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COOKE’S RECIPE: BUILD THE FORUM : His ‘Fabulous’ Monument to Defiance of Establishment Opened 20 Years Ago

Times Staff Writer

The Inglewood ornament known as the Forum was built by a man who has moved to northern Virginia.

He returns frequently, however, and you might even see him in a limousine at Manchester and Prairie some afternoon this week. “I make it a point to drive past the Forum every time I’m in Los Angeles, though I haven’t been inside the place for years,” Jack Kent Cooke said the other day at his farm near Middleburg, Va. “They tell me that it’s still the only privately built sports arena in the country--and I’m rather proud of it.”

Said broadcaster Chick Hearn: “He should be. Those 80 white columns, the true-circle design, the color scheme. The Forum is a beauty night or day.”

Clipper President Alan Rothenberg, who once worked for Cooke, added: “It could have been built yesterday.”

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It could have been, but it wasn’t. As of today, the arena that Cooke built is 20 years old. It opened for business on Dec. 30, 1967.

Hockey was played that first afternoon at the Forum--the faceoff was at 2:30 p.m.--and it is characteristic of Cooke that the only thing he clearly remembers about opening day is the final score of a game between the Kings and Philadelphia Flyers.

“We lost, 2-0,” he said. “Gad, was I disappointed.”

Cooke at 75 is still slim, natty and tirelessly competitive--a born, driven competitor who has pushed his net worth to $900 million, some say $1 billion, since selling out to Jerry Buss and Frank Mariani in 1979.

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Thus his disappointment in the Kings, both in the beginning and ever since, runs deep--so deep that he can’t even remember the Lakers’ Forum opener that 1967 holiday week.

“All I know is that they opened on New Year’s Eve,” he said.

Aging basketball writers remember something else. In Cooke’s preoccupation with a stadium design that would have pleased residents of ancient Athens or Rome, he forgot a few things about a more modern concept or two, such as electricity.

And so it was that the Forum’s press box, like the great hall of the Parthenon in 500 B.C., was built without lights.

On the night of the Laker opener, when the game was over and the crowd had dispersed, Cooke’s electrician turned off the master switch and went home.

Upstairs, entirely in the dark, reporters cussed and shouted about deadlines and tried to carry on by lighting matches at their typewriters.

“We finally found the light switch,” Cooke’s former publicist, Hank Ives, recalled. “But some guys did miss a deadline.”

That the press was really upstairs was another Forum first. For 69 years, since the invention of the game, basketball writers had sat at desks on the floor, around the edges of the court, or in bleachers, usually at midcourt.

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With the advent of radio coverage, announcers moved in alongside.

Cooke wasn’t having any part of that. The man didn’t pile up $1 billion, or even $900 million, by putting sportswriters in his best seats. Court-side tickets could be sold for $100 and up, and in Buss’ hands they’ve gone up and up.

The press has, too, figuratively as well as literally. In 1967, the loudest protest was entered by Hearn, who told Cooke: “This is a terrible, horrible place for a press box.”

Said Cooke: “Try it.”

So he did, and eventually, Hearn said, he adjusted.

“When Jerry Buss bought the club, he offered to put me back on the floor,” Hearn reported. “I asked him, ‘What about the visiting announcers?’

“He said, ‘They’ll have to stay up there.’

“I said, ‘Then I’ll stay up there, too.’ ”

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That ended that, although writers have since returned to tables at the end of the court.

Cooke built the Forum in 54 weeks, installing it in the middle of 29.5 acres that he had acquired in 1966 for $4,014,340.63.

“They sold it by the square foot, and I couldn’t get them to knock off the 63 cents,” he said.

Charles Luckman was brought in as the architect. The contractor was C. L. Peck.

Cooke budgeted $11 million for construction and wound up paying $12.2 million.

All told, in two stirring decades as a Los Angeles resident, he invested $27 million in ranch land and toys--including the Lakers, Kings and a place for them to play--before selling the works to Buss and his associates for $67.5 million.

That meant a profit of $40 million or so, some of which Cooke used to become sole owner of the Washington Redskins.

On the other hand, the worth of the Lakers alone is now estimated at twice as much as Buss’ syndicate paid for the whole empire.

The Lakers also have a different kind of boss.

Lawrence J. Paben, who was the Laker dentist for more than 20 years, said: “Jerry Buss is a warm man and more lenient. Jack Kent Cooke is a perfectionist and more formal.”

To Buss, sport shirts are beautiful, Dr. Paben said. To Cooke, an employee minus coat and tie is on his way to hell, or worse.

After 20 years, nonetheless, the Lakers remain the empire’s crown jewels. The Forum is the palace.

Even before he completed it, Cooke, who had the whole palace in his head, down to the last column, said modestly:

“Perhaps 200 years from now--or even 2,000--people will say that the Forum was one of the fine buildings erected during the 20th Century.”

One curious thing about it is that the general offices are all underground.

Unlike Dodger Stadium, where the president’s airy office and other offices overlook the playing field, the Forum has a work space overlooking nothing but desks and halls and walls.

“You’re like moles down there,” Ives said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s one reason Cooke got out. It’s the reason I resigned one day. Who wants to spend his life in a basement?”

The other Forum negative, aesthetically, is that it is the centerpiece in a parking lot. It looks as if it should have been set in a tree-shaded, landscaped park. A parking lot attendant, however, can’t squeeze $5, or even $1, out of a tree.

Overall, the majesty and comfort of the house that Cooke built--the novel theater environment, the thousands of unobstructed-view seats--overmatch the negatives.

And building it--creating a magnificent private facility for indoor sports and other events in a world of municipally subsidized arenas--took elements of vision and courage that few others have possessed.

