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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.

The Disney family's connection to the Music Center dates back to the center's birth in 1964. Walt Disney was among the many prominent Angelenos who aided Music Center founder Dorothy Buffum Chandler--wife of Norman Chandler, third publisher of the Los Angeles Times--in fund-raising and planning for the performing arts complex.

As she does with just about everything in her life, Miller credits her father for her love of music. "Dad was doing 'Fantasia' when I was something like 7 years old," says Miller, who grew up in Los Feliz and attended the Marlborough School for Girls in Hancock Park. "We didn't have all that much music in the house, because I don't think most homes had really good sound systems at that time.

"But movies--in every movie, it seemed that Arthur Rubinstein or Jose Iturbi was playing something by Chopin or Rachmaninoff, and at 7 I said, 'I want a piano,' and that was my birthday present. I have that little piano still in my house; it's a little upright Baldwin Acrosonic. And then when I was 16, he decided I needed a better one, and we got a beautiful used Steinway."

Along with the concert hall that honors her father, the family is developing a Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, inspired by a small Disney exhibition in 2001 financed by the family and organized by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Miller explored locations in Kansas City, Mo., where Walt Disney's family moved when he was a boy and where he started his first animation company, Laugh-O-Grams. She also considered Burbank, and even the possibility of creating a museum inside of Disney Hall before settling on San Francisco, simply because it is her home.

But for the longest time, Los Angeles was home to Diane Disney. She met Ron Miller, a USC football star, while both were students at the university, and Diane dropped out of college to get married in 1954. Ron Miller served in the Army and played for the Los Angeles Rams before beginning his rise through the ranks of Walt Disney Productions, succeeding Walt's nephew, Roy E. Disney--son of Walt's older brother, Roy O. Disney--as company president in 1980.

But by 1984, many company stockholders were blaming Ron Miller for lackluster corporate leadership. One of them was the entertainment giant's largest stockholder: Roy E. Disney, now company vice chairman. The board asked Miller to resign and brought in a new chief executive, Michael Eisner, and president, Frank Wells. The ouster caused a well-documented rift between the branches of the Disney family as the Millers left Los Angeles.

But the firing never shook the couple's commitment to the Music Center, or kept Miller from returning there to see her beloved Joffrey Ballet, which lost its L.A. residency in 1991 because of financial problems and moved to Chicago. Now that time has passed since the barrage of reportage surrounding Gehry's threatened departure, Miller says she's thrilled with the completed hall. She recently came to Los Angeles to lend her voice to a tape that eventually will be used for audio tours of the complex.

Unlike the grand opening of Disneyland, Miller will be present when Walt Disney Concert Hall opens Thursday. She will arrive with 25 family members, including all 13 grandchildren. The family paid for its own opening gala tickets, which range from $500 to $5,000. She says she wasn't offered free tickets by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and "I wouldn't have accepted them if we had; it would have felt weird." The group also will attend Friday's concert, and then a few family members with children will stay through the weekend to take the kids to Disneyland.

But larger than Miller's commitment to the building is her commitment to the performances inside. In addition to the Disney family's gifts for the concert hall's construction--now totaling about $112 million--the family also has pledged another $25 million, payable over five years, to the Philharmonic to endow the Walt and Lilly Disney Chair in Conducting.

Yet Miller may be more comfortable with the arts in a more intimate, private setting than in the grand arena of Disney Hall. She describes herself as passionate about Music in the Vineyards, a summer chamber music series in the wine country, where she enjoys the casual pre-concert talks about the composers. "I kind of want to know something about what I'm listening to beyond what's in the program," Miller says. Artists who stay at the family winery's guest house make use of her Steinway parlor grand piano--the one her father bought her.

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