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The Reins of Power

Music Center supporter Phyllis Hennigan has made volunteerism her life's work--and found success by taking a businesslike approach to charity.


Relax! Relax!" the trainer shouts from across the ring. "It'll be easier if you relax!"

Phyllis Hennigan, astride a galloping white mare, is trying her best to de-tense. Jaw set, back ramrod straight, eyes fixed, she lets her shoulders drop and allows a brief smile.

"There you go," says the trainer.

Give the rider some credit--the 48-year-old Hennigan is only on her fifth lesson. A dead giveaway that she wasn't born in the saddle? Chanel sunglasses.

This reluctant urban cowgirl is perhaps better suited to her other life as president of the Blue Ribbon of the Music Center, a prestigious group of women who support, through donations, the center's resident companies: The L.A. Philharmonic, the L.A. Opera, the Center Theatre Group (the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson Theatre), the L.A. Master Chorale and the Music Center Education Division, an arts education outreach program for schools.

Hennigan is in her second year of this three-year volunteer post, as old guard members make way for the new and the Music Center struggles under serious financial strain. Still, guiding this group of 650 women seems a breeze compared to controlling a 1,000-pound horse.

"I don't do live animals," Hennigan explains.

What she does is volunteer work. Helming Blue Ribbon is the culmination of years of coordinating charity events, serving on boards, and donating time and money to nonprofits. She currently sits on the boards of the Center Theatre Group and public television station KCET.

Hennigan confesses that she was in awe of the Blue Ribbon when she joined in 1984: "There was something so magical about a woman standing onstage and saying, 'Hello, I'm president of Blue Ribbon.' I thought, 'How could anybody have this job?' You look around and there were all these women of the city. . . . I think it inspired me to work harder so I would be somebody that they would respect."

She seems to have gained the respect of the impressive roster of members who include a diverse group: from best-selling author Judith Krantz to philanthropists like Wallis Annenberg and Iris Cantor, to State and Consumer Services Secretary Joanne Kozberg, to Anne (Mrs. Kirk) Douglas, Annette (Mrs. Peter) O'Malley and Jane (Mrs. Michael) Eisner.

Says former president Nancy Livingston: "She comes with tremendous executive ability. She could run a company. And she has a sense of seeing the big picture. This is a big business where you're bringing in close to $2 million every year. . . . In terms of creating events, she uses every resource she can."

Membership in Blue Ribbon is by invitation and minimum dues are $2,000 a year, ensuring the group's exclusive status. This year it will contribute in excess of $1.6 million to the Music Center. (Since its inception it has raised close to $35 million.) In return for this support, members are treated to fashion shows, discussions with well-known authors and artists, plus finance and health seminars. In addition, Blue Ribbon's annual Children's Festival (June 3-5 this year) brings thousands of L.A. fifth-graders to the center for several days of performances and arts education.

The 27-year-old group's founder is Dorothy Buffum Chandler, wife of former Los Angeles Times Publisher Norman Chandler, who raised money for the Music Center by enlisting 400 women who were dedicated and passionate about the arts. To emphasize their mission, she named them the Amazing Blue Ribbon 400. Hennigan is the group's fifth president and is responsible for keeping members up on their dues, trying to get them to contribute more if they can, and for arranging events.

In one sense, Blue Ribbon defines traditional society. Step into a meeting and you're likely to encounter neatly coiffed older women in Chanel suits, faces powdered, nails neatly French manicured, discussing last night's opera and summer travel plans.

It seems a throwback to a rarefied realm of cocktail parties and country club luncheons. But as the city's demographics change, so do the Blue Ribbon's--slowly but surely. Although the majority of the members are overwhelmingly older and white, younger and minority members are beginning to join the ranks. And here sits Hennigan, a career volunteer who also understands the world of the young working woman.

"When I became president, the Music Center had just gone through some of its restructuring," Hennigan recalls.

"It was a time of transition in many ways. Esther [Wachtell, former president of the Music Center who resigned in 1993] had just left and Shelton Stanfill had just arrived. We were still very new in talking about Disney Hall, so I felt like it was time for me to get an understanding. I knew that I was a modern woman, but because I wasn't there in the very beginning of Blue Ribbon, I felt it was important for me to understand that to put the two together.

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