A Plan to Reopen Ambassador


A redevelopment proposal for the former campus of Ambassador College, near Pasadena’s Old Town, includes a plan to reopen the famed Ambassador Auditorium as a performing arts venue.

Closed since May 1995, the auditorium, which is renowned for its acoustics, could be back in business in 2004.

Los Angeles-based developer Legacy Partners is proposing to purchase the 48-acre college site from its current owner, the Worldwide Church of God, for a 1,727-unit housing development--and to donate the campus’ intimate 1,250-seat performance hall to the city of Pasadena.

While the city would own the hall, it would be programmed and maintained by a new nonprofit with an oversight board, already in place and made up of local arts patrons. Expenses would be paid through fund-raising, rental fees and ticket sales, not city funds.


The proposal must be approved by the Pasadena City Council, which is expected to make its decision early next year. If approved, groundbreaking on the housing development would take place in April.

Board member and treasurer David Partridge, a Pasadena-based computer distributor, said the directors are committed to raising $3 million to cover costs for three years, beginning in 2002. During 2002 and 2003, the hall will have only one or two performances per year while the housing is under construction. The board wants to wait to begin the first full season of programming until 2004, when a multiuse parking structure containing 400 spaces reserved for the hall will be completed adjacent to the concert facility.

“We want to benchmark this against Carnegie Hall,” Partridge said. “We want to do world-class programming. The hall is ideally suited for small groups, individual performances, recitals, concerts, chamber orchestras, quartets and jazz groups.”

Legacy Partners considers the presence of the auditorium an asset in marketing the rest of the development, which will consist of apartments, condos and single-family homes. William A. Shubin, a Legacy senior vice president, said preliminary research showed that a significant number of Pasadena arts patrons are attracted by the idea of moving into a community with a concert hall within walking distance.


Albert Milano, managing partner of Milano, Ruff & Associates consulting firm, involved in feasibility studies for the venture, said a study done in the fall of 2000 indicated that “you wouldn’t have to reach far outside the Pasadena area to make this auditorium viable, the demographics here are so strong.

“It always did attract people from all over the place,” he added. “But even though some people will come here from the Westside, you don’t really need them to make this viable.”

For more than 40 years, most of the grounds to be developed served as the campus for Ambassador College, founded by the Worldwide Church of God in 1947. In 1990, when the college was consolidated with its sister campus in Big Sandy, Texas, and the facilities used for college activities were converted to other uses.

Ambassador Auditorium, built in 1974, was meant to accommodate church functions, but for 20 years it also hosted--and the church subsidized--an ambitious performing arts program for the wider community as well. Among the performers who appeared there are Leontyne Price, Vladimir Horowitz, Luciano Pavarotti, Pearl Bailey, Victor Borge and Bing Crosby.


While it remained popular with artists, audiences and critics, Ambassador Auditorium closed in the mid-1990s because of financial difficulties arising from controversy over doctrinal matters within the church. Founded in Pasadena in 1933 by the late Herbert W. Armstrong, the church lost more than 10,000 of its 92,000 members between 1990 and 1995. Since then, the auditorium has been used occasionally for church and community events, but has hosted no performing arts season.

Bernard Schnippert , director of planning and finance for the church, said the large campus is “horribly underutilized” by the church, which is eyeing a smaller temporary headquarters in Irwindale.

“As far as our feelings about the auditorium go, they are bittersweet,” he added. “All nonprofit arts venues run at a deficit. That was financed by the church, and a number of years ago that became no longer feasible. So we are sad in a sense, but very pleased that the auditorium will once again become a venue where the public can benefit from hearing world-class performers in a beautiful facility.”