Times Staff Writer

When discussing Orange County's achievements in the arts in 1984, you begin--and end--with the most dazzling, promising and ballyhooed cultural venture in county history.

Yes, we're talking about the Orange County Performing Arts Center, now being built in Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza Center and set to open in less than two years.

After all, 1984 did represent something of a landmark for the Center:

The 10-story framework for the 3,000-seat main theater and entryway was erected; fund-raising topped the $55-million mark, and the search for "world-class" attractions was well under way, fanning speculation on just how friendly Orange County competition will be with other Southern California complexes.

But there were, to be sure, milestones in 1984 for other arts organizations in the county:

- South Coast Repertory won eight Los Angeles Drama Critics' Awards for its production of "The Playboy of the Western World" and reached its $3-million goal in an endowment fund-raiser.

- Newport Harbor Art Museum's 1950s retrospective was the only Orange County entry in the Olympic Arts Festival, the biggest, most prestigious arts celebration ever in Southern California.

- Laguna Beach Museum of Art's plan to completely overhaul its permanent facilities won city approval, while supporters moved closer to raising the $1.5 million needed for both structural and program expansions.

- Orange County Pacific Symphony greatly expanded its budget (now $1 million) and its season (concerts in several new locales, including the Pacific Amphitheatre) and put in its bid to be named "resident orchestra" by the Performing Arts Center.

These arts groups expect to maintain the same tempo in creative and fund-raising efforts in 1985, even though they must compete for monies with the Performing Arts Center's own massive campaign.

"Overall, don't anticipate any great leaps forward in the county's (arts) image in 1985. It will be a time for improving quality and solidifying fiscal bases," said Kevin Consey, director of the Newport Harbor Art Museum. "What Orange County is waiting for, naturally, is the opening of the Performing Arts Center in 1986."

And gearing for that much-awaited opening, Center officials say that organizationally, at least, it will be all stops out in 1985 as construction continues on one of the largest such complexes to be built in the United States in the past decade.

"Our construction is assured. It's there for everyone to see. In the new year, we will be putting our full staff in place (a new executive director is expected to be named this month) and determining who will be playing our Center," said William Lund, president of the Center's board of directors. "It will be a year for fine-tuning our Center."

Although the fiscal competition with other arts projects is expected to increase--most significantly, the Los Angeles Music Center plans a huge three-facility expansion--Lund and other Orange County Center leaders express nothing but confidence about raising monies in 1985.

More than $42 million has been raised of the $65.5 million needed to build the entire Orange County complex--the 3,000-seat main theater is to open October, 1986, the 1,000-seat second theater is to be built later. An additional $13 million has been raised toward a $20-million endowment fund to help subsidize operations. All monies are being raised from private donors only.

Such fiscal and construction prowess was duly noted by Frank Hodsoll, the Reagan-named chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who spoke at an Orange County Arts Alliance conference last October. He had only praise for the Orange County Center, which he compared favorably with the Los Angeles Music Center, Lincoln Center in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington.

"This (Orange County Center) especially signifies the cultural development that it is now being centered in the suburban regions of this country," said Hodsoll. "This is where so much of the (arts) action and innovation are now taking place."

With anticipation mounting over the Orange County Center's opening, the focus in 1985 will, no doubt, be on the Center's booking line-up and on the impact--positive or otherwise--on the other complexes in the Southern California market.

Officials of the Orange County Center argue that their booking premise is to offer nothing but "world-class" attractions in symphony concerts, opera and dance, plus the top flight in musical theater. They contend that the Orange County venture will be a boon--not a threat--for Los Angeles and other areas, because major touring organizations would now find it more profitable to play a Southern California "circuit" of arts complexes.

According to the Orange County Center's retiring executive director, Len Bedsow, the Los Angeles Philharmonic (which has performed in various Orange County auditoriums since 1962) will be a mainstay at the new Center. Bedsow said he also has held "exploratory talks" with organizations that could tour in both Orange County and Los Angeles, such as the American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet (now a resident company at the Los Angeles Music Center) and the Shubert Organization (impresario of big musicals).

But Orange County Center officials have not ruled out attractions that would play only at their Center, such as, possibly, the New York City Opera Company. After being an annual attraction for 16 years at the Los Angeles Music Center, the company was dropped by that center in 1982 as relations grew increasingly acrimonious. (The Los Angeles Music Center, in a move signaling an expanded effort in developing its own opera program, recently hired Peter Hemmings, former managing director of the London Symphony Orchestra, as the first executive director of the Music Center Opera Assn.).

