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PERFORMING ARTS : A Satellite to Save the Arts : Lloyd Rigler decided to use his fortune to spread culture all over the hemisphere, 24 hours a day, for free. But can 'Madama Butterfly' and Astaire really compete with R.E.M. and Madonna?

July 16, 1995|Barbara Isenberg | Barbara Isenberg is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

Back in 1949, when a food critic showed no interest in Adolph's seasonings, executive Lloyd Rigler turned up at her office with a chunk of meat, plopped it on her desk, tenderized it and told her to take it home and cook it. She did, and her resulting story led to nearly 4,000 requests for the new product.

Rigler, who turned stunts like that into a major fortune, is now applying his on-site hustle to Culture with a capital C. In a one-man effort at arts education for the masses, he's making high-quality music, dance, opera and more available, for free, on as grand a scale as money can buy.

For more than a year, the Los Angeles arts patron has leased a transponder and beamed the arts to satellite dishes from Alaska to South America. Launched on May 3, 1994--Rigler's 79th birthday--his Classic Arts Showcase broadcasts 24 hours a day to much of the Americas.

The white-haired philanthropist knows what sells.

"MTV is in," Rigler says. "The kids like it. If we give them the same format and show them classics, will they look for five minutes?"

Assisted by his nephew and a tiny staff, Rigler is determined that they will. Using three- to five-minute segments of laser discs, archival film, television footage and similar materials, Classic Arts Showcase presents Fred Astaire one minute, Andres Segovia the next. Laurence Olivier is seen onstage as "King Lear," the Vienna Philharmonic performs Ravel's "Bolero," and Renata Tebaldi sings "Un Bel Di" from Puccini's "Madama Butterfly."

All of this is funded--at an estimated $50 million during the next 12 years--entirely by the nonprofit foundation established by Rigler and his late partner Lawrence Deutsch. Classic Arts Showcase accepts no advertising. Its signal is not scrambled, which means that broadcasters and cable systems can rebroadcast it without charge and that anyone with a satellite dish in its broadcast range can tune in.

And people are tuning in. Rigler estimates his audience at about 5 million, including people reached by at least 20 university stations that air the programming. He keeps a growing stack of testimonials from Iowa, the Bahamas, Hawaii and such celebrity viewers as Anne Bancroft, Joan Fontaine and Shirley Jones.

Classic Arts Showcase is "the CNN of culture," says "MASH" and "City of Angels" creator Larry Gelbart. "It's a giant oasis in what becomes increasingly a vast wasteland. In the crack between shopping channels, degrading talk shows and murder trials, there are these examples of the positive, the hopeful and creative side of mankind."

Still, Rigler is finding it tough to give the people what he thinks they want, even for free. In Los Angeles, for example, none of the 14 cable systems that serve the region are broadcasting Classic Arts Showcase directly. Gelbart sees it in his home thanks to the Beverly Hills School District's Channel 36.

But Rigler is not a man who is easily discouraged. Determined to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1942, for instance, he knew he couldn't read the eye chart with his left eye so he memorized the chart while waiting in line. (They gave him a second eye exam before sending him overseas, discovered his vision problem and stationed him in San Pedro instead.)

He wanted to serve his country then, and he wants to serve the arts now.

"The arts are endangered!" he says repeatedly. "The arts are a mirror of our culture, but nowhere is arts education being given to young people. If we don't have an audience, how will we have the arts?"

Rigler has been successfully selling one thing or another nearly all his life. He was born and raised in small towns in North Dakota and studied theater at the University of Illinois. His early jobs included demonstrating RCA television sets at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

He landed in Los Angeles in 1941 as a salesman for Decca Records and returned here after his time in the Navy. He worked briefly as a Hollywood agent before getting into the food brokerage business, in which he was later joined by Deutsch.

Impressed by a meat tenderizer launched by local restaurateur Adolph Rempp, Rigler and Deutsch started demonstrating and selling it at the May Co. in 1949, then bought the product outright. Rigler says the recipe and name that would make him a fortune cost only $10,000.

Entrepreneur Rigler toured the country--he swears he visited 63 cities in 60 days--repeating his desktop tenderizing act wherever he could. He eventually made it to Reader's Digest and says a subsequent Digest story drew 2 million pieces of mail.

Rigler and Deutsch sold Adolph's in 1974 to Chesebrough-Pond's Inc. (Rigler won't reveal the exact price, but he will say that they were determined to get "the highest price-earnings ratio anyone ever paid for a business, and I think we did that.") The two men later formed the Ledler Corp., a venture capital company, and when Deutsch died in 1977, he left his estate to their Ledler Foundation, later renamed the Lloyd E. Rigler-Lawrence E. Deutsch Foundation.

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