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'Architect' Of An Arts Center

September 04, 1986|ALLAN JALON | Times Staff Writer

As credit is handed around these days for the Orange County Performing Arts Center, set to open with a lavish inaugural concert Sept. 29, there is little mention of Len Bedsow, a key figure in its development.

Yet it's not hard to find people who say he deserves attention. Highly opinionated, sometimes overbearing, Bedsow was the Costa Mesa center's first executive director during a crucial early phase, from 1981 to 1985. Many describe him as a stage-savvy executive with an evangelistic passion for the project. But he also made enemies and retired at 67 amid controversy.

He helped hire architects and acousticians, studied their plans and acted as their intermediary with his employer, the center's board of directors. Fearing plush carpets would catch women's high heels, he balked. Intrigued by the acousticians' unusual concept, he gave encouragement. He bore down on Orange County donors for big money and went after New York agents for big artists.

His critics included local arts groups who said he ignored them and some board members who felt the same. There was also the center receptionist who named him and the center in a sexual harassment suit.

"There is no question that the physical building is because of Len," said John Rau, former president of the center and the man who hired the burly Bedsow. "But he tried to do too much. He stepped on a lot of people's toes."

These days, Bedsow, 69, lives quietly with his wife in a small red-brick house in San Clemente. His beard is white. His love of conversation persists, as do traces of his Bronx accent.

Former general manager of the California Civic Light Opera Assn., well-known for its musicals and operettas, he can be jovial when recalling the pleasure of working on the center or turn as pedantic as if he were Henry Higgins and the center's board were his Pygmalion.

"I had to make sure that they knew what the facts of life were," Bedsow said. "And, you know, I found that I did not like the job. . . . You know how much it takes out of you when you're dealing with amateurs! They didn't know anything!

"Don't get me wrong," he added. "I don't mean to speak ill of them. . . . . They were good people who wanted the best for their community."

Reminders of the center appear everywhere in Bedsow's home. Stickers showing the center's trademark arch appear on the windshield and rear window of his prize possession--a pristine red 1965 Mustang convertible.

A blueprint of the building, overlaid with a red heart, hangs in a hallway. It was a Valentine's Day gift from the architects in 1982. "Len, We're Yours," they wrote, above an array of signatures. In his living room hangs a painted portrait of him, given by a commercial artist who labored on the center's behalf.

When Bedsow joined the center in March, 1981, he knew it would be the last stop in his career. "He's one of the best theater men I know," said Bernard Jacobs, president of the Shubert Organization, Broadway's most active producing company.

Bedsow first wanted to act, but World War II intervened. Joining the Army, he became a liaison to variety shows that toured the front. In liberated Paris, he said, he teamed up with Broadway director Joshua Logan to produce musicals for the Army.

Back home, he worked the theatrical gamut from stage manager to producer, hiring on with the Los Angeles operation of the Civic Light Opera in 1965. Rising after nine years to be general manager of its operations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, he took early retirement in 1980 and soon joined the Orange County center.

"I came in with a list of what I wanted to do, a bible of my intentions," Bedsow said. "I wanted to use everything I had learned in this business."

The Civic Light Opera had been a tenant of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which Bedsow said he admired but sought to improve upon.

"I looked at the mistakes of the Chandler--the poor acoustics, the inadequate loading docks, too few rest rooms, the light color of walls in the auditorium, the shortage of backstage space." He interviewed acousticians from throughout the United States whose professional reputations he was familiar with. Unfamiliar with Jerald Hyde and Dennis Paoletti, he heard them out anyway--then urged the board to hire them. Paoletti made an especially strong impression.

"Everybody else who came in was tired," Bedsow said. "I felt at once that there wasn't an ounce of creative energy in them. I was in my early 60s! I needed energy around me! Paoletti had energy."

Paoletti and Hyde had formed a partnership with Harold Marshall, an acoustical pioneer who strongly influenced the Orange County theater's design. "When I recommended them, I didn't tell the board about Marshall's concept," Bedsow said. "I didn't really understand it, and they wouldn't have understood it either."

(The concept, which produced a theater interior full of unusual tiers and angles, emphasizes enveloping the audience in reflections of sound.)

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