Lillian Disney Dies at 98; Began Concert Hall Project

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Lillian Bounds Disney, who gave a world-famous cartoon mouse his name and left as her legacy the impetus for the still-unbuilt Walt Disney Concert Hall to honor her late husband, has died. She was 98.

Disney died Tuesday in her sleep at her Holmby Hills home, family members said. She had suffered a stroke Monday, 31 years to the day after the death of her innovative animator husband Dec. 15, 1966.

Lillian Disney's first major contribution to the Walt Disney entertainment empire occurred in the 1920s as the young couple were riding a train from New York to Los Angeles. Hoping to turn around a serious business setback, Walt Disney came up with a new character whom he proposed to call "Mortimer Mouse."

"Not Mortimer," his quiet wife replied. "It's too formal. How about Mickey?"

Mickey Mouse became the company's international symbol. When President Richard Nixon handed the widow a gold Commemorative Medal honoring her husband at a White House ceremony in 1969, it was etched with a profile of Walt Disney on one side and Mickey Mouse on the reverse.

"Mrs. Disney was a full-time partner to Walt, and we are all grateful for her contributions in the creation of Mickey Mouse and the Disney Co. and for the example she set for family life and community service," company Chairman Michael D. Eisner said Wednesday. "Lillian and Walt Disney and Edna and Roy Disney were pioneers in turning a creative vision through hard work and sacrifice into an American institution. For that, the world is grateful."

Always supportive of the arts, Lillian Disney on May 13, 1987, announced the memorial she envisioned for her husband--a world-class concert hall for the city where he had flourished. She handed the Music Center of Los Angeles County $50 million and asked that Walt Disney Concert Hall be built across 1st Street from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

"I have always had a deep love and admiration for my husband, and I wanted to find a way to honor him, as well as give something to Los Angeles which would have lasting qualities," she said in announcing the gift. "Walt was active in the formation of the Music Center, and Los Angeles was always the heart and soul of his many businesses and philanthropic endeavors. The thought that a concert hall would be built that would entertain the public with the finest musical offerings would be enormously gratifying to him."

Lillian Disney's requirements were simple--a hall for the masses, not the elite, and, because of her love of music and flowers, perfect acoustics and a garden.

The generous donation stemmed from the $47 million set aside for an unspecified charitable gift in 1982 when the family company, Retlaw Enterprises, sold the rights to Walt Disney's name and likeness to the Walt Disney Co.

Her donation for the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which by now has grown to more than $100 million, earned her a cultural award in 1988 from the Los Angeles Headquarters City Assn.

After a worldwide search, Santa Monica's own internationally respected architect Frank Gehry earned the assignment and set to work.

Lillian Disney "was very outspoken about what she wanted, and why she wanted to do it," Gehry recalled Wednesday. "She wanted very much for [the hall] to be a wonderful public space that had the kinds of feelings of warmth that [Walt Disney] tried to accomplish in his work. Both she and her daughter Diane kept saying that somehow I had some of the same kind of 'crazy' that Walt had. She was married to a very creative person, so she was open to it, so it was very comfortable for me."

Gehry said that Lillian Disney best loved his interior design and that he gave her a special model of it. He said she cared less about the exterior, leaving it to him but calling frequently to encourage him in what is expected to be a Los Angeles architectural landmark.

The concert hall was originally estimated to cost $115 million, with Disney funds and interest expected to pay the bulk of the cost. Groundbreaking was to begin in 1990, and the hall completed in 1993. A symbolic groundbreaking ceremony was held in 1992, but the project was already facing delays and increasing cost estimates. The expected opening date was pushed to 1997.

By 1994, alarming new cost projections came in that doubled original estimates. A year later, amid threats from the county to abandon the project, work on the hall was stopped.

Fund-raising stagnated until late last year, when several gifts infused new life into the foundering project. This Dec. 1, the Walt Disney Co. contributed $25 million, which virtually ensures that the hall will at last be built. Construction is now scheduled to begin next year, with the grand opening pegged for 2001.

"All of us at the Music Center are saddened by the death of Lillian Disney, and we hope very much that we will be able to make her dream of a world-class concert hall a reality by the year 2001," said Andrea Van de Kamp, chairman of the center. "She left a magnificent gift in memory of her husband, and we are working very hard to make her dream come true for her daughter, her grandchildren and the citizens of Los Angeles County."

Diane Disney Miller, who declined any comment Wednesday, has said previously that her mother remained interested in the hall's progress. Miller has also noted that her mother was encouraged by her friend, Music Center founder Dorothy Chandler, who died earlier this year but always told her: "You hang in there, Lily!"

Ernest Fleischmann, longtime managing director of the orchestra, called Lillian Disney "one of the most important figures in the history of the Philharmonic.

"She's the catalyst," he said Wednesday, "for people around the world realizing that the Philharmonic is now an international force to be reckoned with. . . . I just wish she had been spared to be there on the opening night. That's the saddest thing about this."

Museum of Contemporary Art Director Richard Koshalek, who chaired the committee that selected Gehry as the concert hall architect, said from Japan of Lillian Disney: "She had a very quiet sort of demeanor, but it was one with great determination. She had a way of convincing people to do what was right, and that has resulted in the fact that Disney Hall will be built. I liked this lady a lot."

Lillian Bounds was born in Spalding, Idaho, the 10th and last child in the music-loving family of Willard and Jeanette Short Bounds. She grew up in Lapwai, Idaho, on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation, where her father worked for the government as a blacksmith and federal marshal.

She moved to Los Angeles to join her older sister Hazel in 1923 and, through a friend, got a job at the new Walt Disney Studio as a $15-a-week "inker" of film frames.

She met the boss and, on July 13, 1925, married him in Lewiston, Idaho.

"I think my dad fell in love with her almost immediately. . . . She was a very independent little lady," Diane Disney Miller told The Times earlier this year.

Roy E. Disney recalled his aunt Wednesday by saying: "She was a great lady, full of laughter and fun and always prepared to speak the truth, tough and loving at the same time. Once you knew her, you'd never forget her.

"I always thought of the four of them. Walt and Roy (his late father and Walt's brother), Lily and Edna . . . as true pioneers. If life had required them to pull the wagon train across the country, they'd have done it . . . and done it better than anyone." For 41 years, Lillian Disney remained the publicity-shy helpmate, raising their two daughters and serving as a sounding board for her husband's ideas for characters and stories.

It was only after Walt Disney's death that she ventured into the community to support causes for young people and the arts. She helped other family members in creating the California Institute of the Arts and operated a foundation that distributed charitable gifts.

In 1990, Lillian Disney received the Governor's Award for the Arts in recognition of her contributions to the arts throughout California.

Last year, she donated $100,000 to her childhood friends, the Nez Perce tribe, to buy ancient tribal artifacts.

In a rare public comment in 1993, she criticized an unflattering biography by Marc Eliot titled "Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince" that criticized the couple's marriage and said Walt Disney was an informant for the FBI.

"We shared a wonderful, exciting life, and we loved every minute of it," she said in a statement. "He was a wonderful husband to me and wonderful and joyful father and grandfather. I am distressed to learn of a new book about Walt that actually invents incidents that never happened."

She is survived by Diane Disney Miller of Napa, 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Sharon Disney Lund, died of cancer in 1993.

No funeral service will be conducted. The family has asked that any memorial contributions be made to St. John's Medical Center in Santa Monica.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
72°