2 Big Gifts Push Symphony Past Magic $2-Million Mark

Times Staff Writers

The San Diego Symphony's last-ditch battle to save itself from bankruptcy ended with a flourish Saturday when two donors gave a combined $350,000 to push the orchestra over its goal to raise $2 million in 10 days.

Responding to the symphony's desperate plea for help issued along with a threat to shut down, San Diegans from all walks of life--from schoolchildren to multimillionaires--donated more than $2.1 million after orchestra President M.B. (Det) Merryman revealed Feb. 24 that the organization had been teetering on the edge of financial disaster for more than two months.

Merryman had said the symphony would file for protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code if it couldn't raise $2 million by Monday.

"We have met the goal we set for ourselves," said David Atherton, the symphony's musical director, as he stepped to the stage for the orchestra's 8 p.m. performance Saturday. "That means this evening's concert will not be the penultimate concert. It will be the beginning of a whole new era for this orchestra."

Atherton said the nine days that had passed since he told the audience "the hard reality" of the symphony's financial crisis "seemed more like nine years."

"The task we had ahead of us was nearly impossible, but the outpouring of the community being what it was, everyone connected with the orchestra has been moved to tears," he said. "You've shown us you want an international symphony orchestra. That is what you're going to have."

Atherton's dramatic announcement--though delivered in his understated British manner--drew a minute-long standing ovation from the audience of 1,850. Merryman said the contributions confirmed that "the community has a tremendous amount of faith in what we've accomplished in the past five years."

"I'm ecstatic," Merryman said. "We'll make sure the community will be more proud of us in the future."

Although there was little doubt by Friday that the $2-million goal would be reached in time to stave off bankruptcy, the symphony's survival was assured Saturday when the family of Judson and Rachel Grosvenor donated $250,000, and longtime UC San Diego figure Roger Revelle and his wife, Ellen, contributed $100,000.

Grosvenor, who pulled his own hotel company out of bankruptcy proceedings and paid off 100% of his debts seven years ago, said he was "very grateful that we could have this good fortune and can do this."

Grosvenor, who owns the Grosvenor Inn and Judson's Restaurant, said he had been in the San Francisco Bay area all week but had resolved before leaving town to help the symphony upon his return Friday night. He made the offer after discussing the symphony's financial condition with Merryman over breakfast Saturday.

"We've lived here long enough to realize that the arts are an important part of the cultural benefits we enjoy," said Grosvenor, who came to San Diego County from the Midwest in 1957. "I'm very, very much aware that it's a hell of a lot easier for us to give $250,000 than it is for others to make smaller contributions. But I hope others continue to give and make a cushion of support for the orchestra."

Revelle, head of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for 14 years and one of UCSD's founding fathers, said he couldn't imagine the city without the 76-year-old symphony as a cultural landmark to complement the educational programs he helped build.

"It's awfully important for San Diego to have a symphony," Revelle said. "San Diego has had a series of bad things happen to it: losing our mayor, the J. David (Dominelli) scandal and before that the C. Arnholt Smith thing. I thought the city couldn't stand any more bad news."

Without the symphony, Revelle said, San Diego would lose ground in its effort to become known as one of the nation's great cities.

"We have to have absolutely first-rate things here," he said. "Mediocrity is very killing. That's why things like the (La Jolla) Playhouse and the symphony are so important. You build the reputation of the city on quality. We can never be the metropolis of the West Coast, but we may become the Boston of the West Coast, a cultural center. We have to work at it to make it come true."

The donations of Grosvenor, Revelle and others enabled the symphony to cash in on a $500,000 "challenge grant" offered by a member of the orchestra's board of directors. The grant--officially anonymous but believed to have been from International Technologies Inc. Chairman Murray Hutchison--was given on the condition that the symphony raise the remaining $1.5 million needed to clear its books of years of debts.

With that gift dangled before them, symphony directors and staff members set out a little more than a week ago to raise the rest. Merryman, Atherton, Executive Director Richard Bass and development director Ken Overstreet spent hours on the telephones, on radio talk shows and at a "telethon" on a local cable television station cajoling potential donors.

The campaign got a major boost when Beverly Hills philanthropist Muriel Gluck pledged $250,000. Another dozen or so individuals contributed between $5,000 and $60,000 apiece. A San Diego Chamber of Commerce drive netted about $130,000 from local businesses, although many other firms gave money separately.

While the symphony was generating widespread community support, several government officials and businessmen said they were eager to hear the answer to questions about the orchestra's management--particularly at the level of the board of directors.

Chamber of Commerce President Lee Grissom said some in the business community wondered whether the symphony was "crying wolf," since this was the second time in five years that the organization had said it was on the brink of financial ruin.

County Supervisor Susan Golding said she believed the public was shocked to learn of the symphony's plight just four months after the opening of the newly purchased and renovated Symphony Hall in downtown San Diego.

The hall was part of a complicated real estate deal the symphony pulled off when it bought an entire city block, including the former Fox Theatre, then sold the block and re-purchased the theater. The theater was converted into a new home for the symphony after a yearlong fund raising effort netted nearly $4.75 million.

But that drive, though it paid for the hall, fell about $2 million short of its goal. The greater amount would have allowed the symphony to erase debts that were costing the organization more than $100,000 a year in interest payments.

Without that extra money, the symphony was unable to withstand a dip in the regular contributions that normally support the orchestra's operations. Despite a 10% retroactive pay cut and the cancellation of a special Mozart festival, the symphony was unable to meet its approximately $250,000 biweekly payroll Feb. 27. Symphony managers have said the pay cut will stand, even though the crisis is over.

The 90 orchestra musicians have played without pay since Feb. 13 but will now be paid retroactively.

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