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Alexander Haagen: Thrown for a Loss : A Lifelong Dream Turns Sour for the Coliseum Commission President

October 07, 1987|DAVID DeVOSS | Times Staff Writer

The romance between Alexander Haagen and the stadium he considers a municipal treasure began 55 years ago, when his father took him to the 10th Olympiad. Though the Games themselves were dramatic, what really impressed the 13-year-old was the massive arena in which they were held.

"It was a magnificent structure designed for great events," Haagen recalls, describing the then-decade-old Memorial Coliseum. "It was more than just a stadium. It was a place where history could unfold."

'Walking on Clouds'

Haagen returned a few years later as an All-City running guard from Los Angeles High School, and again was awe-struck. "There I was playing football on the same field where Babe Didrikson won her medals," he says. "The grandeur of the surroundings had me walking on clouds."

So when the governing board of the California Museum of Science and Technology appointed Haagen, then 65, to the Coliseum Commission in 1985, it was the literal fulfillment of a dream. Haagen's name was added to those of Whittier, Barham, Kellogg and Robinson--commission members who have founded corporations, developed suburbs and lent their names to boulevards.

As Haagen himself proudly puts it, "appointment to the Coliseum Commission makes you part of the elite group that shapes the history of Los Angeles."

Embattled Leader

Today, that dream has crumbled, and the embattled president of the commission finds himself remembered for another reason. In the weeks since Los Angeles Raiders owner Al Davis announced he was moving his team to Irwindale, Haagen's name has come to be associated more with the loss of the city's only pro football franchise than with historical forces.

Even as the Irwindale move continues to work its way through the courts, the 68-year-old shopping center developer has been labeled an intransigent bully and accused of tyrannical behavior. In the California Assembly's frantic waning hours, one legislative committee even found time to call for his resignation.

It has all left Haagen both dazed and defensive. To a man who has spent his entire life in deal-making and development--a man whom friends seem to understand only in the context of business--the uproar over the loss of a single sports team seems to genuinely perplex him.

It's clear that he doesn't consider himself the man who lost the Raiders, a notion he finds "really very disgusting. Los Angeles lost the Raiders because the Coliseum Commission is flat broke," he says with finality. "We don't have the funds to compete. You can't keep an engine running without gas."

To him, business is business.

To his friends and associates, there is no better definition of Alexander Haagen's life.

Haagen, born in Denver, came to California as a young boy, the only child of a "show business" entrepreneur who eventually parlayed a financial interest in carnival arcades and vaudeville theaters into one of the first Pantages movie houses. The family lived in a frame house next to the old Charlie Chaplin studio in Hollywood. "I could stand on top of our garage and watch Chaplin make his flickers," he recalled.

Haagen took pre-law courses at Los Angeles City College, then lived briefly in New York before returning West to work at the California Shipping Yards as a welder. After the start of World War II, he joined the merchant marine as a cook and baker, and was assigned to tankers plying the Persian Gulf. Loaded with aviation fuel picked up in Iraq and destined for supply flights "over the hump" to China, the ships sailed across the Indian Ocean, their crews alert to U-boats, but often succumbing to ennui.

Haagen recalls being on one such trip late in the war on a newly built freighter loaded with ammunition when the engine room exploded. "We sat there for hours on a listing ship loaded with ammunition for Merrill's Marauders. One after another, the ships in the convoy sailed past us. The British told us to stay put, which was easy to do since we were dead in the water. We survived because a British destroyer arrived before the U-boats and gave us a tow to Madras," he said.

At the end of the war, Haagen's economic prospects also seemed dead in the water. His sole source of income at one period came from jukeboxes he had bought and placed in waterfront bars around the Port of Los Angeles. It was from this vantage point in San Pedro he began to observe the city's southward sprawl to Palos Verdes and beyond. Hastened by the construction of freeways, the migration to the suburbs was beginning, and before long Haagen and his wife, Charlotte, were buying corner lots along arterial roads for resale to oil companies hungry for service station sites.

The experience of growing up in the Depression apparently made Haagen tireless in his pursuit of wealth, and convinced him that his two sons, Alex III and Charals, should start working early.

'Only Way to Learn'

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