Remembering The Master Of The Hollywood Bowl Sound

SOURCE: Published:
Frank Supak
Frank Supak An Appreciation

[read at the April 9th plaque dedication at the Hollywood Bowl sound booth]

Today we honor a man who did his job so well that crowds of people never even knew he was there.

Did you attend a show, any show, at the Hollywood Bowl between 1970 and 1993? Frank Supak was there, too, and though you may not have seen him (unless you were working), you probably walked right by him. He was in the sound booth in the middle of the second promenade, and he's the reason the music sounded so good. “Frank was a sound artist," says Ernest Fleischman, the Creative Director and a close collaborator of Frank's at the Hollywood Bowl for many years.

From Barishnikov ballet to the Moody Blues, from Itzhak Perlman to Ravi Shankar, Frank had the coolest audio gig in the world, and one of the most challenging. His history with the Hollywood Bowl, which spanned four decades, began in 1965, the second year the Beatles played there. In 1970 he became Master Soundman, and from then until he retired in 1993, the Bowl consumed his summers. He dedicated himself completely, never missing a performance. In exchange, Frank had the opportunity to work with an amazing array of history's greatest musicians.

He was, foremost, responsible for delivering the full audio potential of L.A. Philharmonic concerts each season, working with an incredible roster of conductors such as Igor Stravinsky, Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Williams, Pierre Boulez, Leonard Bernstein, Henry Mancini, Lukas Foss, John Mauceri, pioneering females Antonia Brico and Margaret R. Harris, and many more. Zubin Mehta, L.A. Philharmonic Musical Director from 1962 to 1978, wrote this of Frank, in a letter dated April 7, 2000: “With his keen ear for beautiful sound and expert technological training he gave so much listening pleasure to so many listeners at the Hollywood Bowl, where night after night he reproduced the magnificent sounds emanating from our Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra."

An innovator in the field of live outdoor music amplification, Frank designed a system for measuring sound levels at the property line, a result of combining his lifelong passion for music with a newfound passion for computers. His deck microphone (PZM) techniques are famous in the audio field. He also contributed to the design of the delay speaker system (located throughout the amphitheater), which creates a synergistic effect to preserve the natural quality of the sound. “You might not notice they were on, but you would notice if they were not. The goal," he said,"is to amplify sound without it sounding amplified." Frank summed up the improvements to the Bowl's sound system during his tenure when he told the Los Angeles Times, “We are evolving toward simplicity."

Wedged between Philharmonic engagements were special event shows. In addition to classical programs, there were soloists such as Andre Previn and Yo-yo Ma. There were operatic performances, movies, television specials, and children's programs. Performers over the years included Beverly Sills and Placido Domingo, as well as Big Bird, Bugs Bunny, and the Brady Bunch.

The play list of jazz and rock and roll artists from Frank's years at the Bowl reads like a veritable who's who, from Alpert to Zappa:

The end of the sixties was well represented at the Bowl. Simon and Garfunkel and Jimi Hendrix appeared in '68. A week before Woodstock in '69, Frank worked a Peter, Paul, and Mary and Gordon Lightfoot show. A few weeks after Woodstock, Santana, The Youngbloods, and Janis Joplin headlined. A week after that, Donovan. The day after Donovan, Johnny Cash.

And so it went.

The seventies brought Miles Davis, Steven Stills, James Taylor, War, The Carpenters, The Jackson Five, America, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Mangione, and the Grateful Dead, to name just a few. A single show in September of '72 featured Tim Buckley, The Doors, and Frank Zappa. Before the season was done, there was also Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Joe Cocker, and Joan Baez.

In 1979, the first annual Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl featured Benny Goodman, Sarah Vaughan, and a dozen other outstanding acts, as well as an All-Star Jam Session with Art Blakey, Ray Brown, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Freddie Hubbard, and Gerry Mulligan. Frank collaborated with countless talents: Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, and his friend, veteran Bowl performer B.B. King.

The eighties featured artists such as Elton John, The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, The Go-Gos, Rod Stewart, and the Doobie Brothers. The “ Survival Sunday" concerts, which had started in the ‘70's, continued, including performers Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The Playboy Jazz Festivals also continued, with Carmen McRae, Grover Washington, Jr., Etta James, Mel Tormé, and Ray Charles.

The nineties brought Jimmy Buffet, Sting, and Madonna in concert, and Chick Corea, Wynton Marsalis, and Buddy Guy headlined the Playboy Jazz Festival. Also, Pauls McCartney and Simon came back, bringing Frank's career at the Bowl full circle.

Frank was fortunate to have worked with these classic acts, but it went both ways. A consummate professional, he inspired trust, respect, and confidence among artists and colleagues alike, regardless of musical genre. Quiet and unassuming, he approached sound mixing with a mathematician's precision and a magician's cunning.

He remained not only level-headed and steady-handed, but also acutely sensitive to the needs of the music, audience, and performers . Perhaps the late conductor and pianist Johnny Green put it best in 1980, in a letter thanking Frank for his “above-and-beyond conscientiousness" as well as his “kindness, cooperation, and, as always, first class job."

In nearly thirty unique years at the Hollywood Bowl, artists of all types, many of whom became personal friends, benefited from Frank Supak's talent, skills, and gentle nature. He, in return, delivered a consistently enjoyable experience for all involved. The depth of his legacy resonates most clearly, though, in the legions of people fortunate enough to have heard it.

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