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Mom is watching

A vital Music Center was Dorothy Buffum Chandler's dream. Otis Chandler recalls her vision, though she didn't always make things easy.

October 19, 2003|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

About 45 years ago, Dorothy Buffum Chandler told her son Otis that she was lobbying the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to provide not just the Bunker Hill plot on which she wanted to build the city's new Music Center but also for a section of land south of the site. We should keep that for the Music Center too, she said, because we might need it some day; until then, we can use it for parking.

Mother, Otis replied, can't you just for once be happy with what you've got?

Otis Chandler laughs when he remembers this because soon, he and his wife, Bettina, will be attending several parties celebrating the opening of the Music Center's new Disney Hall, which now occupies that lot his mother staked claim to all those years ago.

"It's incredible that she had this vision," he says. "I couldn't imagine what we would need it for. The Music Center was the biggest in the country when it was built. And all over other cities were having to close their centers down."

It was not the first time mother and son clashed over her manner and methods in establishing Los Angeles as a cultural center of the country, nor would it be the last. Sitting recently in the conference room of his Vintage Museum of Transportation in Oxnard, Chandler, the former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, recalled an era when he and his family were driving forces in the creation of Los Angeles as a world-class city, a time that was, for him, both heady and exasperating.

At 76, he is tan and fit; he apologized for his shorts and Hawaiian print shirt though the air around the museum shimmered with heat. The adjacent showroom is full of gorgeous vintage cars and motorcycles and many stuffed examples of the big game Chandler hunted in his younger days. It is a curious and very personal sort of museum, open on irregular and unpredictable hours and used most often, he says, for fund-raisers.

Otis Chandler had become publisher right around the time that his mother decided she wanted the city to build itself a music center, originally near the Pan Pacific Auditorium in the Beverly-Fairfax neighborhood. When Buff Chandler, as she was known, couldn't get the city or county to pay for it, she resolved to raise the money herself. She chose Bunker Hill as the site and began lobbying the L.A. County Board of Supervisors for the land and the necessary permits and approval.

This put her son in what he calls "a pretty tight spot."

"I was very close to the Board of Supervisors," he says. "I would have them in to discuss the many other issues of the day and they would say, 'You know, your mother's being very aggressive, asking us to do things that might not make us popular because the folks in our districts probably aren't going to use this music center anyway.' "

Chandler says he usually offered no comment beyond the observation that a center for the arts would benefit the city and the county. Occasionally, he says, he would try to get his mother to tone it down a bit, with little success. More often, he found himself facing her wrath any time the paper took an editorial position questioning or criticizing the board.

"We'd run an editorial or a cartoon that would be hard on them and she would blow into my office saying, 'What are you trying to do to my music center!?' And I would say, 'We're trying to be a world-class newspaper.' "

The two were so busy with their respective projects that they often went a month without really speaking, Chandler says. "But there were many days when she was unhappy with me and I was unhappy with her."

The approval of the site for the center didn't curtail the tension. As Times Mirror vice president of corporate and community relations, Buff Chandler had an office on the fourth floor of the Times-Mirror building downtown and she was not above using her dynastic position -- mother of the publisher, wife of the former publisher Norman Chandler -- to push fund-raising attempts.

"My mother was ... complicated," Chandler says with a small snort. "She could be so nice. She'd come down to the paper and talk to people in classified about how things were going, would go into the women's room to make sure that was all right, then ask to see the men's room too. But if someone didn't give her the money she wanted [for the Music Center] she was down on them like a house afire."

He remembers the time his mother had managed to finagle a copy of his visitors' list and discovered that then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was in town. After lunch, Chandler was escorting Kissinger out and when the elevator doors opened, there stood his mother. "I said, 'Hello, Mrs. C., what are you doing here?' She said, 'I've come to meet your guest, Otis.' And then she looked at Kissinger and said, 'Henry, I want you and Nancy to send me $250,000.' "

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