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

September 10, 1989|PATT MORRISON | Morrison is a Times staff writer

The white columns that encircle the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion speak to more than architecture alone. As the columns seem to shoulder the graceful height of the building, so did ranks of men and women shoulder a hopeful notion, and then advanced it into something of steel and marble and music.

Volunteers, workers: hundreds, eventually, came within the Music Center's orbit, through small contributions or brief efforts. The seats in the Pavilion would hardly be adequate to hold them all.

But a core of them stayed the course for years. They were the pioneers, people who enlisted on the strength of an entrancing idea proposed at a luncheon or a meeting, and who saw it through to reality.

Some were people with money, some were people with optimism and ability, and a few had both. Their talents were artistic vision, or a skill at management, but most of all a love of city and of culture that made the occasional genteel arm-twisting for contributions an act of civic virtue.

Twenty-five years later, some of the movers and shakers have moved into retirement, and some have died.

Of those who remain, ask one about his or her contribution, and the likelihood is that he will modestly say, I didn't do all that much--suggesting you talk to this man or that woman. And then this man or that woman will say, No, I didn't really do much at all--and suggest that you speak instead with the person who deferred to them in the first place.

In the backward glance of recall, the task may seem more daunting, the millions an even vaster sum than they had at the time. Some speak of the Music Center as an organic inevitability, given the size and strength that Los Angeles was growing into. But for none of them, in the quarter-century since they saw their efforts rewarded by reality, has it dimmed to anything less than splendid.

Following are some of their stories:

JASCHA HEIFETZ AND William Severns were prowling through the unfinished Music Center in hard hats when Severns "heard a funny noise." It was Heifetz, blowing a tin whistle. "He kept walking around, blowing that little tin whistle. Finally he came back and said, 'Yes, it's going to be all right.' He could tell the acoustics just from that little whistle."

Yet at the first rehearsal, Severns still wasn't sure, and Dorothy Chandler "was afraid to come down; she was so nervous" about the acoustics. They stood at the doorway, and as the orchestra began, "I think we both broke into tears--just the idea that it worked."

Severns, now 75, was the project's majordomo, general manager of the Music Center's operating company. He had managed the Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl before signing on at the Music Center, which some people had ridiculed as no more likely than, oh, a moon landing.

Says Severns: "Frankly, nobody thought it could be done--not the construction of the building or anything like that, that was fairly simple. It was the funding." A tease crept into his voice. "I don't know what we'd have done without the rubber hose."

Born to a show-business family in the Midwest, Severns came to Los Angeles for the 1932 Olympics, and stayed. The city had a score of legitimate theaters, but by the time the Music Center project began, most had folded, the Hollywood Bowl had nearly gone belly-up and three Music Center bond issues had failed.

"There was a big schism in society," between the West Side and "movie group" and the California Club-Pasadena contingent, who "really laid the foundation" for the Music Center. Once the project was underway, "then the movie people began to say, 'Yeah, sure, of course we want it.' But they didn't even know where downtown was, except when they came downtown for a divorce."

Most everyone became a believer; "it was something the town wanted, no ands, ifs or buts." When the doors did open, so proprietary were those who worked to create it that, Severns says, "if anybody so much as dared to spill (a drink), put a cigarette out on the carpet, the ushers never had to say anything. Somebody in the public came up and reprimanded them."

On opening night, a well-to-do lady who had devoted much time to the project rushed up to Severns in dismay. "Oh, Bill, this is awful," she said. "They have the wrong color toilet paper in the ladies' room."

The place some had once considered "for the swells" sought democracy; new citizens by the hundreds were sworn in in the splendid auditorium, where the California State Bar held its admission ceremonies--for a while. "The only problem with that was after all those new lawyers got sworn in, somebody would always sue," finding malice in a carpet seam or a flight of stairs.

Two things made the Music Center possible, Severns says: Mrs. Chandler, who "got to like raising money." And "as more money came in, the concept got grander and grander and grander . . . she just never stopped dreaming."

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