POLITICS AS USUAL

The most remarkable thing about the Forum is that it was ever built.

When Cooke bought the Lakers in the mid-1960s, they were playing here happily at the Sports Arena, which had been constructed expressly for them only five years earlier. Some Los Angeles sportswriters had insisted that to pry the Lakers out of their 1950s base in Minneapolis, a new Los Angeles arena was essential.

And that’s the way it happened. The Lakers left Minnesota as soon as their new California home was ready, keeping only their name, a reflection of the five big lakes within the city limits of Minneapolis.

Centrally situated in Exposition Park, the Sports Arena proved to be an ideal playpen for the Lakers in every respect but one: It was--as it still is--controlled by the politicians who dominate the Coliseum Commission.

An appointive group with a shifting membership, the commission shortly fought with, then lost Cooke as a tenant. The problem as summarized by Cooke:

“The Coliseum Commission is supposed to be an administrative body. Instead, the commissioners use it as a power base for themselves personally.”

The breaking point occurred in 1966 when, simultaneously, the Coliseum Commission and the National Hockey League, in a comic-opera move, granted major league hockey rights in Los Angeles to two different persons.

The NHL selected Cooke. The Coliseum Commission chose Dan Reeves, who owned the Rams and a minor league hockey team, the Los Angeles Blades.

The commissioners, announcing solemnly that they preferred Reeves to Cooke, simply ignored the fact that the NHL’s governors--not a bunch of L.A. politicians--have the last word in big league hockey.

Cooke said he tried to help them out.

“I made two applications,” he said. “I wanted a long-term lease for the Lakers in the Sports Arena. And, should I be awarded an NHL franchise, I asked for the right to sign a lease to play hockey there.

“Both applications were summarily rejected. They told me they’d give the Lakers a two-year lease and no more.”

And not even that for Cooke’s anticipated hockey team.

The situation led to words between Cooke and Ernest Debs, a county supervisor and influential Coliseum commissioner.

“I told Debs that the ruling was completely unacceptable,” Cooke said.

“He replied--and these were his exact words--'Take it or leave it.’

“My reply was: ‘I may decide to build my own arena.’

“To this, Debs said: ‘Har, har har.’ He wasn’t laughing. He just said, ‘Har, har, har.’

“I looked at him for a moment, and said, ‘I’ve just decided that I’m going to build my own arena.’ ”

It was, Cooke recalled, “a spur-of-the-indignant-moment decision.” In time, members of the commission charged that what the Laker owner really sought 20 years ago was the right to manage the Sports Arena personally.

“Not true,” Cooke said. “Absolutely untrue. People who lose in these circumstances always beat a hasty retreat behind the fabrications they build for themselves.”

In rejecting Cooke, the commission disappointed and angered the mayor of Los Angeles, Sam Yorty. Yorty said that Los Angeles lost NBA basketball and NHL hockey because of the “impetuous and short-sighted--if not spiteful--attitude of some members of the Coliseum Commission.”

The common denominator in every commission’s dealings with every tenant--from the Lakers to the Rams and Raiders--is an allegation by the politicians that the sports teams are bluffing when they suggest that they might move away.

Over the years, others have also made that charge. “I’ll admit, I thought Jack Cooke was bluffing (20 years ago),” Chick Hearn said. “In fact, I bet him a $300 suit that he’d never build the Forum. I lost.”

So did the Sports Arena.

A ROMAN REVIVAL

Charles Luckman was the architect Cooke sought in 1966 when he knew that a new arena was inevitable.

“Charles had just designed the new Madison Square Garden in New York,” Cooke said. “That made him the perfect fellow for me. I could benefit by the mistakes he made there.”

They discussed arena ideas and costs for a few days before Cooke called on Luckman to see the preliminary sketches.

“When he showed them to me, I said they weren’t quite what I had in mind,” Cooke recalled. “I told him: ‘What I want is something about 6,000 miles east of here and 2,000 years ago.’

“Dick Niblack, the firm’s chief designer, overheard us, and immediately began drawing columns--old Greek and Roman columns--in his sketch book.

“Looking over his shoulder, I said: ‘That’s the beginning of what I want.’ ”

A year later, the columns were placed and the Forum went up.

Then and ever since, historians have squirmed when hearing the name that Cooke chose for his arena. For in the ancient world, a forum was a public square or marketplace.

Sports amphitheaters were called stadiums or coliseums. The most famous of these, the Roman Colosseum, is a ruin that still stands.

There was already a Coliseum in Los Angeles, however, so Cooke unblinkingly named his arena after the old outdoor public square of Rome. That is something like mixing metaphors.

Not to worry. There is a hockey Forum in Montreal that Cooke, a native Canadian, has always admired, and, besides, the circle of columns at Manchester and Prairie is faintly reminiscent of the colonnaded Colosseum.

To distinguish his palace from anything in Italy or Greece, Cooke instructed his press agents to call it the Fabulous Forum.

“It’s the most prominent landmark in town when you fly into the L.A. airport,” Hearn said. “There should be a neon sign on the roof to identify it when you fly in at night.”

The sign, he suggested, ought to be neat and simple, something in bright red.

“I feel the same way,” said Cooke, who owns another conspicuous landmark on the other coast, the Chrysler Building.

A 77-story skyscraper, the Chrysler Building has been described as New York’s most exhilarating example of 1920s art deco architecture.

And, occasionally, Cooke flies over the Fabulous Forum and the fabulous Chrysler Building the same day.

It isn’t hard. They’re not more than 2,000 years and 6,000 miles apart.

Times researcher Doug Conner contributed to this story.


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