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Whose Center Is It, Anyway?

September 28, 1986|ALLAN JALON

When the Milwaukee Performing Arts Center opened with a $100-a-ticket benefit, shiny limousines let off well-heeled patrons in tuxedos and gowns. Archie A. Sarazin, managing director of the four-theater complex, believes that night in 1969 gave the arts center a snobbish image that later discouraged attendance.

"We all want glitz, but it depends--is glitz going to keep people away for from five to 10 years?" said Sarazin. "It happened in Milwaukee."

Such are the politics of opening nights. Like a politician, a new performing arts center is closely watched for how well it courts wealthy donors without losing public appeal, and the opening acquires symbolic importance. Right now, the hottest "candidate" in California is the Orange County Performing Arts Center, which opens Monday.

The center has already run into an image problem. Even some of its own supporters have labeled the 3,000-seat theater in Costa Mesa elitist for opening with a glamorous, black-tie benefit--Beethoven and bubbly for donors who previously gave enough money to merit tickets ranging from $250 to $2,000. (The full program includes Beethoven's 9th Symphony and two other works, Zubin Mehta conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic; then caviar will come with $9,000 worth of Louis Roederer Cour Royale Brut at an outdoor buffet.)

When word of the $2,000 per ticket top price slipped out last May, some of the volunteers who helped raise money for the $70.7 million structure howled. They charged they were getting priced out of opening night even though the center reassured them that they would be included. They quieted down. But center officials have continued to discuss the opening defensively. The center's June newsletter asserted on its first page, in extra large letters: "This theatre is for everyone in Orange County; not just a place for wealthy people."

But on opening night the center clearly will be for the rich. Or as a key organizer of the event put it: "The perception that only the rich are involved is a temporary problem that we will grow out of. . . ."

A sense of the opening night crowd can be gleaned from the guest list and statistics about the center's donors. A smattering of VIPs from the worlds of politics and culture will be there compliments of the house, including Gov. George Deukmejian and Robert Joffrey, whose ballet company will occasionally perform at the center. Frank Hodsoll, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is also on the list. (While the center has come this far without public funding, center officials have not ruled it out for the future.)

First crack at the opening night tickets went to donors who gave $10,000 and up. The $10,000 donors had the option to buy two tickets; $50,000 donors, four; $100,000 donors, six, and $1 million-plus donors, eight.

Remaining tickets--center officials say they don't know exactly how many--trickled down to people who gave less than $10,000. In all, there were about 1,000 donations of $10,000 or more, and 30 of those were for $1 million or more, according to Roberta Minkler, director of the fund-raising effort to build and operate the center.

The largest single gift was for $6 million from the locally prominent Segerstrom family, who also gave the land. About 90% of the gifts came from individuals, while the rest were from corporations and foundations.

Most arts centers, typically nonprofit organizations facing a deficit, open with fund raisers. Yet the managers of several such facilities say it's smart to wrap the benefit with various events appealing to a broad range of tastes and incomes, something the Orange County center does not seem to have done.

Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco opened in 1980 with an elegant benefit performance by the San Francisco Symphony, top ticket $1,000. Two days later, the orchestra--with pianist Rudolf Serkin--played for $5 a ticket. Wells Fargo Bank underwrote the event. Groups for ethnic minorities and the disadvantaged were urged to send members.

In St. Paul, Minn., the Ordway Music Theater's opening reflected the Twin Cities' populist traditions. On Jan. 1, 1985, a few days before a dinner to thank donors, local people were invited to a daylong open house.

"We had 22,000 people come through on one day," said Jane Cooper, a spokeswoman for the hall. "They came in and stamped the snow off their boots and it melted. We had an inch of water in our brand new lobby and some people had to come and push it out with squeegees."

Said Henry Blodgett, the Ordway's vice president and treasurer: "We had really milked this community. We felt a benefit would be inappropriate."

The first concert artist to appear on the hall's stage was Leontyne Price, on Jan. 8, 1985. Her visit was sponsored by a local organization of music lovers that offered the general public tickets costing $15-$25. They were sold on a nonsubscription basis, so there would be no intimidating, cost-increasing condition on their purchase.

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