Awaiting the Day When Starlight Makes Memories Anew

The Starlight Bowl’s audience in 2019.

By David Laurell
Special to the Burbank Leader

I believe memories are our most prized possessions, and while I have many fond ones of past Fourth of July parades, picnics, parties and pyrotechnic performances, nothing will ever beat my flashback to 2003, when I served as guest conductor of the Burbank Philharmonic Orchestra at the Starlight Bowl.
After going through an afternoon session of conducting for dummies taught by Philharmonic music director Steve Kerstein, I had the basics needed to get the musicians through John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
That evening, Maestro Kerstein introduced me and turned over the leadership of his orchestra to a guy whose musical talents consist of being able to download what I enjoy listening to.
Moments later, as I signaled the orchestra to commence, I learned something only those who have had the opportunity to stand in front of 80 musicians as they are playing know: Your entire body becomes enveloped in vibrations and you experience the sound of each instrument in its purest form, in that you are behind the theater’s amplification system.
At the piece’s conclusion, before the reverberation completely left the amphitheater’s shell, the entire orchestra gave me a standing ovation. That was not just my best Fourth of July memory, it was also one of the greatest of my entire life.
This past week I went to the empty Starlight Bowl, which, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will be silent this evening for the first Independence Day in three decades. I walked out on the stage, just as I did, dutifully tuxedoed, on that evening back in 2003. With the stage now covered in dried leaves, I tried to determine the exact spot where my conducting debut and finale took place.

Kristen Smith of Burbank’s Parks and Recreation Department stages the Starlight Bowl performances and has more than 25 years of memories regarding the venue. Photo by David Laurell / Burbank Leader

Kristen Smith, a deputy director for the Burbank Parks and Recreation Department who stages the bowl performances, joined me in walking from the stage up to the box seats while I shared that memory with her.
“I remember that,” she told me. “I’ve been at the bowl for the past quarter of a century as a part of the team that has entertained generations of families every Fourth of July,” said Smith, “The only one I missed was when I was pregnant.”
Recalling many of the bands that played the bowl over the years, Smith said she always enjoyed the Fourth of July concerts the most.
“They were almost always sold out, with 4,200 community members dressed in patriotic attire enjoying an evening of picnicking, listening and dancing to great music with friends and family, and then ending the night with a spectacular fireworks show,” she recalled. “I loved seeing all of the familiar faces who came every year, along with those who had never been to the venue. Then, at the end of the night, I always stood at the exit gate and thanked everyone for attending. I loved hearing firsthand how much they enjoyed the show and appreciated the team who worked so hard to provide top-notch programming and hit the high expectations they had come to expect of the overall show.”
Deborah Dodge, who served as Miss Burbank in 1994 and is now the bowl’s official photographer, said she also has many great Fourth of July memories.
“The one I remember most was in 2015, when Lt. Colonel Robert J. Friend was the evening’s guest of honor,” said Dodge.

Lt. Col. Robert J. Friend took to the Starlight Bowl stage as the event’s honored guest in 2015.
Photo courtesy Deborah Dodge

Friend had served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and, as a Tuskegee Airman, was one of the first black pilots to serve the United States. Friend, who passed away at age 99 in 2019, flew 142 combat missions as a Red Tail pilot. During World War II he piloted a P-52 C Mustang that he named “Bunny” after his first love.
“The Palm Springs World War II Museum built a re-creation of Friend’s plane, and before he was introduced to the crowd, the colonel’s longtime friend, Tom Nightingale, did two flyovers in that plane above the bowl,” Dodge recalled.
“As we were backstage watching the flyover and preparing for his introduction, I found it so moving to see the young soldiers of the color guard, veterans, police officers, firemen and civilians alike approach him just wanting to shake his hand and thank him for his service,” said Dodge.
“Then, when he was introduced, everyone stood and there was a roaring ovation. As the event’s photographer, I positioned myself in the perfect spot to witness this sea of people collectively showing him so much love and respect. That was such an emotional moment for me, as I’m sure it was for him, and everyone in attendance. It brought tears to my eyes. I could feel my heart in my throat knowing it was a moment I would never forget.”
Rey and Gema Sanchez also have wonderful memories of attending Fourth of July celebrations at the bowl. It is something they have been doing since their son, Trey, who is now 17 and a golf standout at Burroughs High School, and daughter, Veronica, who is now a twentysomething actress, were just toddlers.
“The Fourth of July just won’t be the same this year, and we haven’t really given any thought to what we will do because, for so many years we didn’t give it any thought; we just knew we would all be at the Starlight Bowl,” said R.y
“My kids literally don’t know a Fourth of July without being at the bowl. Of course, we will still be celebrating the birth of our nation, which means so much to our family because my husband and I both served in the U.S. Navy. So the sentiment of the day will be the same, but there’s no doubting there will be something missing as our family tradition is broken.”
Sanchez said she feels that if there is anything good to come of the pandemic, it may just be that it has given Burbankers a time to pause and realize what a treasure we have in the Starlight Bowl.

Kristen Smith of Burbank’s Parks and Recreation Department stages the Starlight Bowl performances and has more than 25 years of memories regarding the venue.
Photo by David Laurell / Burbank Leader

“We all take things for granted, and it’s only when you no longer have them that you realize what a treasure you have — how valuable of a resource the bowl is to our community,” said Sanchez. “So yes, this year our family tradition will be interrupted, but we’ll be back next year, the tradition will continue, and I know we will appreciate what we have so much more.”
Smith agrees with Sanchez and is determined to make that happen.
“The Starlight Bowl staff is optimistic that programming will resume for the 2021 season,” said Smith. “We’re working hard to program an exciting lineup with high-quality family entertainment. We have already started giving thought to some of the things we will be doing next summer, to make our comeback something that will give people many more memories to treasure.”
It will be a future of events that is sure to bring about new memories of legendary war heroes from more recent conflicts who will accept the gratitude of an appreciative crowd. It will be a continuation of traditions — of families and friends coming together to celebrate our nation’s birth, and of a staff working together as a team to make it a great experience for them. And who knows, there may even be another person pretending to know what they are doing by waving a baton before a group of talented musicians, who will then kindly stand and give that person a lifetime memory by making them think they had even the slightest clue as to what they were doing.

David Laurell may be reached at or (818) 563-1007.

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