ENCORE! CELEBRATING 25 YEARS OF THE MUSIC CENTER : YESTERDAY : THE PIONEERS
If the Hollywood Bowl had not faced bankruptcy in 1951 and if the decor and the acoustics of the Philharmonic Auditorium, which in those days was the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, had been a little better, the Music Center complex might well not exist and the acreage it occupies atop Bunker Hill might be parking lots or lifeless bureaucratic annexes. But it is the what-ifs that make, and unmake, history.
The fact is that the Hollywood Bowl, having presented a costly and widely unattended opera in the early summer of 1951, was $200,000 in the red and about to fold. Dorothy Buffum Chandler, fresh from 15 years of very successful volunteering (e.g., fund-raising) at Children’s Hospital, was asked to join the Bowl board to see what sort of rescue operation could be mounted.
She voted with the board to shut down the Bowl season for two weeks while she and the Philharmonic’s then-conductor Alfred Wallenstein organized a fund-raising concert at which Gregor Piatigorsky and other performers worked for free. The Bowl season continued, and its seasons go on.
What the Bowl crisis had done was bring Dorothy Buffum Chandler into the Philharmonic family as more than a listener. Her son Otis Chandler remembers going to concerts of the Philharmonic with his parents when he was on holiday from Andover and then Stanford. “It was an awful hall; the acoustics were terrible,” he says, “and I remember Mrs. C (as he refers to his mother) complaining, ‘I can’t permit my orchestra to go on playing in such surroundings.’ ” (Then as later, the possessive pronoun bespoke the intensity of her feelings toward the Philharmonic.)
There had been discussions about a Los Angeles cultural center since the mid-'40s but tight-pursed voters had turned down a succession of bond issues.
His mother’s first discussions with other civic movers and shakers about a site, Otis Chandler recalls, centered on the Pan-Pacific Auditorium and some land adjoining it. But the focus quickly shifted to Bunker Hill, one of the longest-settled parts of downtown Los Angeles but by the mid-'50s a decaying fringe of a central city that was beginning to stir. It was a prime location for redevelopment.
Mrs. Chandler commenced a courtship of then-governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, Mayor Norris Poulsen and county supervisors Burton Chace, Warren Dorn, Kenneth Hahn, Frank Bonelli and Ernest E. Debs. The land was county-owned, and the legal complexities involved in leasing the land to the Music Center organization were immense and the negotiations protracted.
“It was a major effort to get the interjurisdictional agreements that were necessary. It was even harder than the fund-raising,” Otis Chandler says.
In the end Mrs. Chandler obtained an initial 7.5 acres for the Music Center, with the parking revenues from the structure to go to the county.
Mrs. Chandler launched her initial fund-raising efforts with a goal of $4 million. The push began with a now legendary El Dorado Party (so named for the Cadillac that was the main raffle prize), on St. Patrick’s Day 1955. It netted $400,000--in one sweep raising 10% of her goal. Composer John Green, one of the performers along with Danny Kaye and Jack Benny, called her “the greatest fund-raiser since Al Capone.” The county supervisors retained Welton Becket as the supervising architect.
Fund-raising headquarters were set up in what had been the changing room, known as The Pub, beside the pool at the Norman Chandler home in the Hancock Park area. Mrs. Chandler sought out her first large donor, Myford Irvine, principal owner of the Irvine Ranch, and got a pledge of $100,000 only a month before Irvine committed suicide.
By now Mrs. Chandler’s efforts as a fund-raiser have become legendary. Otis Chandler says, “It was a cross-cultural solicitation. Mrs. C. went to the old Los Angeles, to the West Side, to the Hollywood community, to the Jewish community, to the black community and to the Latino community. She brought people together who’d never been together and had never expected to be together.
“I began to be embarrassed to meet my mother. She’d say, ‘Who’d you have lunch with and what’s he do and what can he afford?’ At one point she asked me, ‘Who owns the Lakers?’ She’d never been to a game in her life but she went, and eventually she hit both Jerry Buss and Jack Kent Cooke.
“It didn’t make any difference if it was an out-of-town corporation. She’d tell the local man, ‘You have an office here; you’re good for $25,000.’ ”
In the most famous tale of Dorothy Chandler’s money-raising, she was on her way into Perino’s for a luncheon with her chief volunteers, to announce that the campaign had raised all but $250,000 of the $4 million. En route to the dining room she met Edwin Pauley of Pauley Oil and Samuel Mosher of Signal Oil. She detoured them into the bar and after a brief but pleasant chat extracted matching pledges of $125,000 from each of them. By the time she got to her table, she could declare that she had the whole $4 million.
