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Wallis Annenberg puts her own stamp on Southland's cultural scene

Through a handful of ambitious public spaces, Wallis Annenberg has made her mark in Southern California.

November 02, 2013|By Deborah Vankin | This post has been updated as indicated below
  • Co-chairs Jamie Tisch, left, and Wallis Annenberg attend the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts Inaugural Gala presented by Salvatore Ferragamo at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 17, 2013, in Beverly Hills.
Co-chairs Jamie Tisch, left, and Wallis Annenberg attend the Wallis Annenberg… (Stefanie Keenan / Getty…)

The star power under a tented ballroom enclosing a blocklong stretch of Beverly Hills' Crescent Drive was intense. Kevin Spacey, Jodie Foster, Amy Adams, Gwen Stefani, Demi Moore and 1,000 or so other influencers came out in glittering gowns and tuxes for the Oct. 17 opening gala of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

But when the time came to toast the night's most powerful person, all eyes were on a woman few have seen in person, though her name appears on several major Los Angeles buildings.

"To Wallis!" said Jerry Magnin, board chairman of the $70-million, 21/2-acre complex.

"To Wallis!" the crowd echoed.

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Wallis Annenberg, beaming in a sparkling sapphire-and-black dress, leaned into a gracious Spacey beside her as if a bit overwhelmed at the attention. Thunderous applause filled the room as photographers rushed the table she shared with Spacey, Charlize Theron, Tim Robbins, former studio chief Sherry Lansing and William Friedkin.

The billionaire benefactor's newest project at the renovated Beverly Hills Post Office, already nicknamed the Wallis, opens its doors to the public on Friday with an inaugural performance by the Martha Graham Dance Company. Without her $25-million gift, starting with $15 million given in 2004, the center never would have been built.

"Her name gave us credibility. From that time on," said former Beverly Hills Mayor Vicki Reynolds, who worked with Annenberg to turn the post office into a cultural center, "we were able to gather people around it with momentum."

Annenberg, heiress to her father Walter's Triangle Publications publishing empire (TV Guide, and Seventeen magazines), is one of Los Angeles' most active philanthropists. She may not be on the current Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans, but she's chairman of the board, president and chief executive of her father's Annenberg Foundation, with assets of about $1.5 billion, according to its most recent public filing. Since her involvement in 2002, the foundation has distributed more than $750 million to about 2,000 Los Angeles organizations.

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"Wallis has a great sense for what to invest in that [which] will expand and increase in importance over time," said Michael Govan, CEO and director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "There's all the performing arts in downtown and the Broad Stage in Santa Monica; strategically, the idea of investing in a prominently located performing arts center in Beverly Hills was smart. There are the tourists; there's a sustainable audience. It will magnify the resonance of the performing arts in L.A. in general."

Philanthropist and entrepreneur Eli Broad is also impressed with the new center.

"The Wallis is a great addition," Broad said by telephone. "It's another jewel in the region's cultural crown."

As to why he and Annenberg seem to be the only patrons single-handedly funding the arts in Los Angeles, Broad added, "Boston, San Francisco and New York are all older cities that have a great tradition of philanthropy. Los Angeles is just now building a tradition of philanthropy. Wallis and our family have … been especially supportive of the arts in our city. Now that we have Grand Avenue with a cultural district that serves a region of 14 million residents, I expect that more people will want to follow our lead."

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Since its 1989 inception, the Annenberg Foundation, under Walter, put its name on a panoply of buildings, the Annenberg School for Communications at both USC and the University of Pennsylvania, among them. After her father's 2002 death, Annenberg became the foundation's vice president; when her stepmother, Lee, died in 2009, she took over the organization.

Over 11 years, Annenberg has broadened the foundation's philanthropic philosophy from that of predominantly media, education and the arts to include animal welfare, veterans support and environmental issues. The Annenberg is in the formative stages of helping to fund the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's project of reimagining public access to the Ballona Wetlands.

Divorced since 1975 from Seth Weingarten, Annenberg, 74, has brought her children into the philanthropic fold. Three of four of them are active vice presidents and co-directors of the Annenberg Foundation. Her daughter, Lauren Bon, and her son Gregory Annenberg Weingarten are both working artists as well; her youngest, Charles Annenberg Weingarten, is a filmmaker with a masters from USC.

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