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Costa Mesa Arts Center Wins Praise

September 17, 1987|HERMAN WONG and CHRIS PASLES | Times Staff Writers

When the Orange County Performing Arts Center's red Swedish granite exterior was going up and the plum carpet was being installed last year, some arts officials feared that once open, the new facility would lure audiences away from Southern California's other major arts halls.

But as the opulent, $70.7-million hall in Costa Mesa prepares to celebrate its first birthday on Sept. 29, its competitors say that the reality has been anything but gloom-and-doom for concert halls and arts centers from Pasadena to San Diego.

"On the contrary, the audiences, if anything, are getting bigger at the (Los Angeles) Music Center (and) at the (Hollywood) Bowl," said Ernest Fleischmann, executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Esther Wachtell, executive vice president of the Los Angeles Music Center's board of governors, had a simple explanation: "When you get people excited about the arts, they want more of it."

Indeed, the opening of the Orange County Center has meant a flowering of interest in music, dance and theater far broader than the Center's own offerings.

"We have noticed that more people are coming from Orange County," said Wayne Shilkret, the Ambassador Foundation's director of performing arts. The Center, Shilkret said, has "expanded the (regional) audience by having a wide spectrum of presentations.

The more competition the merrier, as far as San Diego Opera is concerned--especially since that organizations's subscriptions have continued to increase.

"Competition is extremely healthy for opera generally," said Brenda Hughes, the opera's director of marketing, "because it focuses on the art form (and) makes it better for all of us."

Added Fleischmann: "What is very nice is that it is now possible to offer and attract some people (and) orchestras to the West Coast with the possibility of having dates in Los Angeles, Orange County, Santa Barbara, San Diego and San Francisco. Certainly, I don't think the (Orange County Center) suffers from us, nor do we suffer from them."

Within Orange County, the Center has generated a windfall of activity, as well as new pressures, for local arts organizations and area musicians.

First-season problems that faced local performing groups and presenting organizations are the same for 1987-88: how to expand audiences, raise more money and strengthen staff, while sharing a season with groups of the national clout of American Ballet Theatre or Los Angeles Philharmonic.

But despite these pressures, the Orange County groups are unanimous in their assessment of 1986-87 at the center's 3,000-seat, multipurpose Segerstrom Hall.

"There were people who said none of us (local groups) could fill the 3,000 seats. Well, most of us believed we could , because all the signs of our growth had indicated we were capable of it," said Keith Clark, music director of the Santa Ana-based Pacific Symphony, which reported capacity or near-capacity attendance for its 16-performance classical subscription series at the center.

Erich Vollmer, executive director of the Orange County Philharmonic Society--whose presentation of 12 touring ensembles, including the Chicago Symphony, were sold out--added: "The first season confirmed that the audiences were there in Orange County and that large numbers were first-time concert-goers."

To see the impact the center is having on the lives of Orange County's musicians, one need look no farther than proposed changes to their union local's contracts.

Reporting a 17.59% growth in income for its 1,380 members between 1985 and 1987, Local 7 of the American Federation of Musicians is considering contracts that require employer contributions to health and pension funds. Membership in the Santa Ana-based local has long lagged behind its chapter in Los Angeles, Local 47. But Orange County opportunities for musicians are growing, and union officials say the Performing Arts Center is largely responsible.

The center's neighboring restaurants and hotels have also reported solid-to-booming business, an impact fitting a concept drummed up for the business perimeter of the center, especially firms in the South Coast Plaza sector.

That concept--nurtured by such business leaders as center chairman Henry Segerstrom, whose family firm is South Coast Plaza's chief developer--is that the commercial and cultural communities would find a fruitful partnership.

Although comprehensive studies are still to be completed on the center's first-year impacts, Betty Moss, executive director of the Orange County Business Committee for the Arts, said the commercial results appear to be impressive.

"The initial evidence from restaurants and other firms around the center area alone is that business has increased," she said.

Lucien Truhill, president of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce, is even more emphatic. "The only word (for the impacts) is simply--tremendous," he said. "No question about it. It is bringing about the status of a first-class economy."

Staff writer Allan Jalon also contributed to this article.

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