Before critics judge the granite form of Orange County's new repository of theater and culture, before the world hears their lofty appraisals, let the record show that just after 9 p.m. Saturday, 17-year-old David Duax approved.
The skinny youth from Huntington Beach explored its angular nooks and sweeping open spaces, then announced to his two companions: "I think it's gonna be a good place for a date."
"Yeah," responded Tim Hodge, 17. "But only if you really like the girl."
Greg Sukiasian was there from Irvine, for his own informal inspection of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, which opens tonight in Costa Mesa to a gala performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta.
Sukiasian offered his own standard by which to judge the success or failure of the opulent theater: The amount of trash it produces.
"Oh, no, there's a lot of trash in the performing arts," said Sukiasian, owner of National Refuse Service in Irvine. "Ticket stubs, programs, drinks . . . I could tell you how well this place succeeds by the trash. . . . It could be a very prestigious contract. You could tell people, 'I'm doing disposal for a performing arts center.' "
The Orange County Performing Arts Center won't officially open until tonight. But this weekend, the curious who couldn't wait to see the lavish layout came in force, craning necks, posing children, snapping pictures. It was clear that the Center, after more than a decade in conception, had finally come to life.
The "Fire Bird," a soaring sculpture of steel and aluminum, was bathed in spotlights. Posters everywhere pictured artists soon to grace its stage. Whether they were jotting down upcoming concert dates in matchbook covers or just sitting on a step and necking, members of the public were taking possession.
And most were people who had not contributed to the Center, unlike the thousands of donors who paid for it and in many cases received tours inside and out before it was finished.
"I figured I can't get out here opening night, so I came out now," said Los Alamitos resident Bob Jaswell, 33, who with Theresa Flores of San Juan Capistrano stopped Sunday to admire the Center. "I wasn't planning on getting an invitation."
Some, like Jaswell and Flores, were just passing by, on the way to or from one of the nearby movie theaters or neighboring South Coast Plaza. Others came especially to gawk at the spectacular new building.
Few got inside the $70.7-million structure. But the facade was a good enough indication that this Center--inside and out--is definitely a change of pace for Orange County.
"It's different," W.W. Morningstar, 62, of Newport Beach said with a certain hesitation. "Sometimes, things grow on you."
"It doesn't look like Orange County. We're old Orange County," said Clara Morningstar, 48, as she stared at the suspended 120-foot-wide, 60-foot-tall and 100-foot-deep avian sculpture whose wings sweep in and out of the Center.
The couple, who remember when the Costa Mesa area consisted solely of lima bean fields, said they came Sunday because they wanted a first-hand view of the theater that will allow them to attend stage and musical performances without having to drive to Los Angeles.
And despite their apprehension about its non-traditional exterior design, Clara Morningstar said, "Maybe it's time for Orange County to catch up to the rest of the world."
"Good ol' Henry (Segerstrom) did a good job," her husband said, referring to the Segerstrom family's donation of $6 million, plus the five-acre site on which the Center sits.
Nearly everyone had an opinion about the building. And if there was any consensus, it was that the giant sculpture out front probably will be renamed slightly. People this weekend referred to it simply as "The Bird," yet with obvious, if newfound, affection.
"The place has an aura of a birth," said Gary Birch, 45, an industrial designer from Yorba Linda, who came with Cheryl Kaun, 32, of Placentia. "I've come down a few times before, always at night. It isn't like being in Orange County.
"When we got here tonight we saw a woman in front in a black BMW with New York license plates, and she was just parked there staring at the place," Birch said. "It was like it had an aura that brought somebody to Orange County from New York and they were impressed. I felt like this was her home away from home, like this was more New York than Orange County."
Emma Abenoza, a small elderly woman from Colombia, by way of Glendale, described the building in one word: "Precioso!"
"Beautiful," her son, Estaban, 46, translated for her. Estaban Abenoza, who lives just a few blocks from the Center in Costa Mesa, said he visits the imposing structure often, and even donated $30 to help build it.
Not everyone was complimentary. "I don't like it," said one unhappy-looking fellow in a leather jacket, who refused to give his name. "I don't know yet why not, I just don't," he said.