh: The birth of the Santa Barbara Bowl
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South on 101

Julia McHugh: The birth of the Santa Barbara Bowl

It took World War II and COVID-19 to halt entertainment offerings at the Santa Barbara Bowl. First conceived as a venue for elaborate productions featuring costumed riders on horseback to celebrate Old Spanish Days in the 1930s, it is now a premiere outdoor venue for major musical artists, albeit temporarily closed due to the pandemic.

The idea to build an outdoor amphitheater is credited to Sam Stanwood, who served as the first El Presidente of Old Spanish Days (OSD), a post he held for 20 years (1927 to 1947). “Old Sam,” as he was known to his pals, had been involved with OSD since its beginnings, and was looking for a location to hold the nightly Fiesta pageants featuring Palomino and Camarillo Arabian horses and riders costumed in period Spanish regalia.

On Aug. 22, 1935, a citizens committee met to “promulgate” a plan for financing and construction of the amphitheater. Old Sam proposed it be named in memory of humorist Will Rogers, a frequent visitor to Santa Barbara who had recently died in an Alaskan plane crash. Sam insisted on a revolving stage, to better show off the performers from all angles.

Fourteen acres in Quail Canyon, a former stone quarry, was provided by George Batchelder, developer of the once barren hillside now known as the Riviera. “Near civilization, yet not of it; rustic and unscarred by hands that profane -- such is the charming canyon site,” wrote News Press writer Tom Collison.

State Sen. T. M. Storke helped obtain $77,000 in Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds. Construction began in December and by the end of January 1936, 60 workers toiled in three shifts, many of them local stone masons put out of work by the Depression. Additional property was obtained for a parking lot, as was $4,712 more from the WPA. Along the way, Will Rogers’ name was discarded.

The Santa Barbara County Bowl’s inaugural production, “Memorias de Santa Barbara,” ran for three nights during Fiesta beginning Aug. 6, 1936. It began with a torchlight procession of riders and horses coming slowly down the hill onto the stage, which had a revolving center section and a backdrop of two-story Spanish house-fronts, complete with balconies used by performers. When not on stage, the horses stayed in a grassy area in front of the stage.

The show was praised for its “entrancing music and the gayest of dancing scenes, caballeros and senoritas in ravishing costumes, and hundreds of prancing horses with gleaming silver trappings.”

The Bowl could hold 3,500 people, arranged in a flat semi-circle. Dressing rooms were under the stage. Unfortunately, the revolving part was short-lived. A winter rainstorm turned the canyon’s creek into a torrent and an inlet plugged with debris led to flooding and the stage’s eventual collapse. New concrete foundations were laid, dressing rooms replaced, and the stage rebuilt, without the revolving mechanism.

That wouldn’t be the first time the Bowl underwent major renovations, as will be revealed in a future column.

Julia McHugh can be reached at souton101column@yahoo.com.

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