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Ace in the Hall

Time is running out on the troubled Walt Disney Concert Hall construction project, the future home of the L.A. Philharmonic. If anybody can pull it off, it's Harry L. Hufford.

August 04, 1996|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

"Wanted: Enthusiastic individual to spearhead effort to save Walt Disney Concert Hall, new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The spectacular Frank O. Gehry-designed white limestone structure will join the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Ahmanson Theater and Mark Taper Forum as part of downtown's Music Center of Los Angeles County. The project--instigated by a 1988 gift of $50 million from Walt's widow, Lillian B. Disney, now in her mid-90s--stalled in the summer of 1994 when skyrocketing cost estimates caused panic in the Music Center boardroom and at the County Board of Supervisors. The county threatened to terminate the project in 1995 and is currently stuck with a $110-million concert parking garage built at county expense. Benefits include stress, distrust, finger-pointing, bad press and total blame if the project fails. No salary. Note: project boasts a fund-raising gap of $149.5 million."

Even in today's tough job market, it is likely no one would apply for a position that could have no upside except, perhaps, a really nice place to park.

No one, that is, except Harry L. Hufford.

While such a job description never appeared in the classifieds, it describes the task taken on by Hufford, 64, an investment executive and former county chief administrative officer. Hufford took over leadership of Disney Hall's fund-raising committee in early 1995, just before the county threatened to default on the project because of an unmet construction deadline.

Hufford remains a salaried executive at Bear Stearns & Co., but right now Disney Hall takes top priority over his "real" job. While Hufford receives no salary from Disney funds, the committee pays Bear Stearns for Hufford's time.

The Disney problem is huge but simple: By next June, the Disney Hall fund-raising committee--which consists of Hufford, Disney family representatives and Music Center leadership--must come up with at least $50 million toward the looming funding gap for $260-million Disney Hall.

Otherwise, the county calls the whole thing off.

Realistically, Hufford says, the deadline is sooner. By January, the fund-raising team needs $10 million to $12 million to commit to its first contracts. That can't be done without new major donation pledges.

In addition to, and independent of, Hufford's committee, Mayor Richard Riordan and millionaire developer Eli Broad have formed an eleventh-hour volunteer effort to find a first heavyweight donor or donors.

"I think Harry has been great--he picked up the pieces when things had gotten very disjointed, and I think he's done a wonderful job of pulling people together," says Riordan, who has been playing his role on the sidelines for almost a year.

"[Hufford] took over something that needs someone to take it over," Broad agrees. But the project, he adds, "also needs someone, frankly, that has the ability to convince major foundations or wealthy families they have not been able to convince as yet to make some very major commitments."

That effort is welcomed by Hufford, who looks very much like he could be your accountant, translates fierce civic pride into folksy baseball metaphors (let's get out on that playing field and step up to the plate) and prefers working behind the scenes.

"The reason I'm in this is I thought it would take somebody who could work with local government, who could work with the media, who handles finance, who is credible, who is willing to work and is stubborn. That's me," he says.

But Disney Hall also needs the mega-rich and powerful--and Hufford is not a member of the club.

"I can't meet with people and say, 'I'm in for this, are you in for this ?' That's where the rubber hits the road," he says. "I leave that part to the mayor and Mr. Broad. It's a lot more powerful if they're the ones doing the calling."

(Broad, who recently donated $1 million to downtown's Museum of Contemporary Art, denies persistent rumors that he plans a personal donation to Disney Hall; Riordan, who has been an active supporter and regular donor to the Music Center, declines to say whether he plans to make a donation to the project--though he does say there are no city funds forthcoming for the hall.)

His own job, Hufford contends, is to handle the "white elephant issue." With the aid of a formal study commissioned by the committee, Hufford is busy with a series of "quiet meetings" with potential major donors. He declines to reveal names, for fear of scaring off donors, but he said the committee is concentrating on local business leaders.

The Disney committee must persuade naysayers that Gehry's all-curves design is buildable (he points to a similar Gehry design, the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art under construction in Bilbao, Spain). The committee also must prove that Disney Hall is not just a pretty building but will increase revenue for the Music Center, not only through Philharmonic ticket sales but by opening up the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the orchestra's current home, for other types of performances.

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