Music Center Celebrates Its Silver Anniversary : Culture: Some feared the complex would deplete funds and audiences. Instead, it has spurred growth in the arts.


Twenty-five years later, it is hard to realize that the dawning of the Music Center was not anticipated with unalloyed delight.

The colossus on Bunker Hill would, some worriers said, act like a great cultural sponge, sopping up all the audiences, art funds and creativity in Greater Los Angeles. Such existing theater as there was, notably James A. Doolittle's valiant efforts at the Huntington Hartford in Hollywood, would be imperiled by the opening of not one or two but three new venues at the Music Center.

But it became clear very quickly, and is even clearer now from the perspective of a quarter-century, that the worriers need not have worried. The belief, in merchandising, that the best place to open a supermarket is across the street from an existing supermarket, proved to be relevant to the Music Center experience.

Most notably in the area of theater, the Music Center has functioned as stimulus and catalyst. It has demonstrably enlarged rather than diminished or merely relocated the amount of theater in the community. Significantly, the Music Center defined the existing of a sizable, loyal and thirsty audience for the stage, not only for the star-lit productions at the Ahmanson but for the hard-edged, controversial and innovative works presented under the guiding hand of Gordon Davidson at the Mark Taper Forum.

Theater in Los Angeles and elsewhere had been victimized, like the movies, by the arrival of television. The local theater diet was richer in the '20s and '30s (although many of the offerings were imported). By the late '50s, there was hardly enough local theater to constitute a steady item in the local cultural menu.

The proliferation of other theater spaces as large and glossy as the Shubert in Century City and as tight as the Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica can be traced spiritually though not literally to what might be called the sense of the possible symbolized by the success of the Taper and the Ahmanson. The success of the complex as a whole undoubtedly spurred as well the major efforts that led more recently to the creation of the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

There is an interesting connection between the role of the Music Center and the role of professional sports in defining Los Angeles as a place.

The old joke about Los Angeles being 60 suburbs in search of a city had some hard truth in it (there were actually more than 60 suburbs, but 60 preserved the alliteration). Los Angeles was historically the most decentralized metropolis in the country.

The sense that Los Angeles was one major metropolis grew stronger with the population explosion, the westward shift, that began during World War II. The first freeways could be seen as symbolic, uniting sinews. But it was the professional sports teams, the Dodgers, the Lakers, the Rams and ultimately the Angels, the Raiders, the Kings and the Clippers that really confirmed what could be called the centrality of Los Angeles. (Granted the Angels are now claimed by Anaheim and the Raiders appear to have no fixed address; no image is perfect.)

In much the same way, the opening of the Music Center gave the metropolitan Los Angeles area a sense of its cultural cohesion. The city had never been quite so artistically arid as its (non-resident) critics made it out to be. But, like almost everything else about the region, the pleasures were so diffused that only the persistent could locate them and tot them up.

The need for a permanent home of its own for the Los Angeles Philharmonic was the founding impulse for the whole Music Center complex. And the orchestra's new base in the Pavilion and the excitement attending its new young conductor, Zubin Mehta, combined to revitalize the Philharmonic and ultimately to upgrade its international ranking.

It has not all been easy or triumphant. The Civic Light Opera, another of the founding groups of the Music Center, has suffered from two problems: the aging of its most loyal followers and a decline in the amount of new work being done in the kind of lavishly mounted mainstream musical theater with which the CLO clientele are happiest.

The Ahmanson Theatre has proved an awkward, in-between size--too large to work well for straight plays that demand a degree of intimacy between cast and audience, too small for the high-budget musicals that demand either more seats or longer runs than were original possible. But the formula of recruiting such national and international stars as Charlton Heston in popular vehicles helped the Ahmanson over its roughest passages. And it now looks to be housing "Phantom of the Opera" through the turn of the century (or at least for the foreseeable future).

It has taken most of a quarter-century (marked by transient hopes and disappointments) to establish opera and ballet on more than a tour-stop basis. But the bi-coastal Joffrey Ballet and the ambitious, adventurous new Music Center Opera prove that a great deal of patience is its own reward.

The Music Center was part of an explosion of city centers for the performing arts that has characterized the postwar period in the United States (the famous edifice complex). Elsewhere there were casualties when recessions reduced public and corporate support for the arts. At the Music Center it was made clear from the start that building the structures was only Step 1; providing sustained support for the arts organizations within the center was a crucial Step 2.

From Mrs. Dorothy B. Chandler's founding efforts at finding the start-up money (cheerful arm-twistings that cut across geographic and ethnic lines and affirmed early-on the wide metropolitan basis of the undertaking), the Music Center has been nothing if not a super-efficient and ongoing fund-raising organization, with a variety of support groups that leave nothing to chance. The arm-twisting, firm but cheerful, never stops.

The subtler problem, identified early in the life of the Music Center, was how to minimize its image as an elitist institution bringing the high arts to the high-born, high-income faithful. Those marble columns and marble steps did look formidable, and even with a patina of age on them they are still not your neighborhood cinemas.

But the Center Theatre Group started a school outreach program at the beginning, sending such actors as Roscoe Lee Browne to read poetry at high schools and colleges, and having improvisational game-players entertain elementary school kids.

Student tickets and special invitational performances have done a good deal to make the marble columns seem less formidable and the theaters more accessible, without diminishing the magic of what goes on inside.

The Olympic Arts Festival in 1984 is generally thought of marking the cultural coming of age of Los Angeles, when the world at large could no longer ignore or fail to see the greening of what it had thought was a cultural desert. But the coming of age in fact was an accelerating process that began in the heady days of early postwar. And insofar as there was a watershed date between the Los Angeles that had been and the Los Angeles that was to be, it was 25 years ago today, when the new place on Bunker Hill lit up the sky.


The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the first of the Music Center's three buildings atop Bunker Hill, opened 25 years ago today. The Mark Taper Forum opened April 9, 1967, and the Ahmanson Theatre three days later. Cost of the complex on Grand Avenue, between First and Temple, was $43 million.

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