Last September, at the "topping-out" ceremony for the Orange County Center, Beverly Sills, the New York City Opera's general director, made a dramatic announcement: Her company was negotiating for a possible run at the new Center. Sills said there were no plans for a Los Angeles appearance (such as at the Shrine Auditorium) that same 1986-87 season, adding, "We hope that this (Orange County) complex might be our West Coast home. We feel more welcome here."

Despite repeated calls from The Times, Sills has since refused to comment on the status of negotiations with the Orange County venture. However, Bedsow--who had talks in New York last November with Sills and her deputies--recently reported: "No, nothing's signed, we have nothing new to announce. But we're looking at a multi-week run in early 1987 and, you can be sure, we're still very much in negotiations."

This emphasis on "world-class" attractions at the Orange County Center's main theater has rankled backers of local performing groups. Their fear, these backers have argued in private discussions, is that Orange County organizations may be given subservient roles in the new Center.

For now, only the Orange County Philharmonic Society--local impresario of concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and other visiting orchestras--has been officially assured of a role when the Orange County Center's 3,000-seat theater opens in 1986. Still to be determined are the roles of the Orange County Pacific Symphony, Pacific Chorale and Orange County Master Chorale, and a presenter organization, Opera Pacific.

Explaining why the Pacific Symphony's request to be named the Center's "resident orchestra" has been shelved, Center board President Lund said: "I feel certain it (Pacific Symphony) will be having an important role. But such a (resident) request is premature. We have yet to finalize our (booking) policy. This is the year we have to start making those kinds of decisions."

NAME DROPPING: Seeking celebrity attractions is not limited to the Center. Consider the Pacific Symphony in its newer role as impresario. The Keith Clark-led organization has widely touted its first International Celebrity Series, beginning in March with mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, followed by such groupings as the Beaux Arts Trio and a pairing of pianist Andre Watts and violinist Charles Treger.

And the Pacific Symphony, while awaiting word on its role in the Orange County Center scheme of things, in 1984 appeared at just about every major locale for a concert in the county, including the South Coast Repertory and Newport Harbor Art Museum for chamber events and the Pacific Amphitheatre for a Fourth of July celebration.

In fact, the Nederlander-run Pacific Amphitheatre has said that not unlike the Orange County Center, it aspires to be a hub for classical concerts, grand opera and the musical theater. Last summer, the amphitheater scored a booking coup: tenor Placido Domingo, no less.

Domingo's concert, a departure from the facility's usual pop/rock acts, was a hit. But the amphitheater's first fling at musical theater--a restaging of Lerner and Loewe's "Camelot" with Richard Harris as the name draw--was a box-office disappointment.

And speaking of disappointments in 1984: the Orange County Performing Arts Center had announced a fund-raiser concert for last June with four stars, namely Diahann Carroll, Hal Linden, Florence Henderson and Anthony Newley. Ticket sales for the Irvine Meadows event, however, proved exceptionally slow, and the concert had to be canceled.

FIRST-OF-A-KIND: Although the Newport Harbor Art Museum's Olympic Arts Festival showing of New York and San Francisco artists of the 1950s was much proclaimed as a milestone in county arts, there were other showcases that also made a little local history.

The Orange County Arts Alliance hosted the county's first visual-arts festival, "Art Connections '84," involving seven galleries and 115 artists. An unprecedented outdoor "Arts on the Green," sponsored by the South Coast Repertory, showcased dozens of organizations and drew crowds of up to 2,500.

REBUILDING LANDMARKS: The Laguna Beach Museum of Art building plan, now awaiting Coastal Commission clearance, appears all set to go in 1985. Under that plan, $850,000 is to be spent on expanding and renovating the old permanent facility, which is to be closed in March for about eight months. Another $650,000 is to go for expanding the exhibiting and educational programs. (The museum also entered into an unusual venture last fall--a temporary "satellite facility" was opened at the South Coast Plaza shopping mall in Costa Mesa.)

Fullerton has had its gallery expansion, too. Last summer, that city's Muckenthaler Cultural Center finally reopened (with a sporting art exhibit) after being closed for more than three years for a $525,000 renovation to the historic main building.

ORANGE BOOSTERS: As a pivotal sign of the county's growing stature as an arts mecca, an Orange County resident last year was named for the first time to the California Arts Council, the state agency that gives out arts grants. The appointee, Harvey Stearn, a Mission Viejo Co. executive, was recommended by the Orange County Business Committee for the Arts.

The Mission Viejo Co. itself won a special plaudit last year. It was named for the first time a winner of a National Business in the Arts Award. The other 1984 winners from Orange County, Fluor Foundation and South Coast Plaza, were previous recipients.

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