Then, in December, 1960, exhausted by the ceaseless buttonholing of prospects--she later reckoned that each $25,000 donation had required an average of five visits--she and her husband Norman, who had just turned over the responsibilities as publisher of The Times to Otis, went to London for a quiet Christmas holiday by themselves.
They attended the theater every night and, as Mrs. Chandler explained when she got home, it struck her forcibly that there had to be two theaters on the hill, alongside the Philharmonic’s new home-to-be.
Reinvigorated by the holiday in Britain, she tackled her political friends again and won an additional 7.5 acres on the Bunker Hill site for what would become the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson Theatre. She pointed out to the supervisors how much comelier the theaters would be than a parking lot or a courthouse extension. Welton Becket designed the high colonnade that visually links the theaters and the Pavilion.
The new plans meant that the fund-raising goal had to be more than quadrupled, to $18.5 million. Mrs. Chandler expanded her volunteer force and, to broaden the base of giving, came up with the idea of Buck Bags, for modest contributions from those who wanted to help but couldn’t afford the big dollars. Walt Disney designed the bag and in the end the device raised a not-so-modest $2.2 million for the Music Center.
She raised the $18.5 million and also organized a company that sold $13.7 million in bonds, to complete the Music Center’s $32-million construction cost.
At the end of 1974, the first decade of the Music Center’s life, a tally showed that Dorothy Chandler and her volunteers had discovered 49 benefactors (gifts of $100,000 or more), 802 founders ($25,000-$100,000) and 797 sponsors ($5,000-$25,000). There had also been many a benefit, including a premiere of “Cleopatra.”
She had personally persuaded financiers Howard Ahmanson and Mark Taper into making matching gifts of $1.5 million toward the theaters that bear their names.
“I never heard Mrs. C. say she wanted her name on anything,” her son says.
Once, at a luncheon following a panel discussion for her Blue Ribbon volunteers--each pledged to raising $1,000 annually--Mrs. Chandler confirmed to a table full of friends that it had indeed never been her intention to have names on any of the Music Center buildings. But one of the financiers was adamant about having his name on his theater and the other inevitably refused to settle for anonymity about his. Since you presumably couldn’t leave one edifice without a name, the Pavilion, at the suggestion of the trustees, became the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Today, at 88, Dorothy Chandler is no longer active in the Music Center’s day to day affairs, but she carries the title of founding chairman.
When the Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta gave the first gala dedicatory concert in the Pavilion in December, 1964, Time Magazine, in its cover story on “Los Angeles’ Buff Chandler,” called her role in the creation of the Music Center “the most impressive display of virtuoso money-raising and civic citizenship in the history of U.S. womanhood.”
Mehta saluted her from the podium. “Unlike the princes of Florence and the Pharaohs of Egypt, she is a dignified, simple lady,” he said. The audience gave her a four-minute ovation and at last Otis persuaded her to stand. “The only important thing here tonight is the music we’ve heard performed,” she said; “that will go on forever.”
But the premiere, which included one of Jascha Heifetz’ last platform appearances, was obviously only the beginning.
“At that time, several cities were building cultural centers,” Otis Chandler remembers. “But after a few years, there began to be disasters. Atlanta’s, I think, went under, and others were in trouble. They’d built bricks and mortar, but they hadn’t thought enough about what was going to go in the buildings, or about the money they would need to keep things going.
“If Mrs. C. hadn’t gotten Zubin and Gordon (Davidson, of the Center Theatre Group), things might have been much different here. Having Zubin as the starting pitcher, you might say, was wonderful. And I remember when the Taper opened with “The Devils” (on April 9, 1967) there were pickets at my door. Very exciting days,” he says with a grin.
Mrs. Chandler had also put in place the Blue Ribbon 400 and other support groups who continue to raise well over $1 million annually to keep the Music Center on an even keel.
Otis Chandler admits that in the days of heavy political negotiation his mother would occasionally get exasperated with him. “The Times would get after one of the politicians for something, and she would say, ‘You can’t do that to my supervisor!,’ and I’d laugh. She didn’t influence the editorial policies of the paper, no matter what anyone said.
“She’s been criticized for using the Chandler name and the paper to get (the Music Center) built. She’ll even admit that, but she’ll add that she tried to do it deftly and cleverly. And she’ll also add, as I do, that if you have power you also have the responsibility to try to make the city a better place.”