Priceless manuscripts of works by Puccini, Chopin and other composers, including scores signed by Beethoven and Mozart, were destroyed in a fire that gutted a blocklong building in Burbank, where rare memorabilia of the music world was being preserved.
Losses in the fire, which broke out late Friday night at the Ledler Foundation, were estimated at $7.5 million to the building and collection that had been amassed during 40 years by two prominent patrons of opera in Los Angeles and across the country.
"My God, I would venture to guess it is the most valuable, irreplaceable collection of material on performing arts in Southern California," said Ernest Fleischmann, executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Fleischmann called the collection an "absolute treasure of California art history."
The cause of the fire is under investigation, and an arson team from the Burbank Fire and Police departments was on the scene all day Saturday.
Among the items in the 20,000-square-foot aluminum and glass building at 1800 W. Magnolia Blvd., which still smoldered Saturday morning, were every New York Metropolitan Opera program dating to 1884 and letters and other documents written by composer Richard Wagner, tenor Enrico Caruso and other prominent figures in music history.
"It's the cremation of the history of my life, along with that of the my associate, Lawrence Deutsch," said foundation owner Lloyd E. Rigler, 79, who with Deutsch had amassed the collection over four decades.
Also destroyed in the fire were Deutsch's ashes, which had been kept in the building, Rigler said. "He was buried in the building he helped create," he said.
Ledler Foundation executives said the extent of the collection's losses would not be known for days, although one official said, "it looks like a total loss." The collection was so large that the foundation said it is difficult to list what was housed in the landmark building, designed by a student of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Although the scores were not in the composers' handwriting, some were signed by the composers and were viewed by experts as a major loss to the music world.
Rigler and Deutsch, founders of Adolph's Ltd., producers of Adolph's Meat Tenderizer, have been generous patrons of the opera in Los Angeles and New York since the early 1950s. The fire also destroyed the history of their company.
Rigler has served as vice president of the Music Center Opera Assn. and Deutsch, who died in 1977, helped bring the New York City Opera to Los Angeles.
The two were instrumental in arranging the acquisition of the Jacques Lipchitz sculpture outside the Music Center, and two original lithographs from that project were consumed in the fire. The partners established the Ledler Foundation in 1966 to fund musical projects and provide a West Coast depository for operatic memorabilia. Ledler is an acronym for the initials of the two partners.
Last year, Rigler helped bail out the financially ailing Joffrey Ballet.
As the fire raged in Burbank, Rigler was on his way to New York from Cannes, France, where he was promoting a documentary on Luciano Pavarotti. He was not told of the fire until he woke up Saturday morning.
"It's not real to me," he said an hour after hearing the news.
Musical scholars said much of what was destroyed could never be replaced.
"That sort of archival stuff is irreplaceable," said Richard J. Wingell, an associate professor of music at USC. Wingell said the collection of Metropolitan Opera programs, especially, are valuable for researching the changing musical tastes of audiences.
Bruce Brown, an expert on 18th-Century music, agreed.
"Even if you have microfilm, you are able to miss certain details," he said. "Also, manuscripts can tell you about the composition process.
"It's hard to place a monetary value on information," said Brown, who teaches music at USC. Although not open to the public, the foundation made the collection available to music scholars and students.
Two Rolls-Royces--1963 and 1971 models--that were housed in the building escaped destruction because they were moved while the garage was being painted, company officials said. The 1963 Rolls had belonged to Deutsch.
"What was in there was priceless," said James Rigler, 41, Rigler's nephew, as he stood on the sidewalk staring at what once was his office. "There were some rare, rare music scores in there. How do you put a value on a Beethoven script?"
Rigler, an officer with the foundation, received a telephone message Friday night telling him of the fire. From his home in the Hollywood Hills, he said, he could see the flames ravaging the collection that he described as "my uncle's whole life."
Rigler said he arrived at the scene about 11 p.m. and by that time, the "whole block was up in flames."
Sixty firefighters battled the three-alarm fire for two hours before it was brought under control, he said. "We don't know exactly what happened," said Fire Capt. Richard Fischer.
"It was just frightening. Flames were leaping up in the air," said Maxine Jennings, whose home is next to the building, which was considered an architectural oddity.
Designed by Raphael Soriano, the structure employed a modular system of steel columns and aluminum framing, which allowed flexibility in locating offices and work spaces. Enclosed within was a courtyard, swimming pool and large fishpond. Soriano, who designed the building in the 1950s, was known for his Modernist designs, distinguished by flat roofs and ribbon windows.
The swimming pool hampered firefighting efforts because the firefighters feared that they might fall in.
Neighbors ran from door to door informing friends of the fire because they feared that their houses were in danger, said nearby resident Sharon Southard. But no one's home was damaged.
"It was a beautiful building," Southard said. "It's a shame."