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Encore! Celebrating 25 Years Of The Music Center : Yesterday : The Pioneers

September 10, 1989|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Champlin is arts editor of The Times.

If the Hollywood Bowl had not faced bankruptcy in 1951 and if the decor and the acoustics of the Philharmonic Auditorium, which in those days was the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, had been a little better, the Music Center complex might well not exist and the acreage it occupies atop Bunker Hill might be parking lots or lifeless bureaucratic annexes. But it is the what-ifs that make, and unmake, history.

The fact is that the Hollywood Bowl, having presented a costly and widely unattended opera in the early summer of 1951, was $200,000 in the red and about to fold. Dorothy Buffum Chandler, fresh from 15 years of very successful volunteering (e.g., fund-raising) at Children's Hospital, was asked to join the Bowl board to see what sort of rescue operation could be mounted.

She voted with the board to shut down the Bowl season for two weeks while she and the Philharmonic's then-conductor Alfred Wallenstein organized a fund-raising concert at which Gregor Piatigorsky and other performers worked for free. The Bowl season continued, and its seasons go on.

What the Bowl crisis had done was bring Dorothy Buffum Chandler into the Philharmonic family as more than a listener. Her son Otis Chandler remembers going to concerts of the Philharmonic with his parents when he was on holiday from Andover and then Stanford. "It was an awful hall; the acoustics were terrible," he says, "and I remember Mrs. C (as he refers to his mother) complaining, 'I can't permit my orchestra to go on playing in such surroundings.' " (Then as later, the possessive pronoun bespoke the intensity of her feelings toward the Philharmonic.)

There had been discussions about a Los Angeles cultural center since the mid-'40s but tight-pursed voters had turned down a succession of bond issues.

His mother's first discussions with other civic movers and shakers about a site, Otis Chandler recalls, centered on the Pan-Pacific Auditorium and some land adjoining it. But the focus quickly shifted to Bunker Hill, one of the longest-settled parts of downtown Los Angeles but by the mid-'50s a decaying fringe of a central city that was beginning to stir. It was a prime location for redevelopment.

Mrs. Chandler commenced a courtship of then-governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, Mayor Norris Poulsen and county supervisors Burton Chace, Warren Dorn, Kenneth Hahn, Frank Bonelli and Ernest E. Debs. The land was county-owned, and the legal complexities involved in leasing the land to the Music Center organization were immense and the negotiations protracted.

"It was a major effort to get the interjurisdictional agreements that were necessary. It was even harder than the fund-raising," Otis Chandler says.

In the end Mrs. Chandler obtained an initial 7.5 acres for the Music Center, with the parking revenues from the structure to go to the county.

Mrs. Chandler launched her initial fund-raising efforts with a goal of $4 million. The push began with a now legendary El Dorado Party (so named for the Cadillac that was the main raffle prize), on St. Patrick's Day 1955. It netted $400,000--in one sweep raising 10% of her goal. Composer John Green, one of the performers along with Danny Kaye and Jack Benny, called her "the greatest fund-raiser since Al Capone." The county supervisors retained Welton Becket as the supervising architect.

Fund-raising headquarters were set up in what had been the changing room, known as The Pub, beside the pool at the Norman Chandler home in the Hancock Park area. Mrs. Chandler sought out her first large donor, Myford Irvine, principal owner of the Irvine Ranch, and got a pledge of $100,000 only a month before Irvine committed suicide.

By now Mrs. Chandler's efforts as a fund-raiser have become legendary. Otis Chandler says, "It was a cross-cultural solicitation. Mrs. C. went to the old Los Angeles, to the West Side, to the Hollywood community, to the Jewish community, to the black community and to the Latino community. She brought people together who'd never been together and had never expected to be together.

"I began to be embarrassed to meet my mother. She'd say, 'Who'd you have lunch with and what's he do and what can he afford?' At one point she asked me, 'Who owns the Lakers?' She'd never been to a game in her life but she went, and eventually she hit both Jerry Buss and Jack Kent Cooke.

"It didn't make any difference if it was an out-of-town corporation. She'd tell the local man, 'You have an office here; you're good for $25,000.' "

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