Vowing to Give Arts a Run for the Money

Times Staff Writer

When Roger T. Kirwan takes over Thursday as the fifth chairman of the Orange County Performing Arts Center's board of directors, he takes the helm at a critical time.

Under his guidance, the 52-member board will try to raise $200 million or more to build two music halls, plus rehearsal halls and a cafe--the center's most ambitious project yet.

Kirwan knows money.

He was born the youngest of four children in the middle-class Woodside section of New York City and graduated from Boston College in 1964 with a degree in economics.

He joined Yegen Associates, a consumer-finance firm based in New Jersey, which transferred him to Orange County in 1973 to run its western region.

In 1980, he resigned to start his own firm, Ganis Credit Corp., which specialized in boat and recreational vehicle loans. It prospered to the point that the Bank of Boston bought the business for $21.5 million in 1995, then sold it to Deutsche Financial Services for $30 million in 1997. Kirwan remained CEO until he resigned in May to form another firm, Woodside Financial Services in Newport Beach.

Kirwan lives with his wife, Gail, in the Newport Coast house they had built to look like one on the label of one of their favorite wines--Chateau Kirwan (no relation) in France's Margaux wine district. Their children--a fledgling fashion designer and a fledgling journalist--have moved out, and Kirwan finds himself spending more time on his passions--golf, skiing, reading, travel, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and helping raise funds for good causes. They have included Catholic churches, schools and charities, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County and now the Performing Arts Center.

Kirwan met recently with staff writer Steve Emmons and Times arts editors and reporters to discuss the center's future.

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Question: How do you think the Orange County Performing Arts Center stacks up against other centers?

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Answer: We're not doing badly for someone who's been in business less than 15 years.

I had some folks from New York in my office a few months ago, and I commented that I was going to the opera. And in his very New York way, one said, "Oh, they have the opera out here in the sticks?"

And I said, "Young man, I have seen the American Ballet Theatre dance, I'm going to the opera tonight and I've heard a world-renowned orchestra--and that's just in the last three weeks. What have you done in New York?"

He couldn't say anything, because, like most New Yorkers, he knows it's there but he doesn't go near it or see it.

I think locally we get to see so much more than they do because we've made it convenient. In New York it's still not easy to get to the theater. And as bad as our pricing is and has to be, theirs is worse. A ticket on Broadway is hellaciously expensive.

Q. Why expand the center now?

A. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If we don't do it now, the Segerstrom family [which has offered to donate the vacant lot adjacent the existing center] correctly and justly would say "Fine, we're going to do something else with our land." And that opportunity to build right next to us would be gone forever.

Our opportunity to build might come 10 years later, but it might be in the South County or west county or somewhere else. We could never have it as a tightly compacted center for the arts. We do it now or we can never do it.

Q. Are you sure you can raise the money?

A. We are going to undertake a feasibility study very quickly, now that we have a ballpark idea of what it's going to cost, but we're very confident that the community will support it. Twenty years ago, nobody thought that they would support the Performing Arts Center as it is today, and yet it has been in the black every year of its existence. "Black" in the nonprofit world means it breaks even.

Q. Where will the money come from?

A. You would like to see 25% of the cost as the naming gift, [a large gift acknowledged by naming the project after the donor], but we don't know where we will end up on that. We are working on it now, but we cannot announce one yet. I was quoted as saying we expected to be announcing [a large donation], but I said hoped. We're only still at the hope stage.

All gifts will be appreciated, but I'm told by the professional fund-raisers that as a rule more than half your money will come from a very small number of donors. You can't wait for a million people to each give $2 to make something happen.

Typical of this kind of campaign, you don't kick off the public part of it until you've raised a considerable amount of money in the silent part. So we need the silent part to get to a certain target level.

Q. When will the land actually be yours?

A. We don't have final paperwork from the Segerstrom family yet, but the indication was that we would [need to] have half the money raised or committed prior to having the land actually deeded to us. So that's our real target--to get half. It's done by everybody [on the board] calling everybody they know and reaching out from those people to the next person.

The local economy is enjoying great prosperity, so now is the right time to do it. There are a lot of private companies in Orange County that don't make the headlines but have created lots of wealth. There's a lot of new houses being built all over this county that are very, very beautiful, very expensive homes, and the people who are building them can afford them. We don't know them now.

We hope to meet them very soon.

Q. How will this expansion affect the center's bookings?

A. It will allow us to do more of everything, and part of that is to do more Broadway. Instead of having "Riverdance" for one week, we can have it for two or three weeks and do well with it and get increased revenue. Broadway is the one you can pretty consistently make money with. We can have opera for two or three weekends, which is where you want it.

Q. Will there be more pop music?

A. There's a fiscal issue that has to be very carefully looked at. With only 3,000 seats, you can't bring in Elton John, so who can you bring in? Maybe Natalie Cole? Well, is she going to fill those seats? And if she doesn't, is there any reason to be asking your donors to underwrite a performance by Natalie Cole? We're about the symphony, the ballet, the opera, and none of those makes money. There's a balancing act in there that we're aware of. But I think there's an openness to listen.

Q. Will your administration be different in tone or action from the previous administrations?

A. I don't see any need for changes.

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