Growing up on a San Diego farm, Richard D. Colburn and his brothers were given two choices: doing chores or studying a musical instrument. Richard chose the latter. Had he better instruction, he could have "out-Heifetzed Heifetz," the 86-year-old businessman says, his piercing blue eyes evidencing a hint of a twinkle.
Instead, Colburn went on to become the Heifetz of music patronage--one of the most generous benefactors on the Los Angeles arts scene. He financed the new $25-million downtown home of the Colburn School for Performing Arts--an after-school and weekend musical education program he saved from extinction in 1980 when its parent institution, USC, could no longer foot the bill. And he plans to fund an addition to the school, a four-year college-level conservatory that may cost as much as $150 million to establish.
"That sum, without doubt, is one of the largest ever given to the arts in the city," says Edmund Edelman, a former Los Angeles County supervisor who gets together with Colburn to play the cello. "Anything over $100 million is very hard to top."
Colburn is one of two Lifetime Directors of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a co-founder of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and a major supporter of L.A. Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. He lends instruments to students from his 50-year-old collection and provides a substantial scholarship program at Colburn. It's his intention that the conservatory will be tuition-free.
"I believe in the saying 'Well begun is half done,' " says Colburn, a feisty but good-natured sort. "Music education is expensive--requiring a lot of one-on-one. By providing it to students who couldn't otherwise afford it, I hope they avoid the misfortune I had. The school and conservatory could become L.A.'s Juilliard. Remember Horace Greeley? Civilization always moves west."
Colburn has a substantial profile in the music world, but he is virtually unknown outside it. "If you don't know Mr. Colburn, you don't know of him," says Ayahlushim Hammond, a project manager at the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, which owns the Grand Avenue property that the school occupies, next to the Museum of Contemporary Art.
That anonymity is by design, says Colburn, a man of intriguing contrasts. He's so accessible that he sets up an interview at his wedding reception--one hour after marrying wife No. 8. ("How much time does a ceremony take . . . 5, 10 minutes--better add 45 minutes for socializing," he says to the reporter, determining what time she should come. But he plays his professional life close to the vest. ("I'm a tradesman--I buy cheap and I sell dear" is how he describes himself.)
Colburn's penchant for privacy dates back awhile. "My father taught me that fools' names and fools' faces often appear in public places," he explains. "I only agreed to have my name put on the school because the administrators and faculty insisted. The Eastman School of Music, Juilliard, the Peabody Conservatory of Music and others all bear the name of their heavenly father, they pointed out."
The eldest of three boys, Colburn took his first violin lesson at 7 but switched to the viola as a teenager. At 16, he played in the San Diego Symphony but--informed by his teacher that he'd never be the best--Colburn made music his avocation.
Graduating from high school in 1925, two years early, he enrolled briefly at the San Diego Teachers College before taking a job as district circulation manager with the now-defunct San Diego Sun. In 1929, at his father's urging, he applied to the work-study program at Ohio's Antioch College, but he dropped out before getting a degree.
"I would have had to spend the last year studying biology, geology, psychology, aesthetics and philosophy--and figured I could get along without them," Colburn says.
Lining up a job with Chicago's Lybrand, Ross Bros. & Montgomery, Colburn spent most of his 20s as an accountant. In the mid-1940s, he went to work for an investment banking firm, which put up the money for him to buy foundries and small electrical utilities. From there, he moved into wholesaling and distributing construction equipment.
In 1965, he returned to Southern California. Soon after, he helped rescue the Denver-based Susquehanna Corp., a mini-conglomerate dealing in building materials and uranium mining. Colburn is now chairman and two-thirds owner of U.S. Rentals, the nation's second-largest renter of construction equipment, which he started at age 65.
"Making money is a wondrous game to him," observes Colburn School Executive Director Toby Mayman--a notion with which daughter Carol Colburn Hogel agrees. "His hobby is buying distressed companies, managing them and turning them around," she says.
A former member of the musicians' union, Colburn has kept his performing muscles flexed. He has played with the Pasadena Symphony and spent summers at the Carmel Bach Festival. "Dad was the one at the last stand on the inside with that broad smile on his face," Hogel recalls.