Warrens Stationery in the central business district of Highland Park is a long, narrow slot of a store, with glossy yellow paint on walls and ceiling.
Most of the way to the back, behind the glass display case along one wall, a small utilitarian desk holds forth, tightly surrounded by the usual assortment of typing paper, requisition forms and desk implements. That is the office of Bill Warren, a quiet man with silver-gray hair who has owned the store since sometime back in the 1960s.
It also serves as the executive suite for the Highland Park Symphony, which has been around at least twice as long as Warren’s business.
It was as president of the Northeast Los Angeles Symphony Assn., which oversees the orchestra, that Warren received me at the desk this week, under a light blare of rock ‘n’ roll coming from an overhead speaker, to tell this unhappy story.
Since its inaugural in 1946, the no-frills community orchestra has never missed a season, usually playing four concerts every year in the local school auditoriums.
Now, the tradition is in danger of being broken. Last season the symphony had enough money to do only two concerts. With the current concert season already halfway over, the orchestra has yet to schedule its first.
That news may not have shattered the world of contemporary culture, but it troubles Warren. He feels personally responsible.
“If it’s not functioning, it’s probably partly my fault,” he said.
A lot of the problem has to do with money. Warren said the orchestra lost one source of funding from Los Angeles County and may have trouble qualifying for a $2,500 grant from the city’s Cultural Affairs Department.
“To get it we have to perform four concerts,” he said.
Subsidies from the musicians’ union slipped from $4,000 to $2,000 when a musicians’ trust fund in New York stopped sending an annual check. Local 47 still donates, but the pay scale for the orchestra’s small core of professional musicians continues to rise.
“It goes up each year,” Warren said. “They’re cutting their own throat. Eventually, all community orchestras are going to be non-union.”
Warren believes that the orchestra also lost ground in the push of the California Arts Council this year to increase its contributions from private foundations.
“We write to these foundations for grants,” he said.
The council itself hasn’t made up the difference.
“They rejected us,” Warren said, his mellow demeanor yielding to a flash of anger. “They’re very selective. You’ve got to write a thesis to get $1,000. For a lousy community concert you’ve got to send them an application this thick and send a tape of the orchestra.”
He held up his fingers an inch apart to show the size of the application.
Warren is not really bitter, just frustrated. If he was in it for social status, he probably would have dropped out already. But it’s the music that holds his interest.
Before he moved West, Warren played French horn for three years with the Indianapolis Symphony. He said he feels an excitement in the performance of a community orchestra.
“You get a kick out of seeing a live orchestra rather than sitting at home listening to a record where you always know it’s going to be letter perfect.”
Even if the orchestra hasn’t drawn great praise from critics, it’s given Highland Park some good moments. It has played some Brahms and Bach, all of Beethoven’s symphonies, except the Ninth, and even Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony.
In most of Warren’s eight-year tenure as president, his wife, Bernice, was the dynamo of the organization, he said.
Bernice died in May of 1986, the month after the fire at the Los Angeles Central Library cut off the orchestra’s source of free sheet music. Now the association has to rent the scores from a private firm.
Meanwhile, Warren has seen a steady creep of apathy.
Board members and officers have dropped off and audiences have dwindled, sometimes leaving the Franklin High School auditorium looking deserted.
“We’ve tried everything,” he said. “I think it has a lot to do with the demographics here in Highland Park. We’ve had a Spanish number at every concert trying to draw the Hispanic members of the community to our orchestra. It didn’t help much.”
Recently, Warren made a decision to retire from the stationery business. But he’s going to stick with the orchestra, at least one more year.
His plan is to salvage the concert season by digging up about $7,500 for two spring concerts.
“We’re going to get the present board of directors together and see if we can’t recruit some new people and get this back on a level where we can perform four concerts a year like we used to,” he said.
About then, Warren’s attention was drawn away when a clerk noticed that the rack for the magnifying glasses was gone. Warren searched all over and concluded it had been lifted.
He shook his head, not bitterly. It was like the orchestra. He just couldn’t understand it.