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The Reluctant Savior

In the Late 1990s, Frank Gehry Threatened to Walk Away From the Walt Disney Concert Hall Project in a Feud With Eli Broad and Richard Riordan. That's When Diane Disney Miller Stepped In.

October 19, 2003|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is an arts writer for The Times' Calendar section.

On the eve of Disneyland's opening in 1955, Walt and Lillian Disney threw a bash at America's first theme park to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. Guests sipped mint juleps on the Mark Twain riverboat, followed by a lavish dinner at the Golden Horseshoe Saloon, complete with cancan dancers. Diane, their shy 21-year-old daughter, wore a "sort of bare" red linen dress that her mother had bought for the occasion.

"I never saw my Dad happier, ever, ever, ever," Diane Disney Miller now says.

But Walt Disney would not allow his wife or daughter to come to his park's opening day. "He said: 'Don't any of you women come out, it's going to be a mess,' " Miller recalls with a laugh.

And so it was. Press reports the next day oohed and aahed over Fantasyland, Tomorrowland and Frontierland, but noted that drinking fountains and toilets didn't work and pavement that had not set properly melted in the mid-July heat.

"They called it 'Walt Disney's Folly,' " Miller says. "But it was exciting."

Things worked out fine for Disneyland. But throughout her life, Miller became accustomed to skeptics challenging her father's crazy, creative ideas. So to those who know her, it was not too surprising that, years later, an attack on another creative spirit touched a raw nerve--and spurred Miller to take what many of the project's leaders now call the defining step that saved Walt Disney Concert Hall.

If Miller has anything to say about it, you'll never see her name on the wall of any building. Intensely private and self-effacing, Miller, now 69, is more likely to tell you how many grandchildren she has (13) than that she has been a longtime supporter of the arts in Los Angeles and sits on the board of governors of the San Francisco Symphony. She refuses to refer to herself with the lofty term "art collector," although works by Andrew Wyeth and Winslow Homer hang on her walls.

She will quote the names of the choreographers and works performed by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago before she'll tell you that she was one of the ensemble's major supporters during its years as a resident company of the Los Angeles Music Center, donating what Joffrey artistic director Gerald Arpino says is about $1 million to the troupe.

"I find her one of the kindest, gentlest, most reserved individuals, very unadorned," says Arpino, one of the many artists whom Miller has welcomed to her family's Napa Valley winery, Silverado Vineyards. "I find her a perfect sophisticate in the true sense of the word in that she is a very, very private individual, yet very concerned about our society and the arts, and she contributes to the arts in the most noble fashion."

Just as Walt Disney had advised them on Disneyland's opening day, "the women"--Lillian, Diane and her sister, Sharon Disney Lund--stayed home, so to speak, during the early phases of the Walt Disney Concert Hall's development.

"We were just three women, my mother, my sister and me--housewives, if you will," Miller says.

But Lund died of cancer in 1993, and an ailing Lillian Disney, who passed away in December 1997 at age 98, was too ill to take responsibility for major decisions when the Disney Hall project reached a crisis that required immediate action.

Instead of the three "housewives" who preferred to leave major decisions to others, now there was only Miller--owner by default of the wildly unorthodox design for a $274-million concert hall.

Everything was finally coming together in 1997 for the long-delayed Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at downtown's Music Center. Designed by Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, the project was set in motion by a 1987 gift of $50 million from Lillian Disney to do "something grand" in the name of her late husband.

The project had ground to a halt in the mid-'90s due to financial troubles, but it was enjoying a second wind. Gehry was riding high on critical acclaim for his new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and a group of L.A.'s corporate and civic leaders, led by then-Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire businessman Eli Broad, began soliciting multimillion-dollar donations to meet the soaring cost estimates for the hall.

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