PALM DESERT — Standing in a wide-open sand field, silhouetted by snow-capped mountains and a line of palm trees on the College of the Desert campus, Michael Grossman could barely contain his enthusiasm.
"See the right-hand steel columns over there? That's the box office," said Grossman, former managing director of the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, now executive director of an emerging Bob Hope Cultural Center. "In front of you is the floor. See the hole in the stage floor? See that hole? That's the trap area. . . ."
The stage will be the focal point of the McCallum Theatre for the Performing Arts--a 1,200-seat facility decorated, Grossman noted, "in purples and sands, desert modern on the outside, and inside a feeling of European intimacy."
The center's leadership is talking about a potential Bob Hope Museum. There are discussions about building a school for musical comedy and an audio and visual center for television broadcasting. But at least for a while, McCallum Theatre, named for Palm Springs' founding Anglo family, will be the center's first and only building.
Boxes will line the sides of the theater.
"Here in the desert, socially, people love to be seen and to watch each other," Grossman said, "so the audience will be sort of its own event, notwithstanding what we're going to be putting on the stage. It will be its own little showcase."
As art complexes go, "ours is a very baby center," Grossman conceded affectionately. But he quickly noted that the center--named to honor Bob Hope for his longtime charitable deeds--has run close to its original $18-million budget, including a $4-million endowment.
Campaign director Greg Willenborg reports that $10.7 million, all from private sources--individuals, foundations and corporations--has been raised in the last 25 months. It is practically an article of faith in this well-heeled--and politically conservative--community that government funding shall not be sought.
The center will have a President Gerald R. Ford Founders' Room; the former President lives down the road at Thunderbird Country Club in one of the desert's string of walled communities. He is on the board of the Friends of the Cultural Center Inc., while Betty Ford is on McCallum's Theatre Management Board and an active participant on the four-member program committee, advising on what performances will play at the theater.
Dolores Hope (the comedian's wife) and Barbara Sinatra (Frank's wife), along with a batch of current and retired board chairmen and CEOs, are on both boards.
With a donation of $25,000, the Fords are officially classified as "donors." This is a center, after all, that has "patrons" ($50,000 and up), "founders" ($100,000 and up), "benefactor founders" ($500,000 and up), and there are even a few "distinguished founders" (those who have given $1 million).
In contrast to the $70.7-million Orange County Performing Arts Center (deferred pledges and gifts will bring a $67-million endowment), the Hope Cultural Center might seem a trifle dwarfed. What it lacks in size, it seems more than willing to make up for in pizazz.
On Sunday, a bunch of celebrity polo players, including William Devane, Alex Cord and Pamela Sue Martin (as well as celebrities watching the celebrities), will be swinging mallets on horseback for the benefit of the Hope Center at the Eldorado Polo Club in Indio. (That's the club where Prince Charles happens to be playing today).
Unlike other arts complexes, the Bob Hope Center will not come into existence with its own theater company. Instead, the center will import theater to suit its relatively conservative taste, said Grossman, as well as bring in music, dance and other family entertainment.
Meanwhile, there is heady planning revolving around a 1987 Thanksgiving-weekend Saturday-night opening.
"What we'd like is to have our opening night be a TV special--'The World Salutes Bob Hope,' " said Willenborg.
"Invite the four living American Presidents, most of the major entertainers. It will be the second time in history that the four Presidents . . . " he noted, referring to the presidential gathering at the White House before the funeral of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
For Coachella Valley residents who must see pared-down opera at the local high school, the Hope center is more than an adequate beginning. Builder Ernest Hahn, executive vice president of the center's board--and a million-dollar contributor--pointed out that an arts facility was first talked about 16 years ago. In those days, Hahn noted, the major cultural events for desert residents in the vicinity were Fred Waring concerts in a nearby airport hangar, "and we hung blankets from the rafters."