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A rocky road, step by step

FALL PREVIEW / THE ARTS

Disney Hall is here, but it wasn't easy. Here's the tale of a dream that began with high hopes and almost ended as a hole in the ground.

September 14, 2003|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

On May 13, 1987, publicity-shy Lillian Disney announced through representatives that she was bestowing $50 million so a philharmonic concert hall could rise in downtown Los Angeles, honoring her late husband. She specified that it should be "one of the finest in the world."

Walt Disney Concert Hall, due to open Oct. 23 and already celebrated in some quarters as a masterpiece, promises to be just that. It arrives 10 years later and, at $274 million, 2 1/2 times costlier than first anticipated. The path to its creation has been as angled, undulating and full of precipitous swoops and dips as the structure itself.

Lillian Disney's unsolicited gift landed on a Los Angeles that generally thought it was doing all right for itself. It was still morning in America in the go-go '80s. Southern California, with its dynamic aerospace industry, was a leading arsenal of Ronald Reagan's campaign to defense-spend the Evil Empire into oblivion.

By 1995, a universally understood shorthand of disaster had come to define L.A. in the popular imagination. Rodney King. Florence and Normandie. Northridge earthquake. O.J. And, for cultural doings, Disney Hall. The project was a bust, a ship that had run aground before it was even launched. The sail-like vision that architect Frank Gehry had conceived existed only in models; years had passed, millions had been spent, and there was nothing to show for it but the underground parking garage upon which the great hall was supposed to sit.

"It was like, 'What else can go wrong here?' " Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavksy recalls. "You thought this was a biblical seven years of disaster, all overlaid with a recession. But Disney Hall was not an act of God. This one was in our control. The civic leadership got together and said, 'Enough is enough.' "

As Disney Hall went from dream to blueprint to fiasco to gleaming presence, friendships soured, its chief benefactress and one of her two daughters died, a star architect's reputation was tarnished, then restored, and an uneasy, elite alliance forged to salvage the sunken project was tested in boardroom brinksmanship that threatened to scuttle it all over again.

Here's how it unfolded, in the words of some of those involved in taking the concert hall from the gift-wrapped, assemble-it-yourself surprise it seemed at first to the hard-won reality it became.

Part 1: 1987-94

Starting and stalling

The Los Angeles Philharmonic wants a better-sounding venue than the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, its home since 1964. Arts leaders and government officials quarrel over where to build this addition to the Music Center of Los Angeles County. Lillian Disney's offer cuts through all knots, including fears that the new hall would cost too much to run and that the old one would be left an underused relic. The Disney gift, plus its investment earnings, is expected to cover most of the construction cost. The family creates a nonprofit corporation -- Walt Disney Concert Hall I -- to build the dream.

Ernest Fleischmann (executive director, Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1969-99): "The glow, the richness, the direct impact that a symphony orchestra can have in a good hall, was not there."

David Howard (bass clarinetist, Los Angeles Philharmonic, since 1981): "We'd have to leave town on tour to feel we were really being heard well."

Diane Disney Miller (daughter of Walt and Lillian Disney): "We wanted [Lillian] to do something with the money that would give her pleasure during her lifetime. We had no preconceived design in mind. I think that's the best way to give a gift like this. It won't be a carbon copy of anything else."

Frank O. Gehry, an idiosyncratic, Santa Monica-based architect known for using everyday urban materials, wins an international competition over several more laureled designers, including Pritzker Prize winners Gottfried Bohm, Hans Hollein and James Stirling. His selection proves controversial, and, try as he might, he never does get Lillian Disney to embrace fully his plan for the hall. But she likes him and is willing to trust his talent.

Gehry: "Yeah, I was an underdog. I was told I was an underdog by representatives of the Disney family. They didn't understand my work. They thought it was all chain link and plywood."

Ron Gother (attorney for Lillian Disney): "I went around to see what Gehry had built in the city of Los Angeles, and I didn't like any of it. But what he came up with in the competition was the best rendering and model and explanation of any of the architects, and he deserved to win. But I had my fingers crossed."

Frederick M. Nicholas (arts leader and chairman of Walt Disney Concert Hall I, 1987-94): "There were phone calls, letters, saying they didn't want Frank Gehry. He was a dreamer, his stuff looked like a garbage can unloaded, he was a prima donna. But when Diane Disney decided she would go along with him, that was really it."

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