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Music Center's Michael Newton, 53, Dies

October 22, 1986|BARBARA ISENBERG | Times Staff Writer

Michael Newton, the first president of the Music Center's Performing Arts Council and a man who managed that diplomatically difficult job with aplomb and humor, died Tuesday morning at his Los Angeles home.

A Music Center spokeswoman said he had cancer. He was 53 and had resigned his position last April when his illness became critical. He was succeeded by Francis Dale.

Newton, an Englishman whose ashes will be interred both in Rensselaerville, N.Y., where he once owned a farm, and South Humberside, England, at his family plot, took the Los Angeles post in 1979. He soon was asked how he liked the city.

Well, he replied, "as Dorothy said to Toto (in the film version of 'The Wizard of Oz'), 'I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.' "

It was an early glimpse of Newton's ability to both laugh at himself and adapt to change.

Within his first year at the Music Center, he established a government relations committee, a public affairs office and an education division.

While Newton was in office, the Music Center Unified Fund climbed from an annual goal of $3.4 million to last year's $9.5 million. He launched the Music Center Mercado fund-raiser, which netted $750,000 this year, and laid the groundwork for the city's first high school for the performing arts.

Whether asking for money from Congress or from Hollywood producers, Newton was one of the country's most likable arts advocates.

Carmine Marinelli, master of properties at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, once said of him that "when fund-raisers walk into a room, most people run away from them. When Michael Newton walks into a room, everyone flocks to him. That must say something about the man."

His vision was based on broad experience. Before joining the Music Center, Newton headed the New York-based American Council for the Arts, a national arts service organization, and jetted around the country testifying for more arts programs and money at the local and national levels. He also served as a personal consultant to arts councils in 22 states.

In Los Angeles, Newton tried to build bridges and expand existing ones--bridges from the Music Center to the rest of downtown, the rest of the city and the rest of the country. One former colleague called him a "connecting link" among the center's varied resident groups, which include the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Center Theatre Group.

Much as he had done years before, when he headed the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis for six years, Newton sought to take the arts and arts centers out of isolation. He was not happy, he once told The Times, with the Music Center's "solitary splendor" downtown.

Music Center officials had talked expansion long before Newton arrived in 1979, and he proved an articulate exponent of their cause. Pointing to the new Museum of Contemporary Art, the Los Angeles Theatre Center, the Dance Gallery and assorted art galleries, he once said, "We have an opportunity of creating a cultural district downtown which could in time rival cultural districts in New York, London and Chicago."

During Newton's tenure, the Joffrey Ballet established its residency here and the Music Center Opera came into being. Last spring, the county Board of Supervisors' hailed him as "a passionate, dedicated advocate of the arts in Los Angeles who made a deep and lasting impression upon everyone who had the privilege of knowing him . . . of being his friend."

In Washington last May, he received the first National Arts Leadership award from the American Council for the Arts. Newton, the tribute read, "has dramatically enhanced and enriched the arts in America." Among his achievements was a career at the Music Center that helped build "an arts performing center in the West for all the country to follow."

A naturalized American, Newton was born in Felixstowe, England, and educated at Cambridge. Newton, who was single and is survived by a brother, Brian, taught at the University of Michigan, hosted radio shows and narrated a national radio program. From 1958 through 1966, he was a regional information officer for the British government, based in Kansas City, Mo.

He also was famous for being late. His longtime associate Connie Mandles said he operated on Newton Standard Time--so he could make one more call, write one more note.

Addressing a group in Louisville, Ky., many years ago, Newton, whose memorial service is pending, said that for any kind of fund raising, "the best tool is assurance and assurance is born of knowledge."

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