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Disney Gives $25 Million to Downtown Concert Hall

Fund-raising: The donation virtually ensures project's completion.

December 02, 1997|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ending more than two years of rumor, speculation and criticism for its visible failure to step up to the plate, the Walt Disney Co. announced Monday that it will make a "challenge gift" of $25 million toward construction of downtown's Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The donation marks the largest gift to Disney Hall, planned home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Los Angeles Music Center, since the project was launched in 1987 with a $50-million gift from Walt Disney's widow, Lillian.

The Disney Co. gift, conditional on the project's ability to raise matching funds, was announced by the company's chairman and chief executive, Michael D. Eisner, at a news conference Monday on the Music Center plaza. It virtually ensures that the concert hall will be built by bringing the fund-raising total to $168.38 million--80% of the approximately $200 million needed to complete the $255-million hall. The additional $55 million already has been spent on the design process.

Under the terms of the Disney gift, there will be a performance space at Disney Hall for primary use by the California Institute of the Arts, an accredited arts college based in Valencia and founded by Walt Disney. Of the Disney Co. money, $5 million will be allocated to create an endowment for CalArts performances in the space. Walt's older brother, the late Roy O. Disney, took over completion of CalArts' construction upon Walt's death in 1966. Hall architect Frank O. Gehry said no details about the space are firm yet.

The gift from the entertainment industry giant not only secures Disney Hall's future, it appears to mark a healing of the perceived rift between two branches of the Disney family.

The rift had its most public airing in the mid-1980s when Walt's son-in-law Ron Miller, husband of Lillian's daughter Diane, was forced out as CEO of Walt Disney Productions. His departure was largely at the hand of Roy E. Disney, son of Roy O. Disney and current vice chairman of the board of the company. Diane Disney Miller is spokeswoman for the Disney family and for her mother, who is 98. Disney family gifts, including additional donations and interest, now total $100 million.

Further cementing the perception of a long-awaited family truce, Disney Hall officials announced Monday that the first matching gift of $5 million toward the challenge will come from Roy E. Disney and his wife, Patty Disney, and the CalArts performance space will be named the Roy O. and Edna F. Disney CalArts Theater. Roy E. Disney did not attend the announcement due to a case of the flu.

In an interview after the announcement, Eisner said he could not comment on the rift between the descendants of Walt Disney and those of his brother because "I don't really know." But he added that the company's donation, initiated by Music Center Chairman Andrea Van de Kamp, was spurred not by an effort to bring a family together, but by a decision by Disney Hall leadership to include CalArts in the mix. Eisner, Roy E. Disney and his son Tim Disney all serve on CalArts' Board of Trustees.

"Because Walt founded CalArts, and because education is so much a part of our company, because there is a need here, it just became the right time for us to do it," Eisner said. "If that in itself is good for their family, that would be great. I know that Roy [E. Disney] and Diane [Disney Miller] talked today, and I think the family is closer than most people think. And Lillian Disney is still alive and still very conscious of this effort, and I think appreciates this effort."

Eisner added that he also wanted the donation to serve as a vote of confidence for architect Gehry, who has taken some heat over the past decade because some believed that his unusual, undulating design was responsible for the spiraling cost estimates that caused the project to grind to a halt in 1995. Gehry has a long association with Disney Co., designing the Team Disney Anaheim building and Disney Ice, home of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks hockey team, as well as a structure at EuroDisney outside Paris.

"They are fantastic buildings; the Disney Ice building is like a piece of sculpture," Eisner said. "We have never been over budget with him; he is one of the nicest men you'll ever meet and one of the most talented.

"I was getting a little tired of reading the criticism of Frank. I know him, and it seemed a little out of character."

Eisner denied that Disney's late entry in the current, renewed fund-raising process, which has been underway since 1996, indicates any philanthropic reluctance on the part of the company or the entertainment industry in general. Until Monday, no entertainment companies had donated to the high profile project, although non-entertainment corporate entities, including foundations for Ralphs/Food 4 Less and Atlantic Richfield Co., among others, had made multimillion-dollar gifts.

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