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Lillian Disney Dies at 98; Began Concert Hall Project

Entertainment: 'She left a magnificent gift,' says Music Center chief. Widow of Walt picked Mickey Mouse's name.

December 18, 1997|MYRNA OLIVER and DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Lillian Bounds Disney, who gave a world-famous cartoon mouse his name and left as her legacy the impetus for the still-unbuilt Walt Disney Concert Hall to honor her late husband, has died. She was 98.

Disney died Tuesday in her sleep at her Holmby Hills home, family members said. She had suffered a stroke Monday, 31 years to the day after the death of her innovative animator husband Dec. 15, 1966.

Lillian Disney's first major contribution to the Walt Disney entertainment empire occurred in the 1920s as the young couple were riding a train from New York to Los Angeles. Hoping to turn around a serious business setback, Walt Disney came up with a new character whom he proposed to call "Mortimer Mouse."

"Not Mortimer," his quiet wife replied. "It's too formal. How about Mickey?"

Mickey Mouse became the company's international symbol. When President Richard Nixon handed the widow a gold Commemorative Medal honoring her husband at a White House ceremony in 1969, it was etched with a profile of Walt Disney on one side and Mickey Mouse on the reverse.

"Mrs. Disney was a full-time partner to Walt, and we are all grateful for her contributions in the creation of Mickey Mouse and the Disney Co. and for the example she set for family life and community service," company Chairman Michael D. Eisner said Wednesday. "Lillian and Walt Disney and Edna and Roy Disney were pioneers in turning a creative vision through hard work and sacrifice into an American institution. For that, the world is grateful."

Always supportive of the arts, Lillian Disney on May 13, 1987, announced the memorial she envisioned for her husband--a world-class concert hall for the city where he had flourished. She handed the Music Center of Los Angeles County $50 million and asked that Walt Disney Concert Hall be built across 1st Street from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

"I have always had a deep love and admiration for my husband, and I wanted to find a way to honor him, as well as give something to Los Angeles which would have lasting qualities," she said in announcing the gift. "Walt was active in the formation of the Music Center, and Los Angeles was always the heart and soul of his many businesses and philanthropic endeavors. The thought that a concert hall would be built that would entertain the public with the finest musical offerings would be enormously gratifying to him."

Lillian Disney's requirements were simple--a hall for the masses, not the elite, and, because of her love of music and flowers, perfect acoustics and a garden.

The generous donation stemmed from the $47 million set aside for an unspecified charitable gift in 1982 when the family company, Retlaw Enterprises, sold the rights to Walt Disney's name and likeness to the Walt Disney Co.

Her donation for the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which by now has grown to more than $100 million, earned her a cultural award in 1988 from the Los Angeles Headquarters City Assn.

After a worldwide search, Santa Monica's own internationally respected architect Frank Gehry earned the assignment and set to work.

Lillian Disney "was very outspoken about what she wanted, and why she wanted to do it," Gehry recalled Wednesday. "She wanted very much for [the hall] to be a wonderful public space that had the kinds of feelings of warmth that [Walt Disney] tried to accomplish in his work. Both she and her daughter Diane kept saying that somehow I had some of the same kind of 'crazy' that Walt had. She was married to a very creative person, so she was open to it, so it was very comfortable for me."

Gehry said that Lillian Disney best loved his interior design and that he gave her a special model of it. He said she cared less about the exterior, leaving it to him but calling frequently to encourage him in what is expected to be a Los Angeles architectural landmark.

The concert hall was originally estimated to cost $115 million, with Disney funds and interest expected to pay the bulk of the cost. Groundbreaking was to begin in 1990, and the hall completed in 1993. A symbolic groundbreaking ceremony was held in 1992, but the project was already facing delays and increasing cost estimates. The expected opening date was pushed to 1997.

By 1994, alarming new cost projections came in that doubled original estimates. A year later, amid threats from the county to abandon the project, work on the hall was stopped.

Fund-raising stagnated until late last year, when several gifts infused new life into the foundering project. This Dec. 1, the Walt Disney Co. contributed $25 million, which virtually ensures that the hall will at last be built. Construction is now scheduled to begin next year, with the grand opening pegged for 2001.

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