The Reluctant Savior

Diane Haithman is an arts writer for The Times' Calendar section.

On the eve of Disneyland's opening in 1955, Walt and Lillian Disney threw a bash at America's first theme park to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. Guests sipped mint juleps on the Mark Twain riverboat, followed by a lavish dinner at the Golden Horseshoe Saloon, complete with cancan dancers. Diane, their shy 21-year-old daughter, wore a "sort of bare" red linen dress that her mother had bought for the occasion.

"I never saw my Dad happier, ever, ever, ever," Diane Disney Miller now says.

But Walt Disney would not allow his wife or daughter to come to his park's opening day. "He said: 'Don't any of you women come out, it's going to be a mess,' " Miller recalls with a laugh.

And so it was. Press reports the next day oohed and aahed over Fantasyland, Tomorrowland and Frontierland, but noted that drinking fountains and toilets didn't work and pavement that had not set properly melted in the mid-July heat.

"They called it 'Walt Disney's Folly,' " Miller says. "But it was exciting."

Things worked out fine for Disneyland. But throughout her life, Miller became accustomed to skeptics challenging her father's crazy, creative ideas. So to those who know her, it was not too surprising that, years later, an attack on another creative spirit touched a raw nerve--and spurred Miller to take what many of the project's leaders now call the defining step that saved Walt Disney Concert Hall.

If Miller has anything to say about it, you'll never see her name on the wall of any building. Intensely private and self-effacing, Miller, now 69, is more likely to tell you how many grandchildren she has (13) than that she has been a longtime supporter of the arts in Los Angeles and sits on the board of governors of the San Francisco Symphony. She refuses to refer to herself with the lofty term "art collector," although works by Andrew Wyeth and Winslow Homer hang on her walls.

She will quote the names of the choreographers and works performed by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago before she'll tell you that she was one of the ensemble's major supporters during its years as a resident company of the Los Angeles Music Center, donating what Joffrey artistic director Gerald Arpino says is about $1 million to the troupe.

"I find her one of the kindest, gentlest, most reserved individuals, very unadorned," says Arpino, one of the many artists whom Miller has welcomed to her family's Napa Valley winery, Silverado Vineyards. "I find her a perfect sophisticate in the true sense of the word in that she is a very, very private individual, yet very concerned about our society and the arts, and she contributes to the arts in the most noble fashion."

Just as Walt Disney had advised them on Disneyland's opening day, "the women"--Lillian, Diane and her sister, Sharon Disney Lund--stayed home, so to speak, during the early phases of the Walt Disney Concert Hall's development.

"We were just three women, my mother, my sister and me--housewives, if you will," Miller says.

But Lund died of cancer in 1993, and an ailing Lillian Disney, who passed away in December 1997 at age 98, was too ill to take responsibility for major decisions when the Disney Hall project reached a crisis that required immediate action.

Instead of the three "housewives" who preferred to leave major decisions to others, now there was only Miller--owner by default of the wildly unorthodox design for a $274-million concert hall.

Everything was finally coming together in 1997 for the long-delayed Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at downtown's Music Center. Designed by Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, the project was set in motion by a 1987 gift of $50 million from Lillian Disney to do "something grand" in the name of her late husband.

The project had ground to a halt in the mid-'90s due to financial troubles, but it was enjoying a second wind. Gehry was riding high on critical acclaim for his new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and a group of L.A.'s corporate and civic leaders, led by then-Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire businessman Eli Broad, began soliciting multimillion-dollar donations to meet the soaring cost estimates for the hall.

But even as the money rolled in, friction developed. Riordan and Broad threw their considerable weight behind a plan that would take the job of completing the working drawings for Gehry's unusual, all-curves design out of the hands of the architect's firm. Translating architectural designs into pragmatic building plans is a crucial step in any construction process, and Broad, Riordan and other major donors feared that Gehry's firm was too inexperienced, even though it had executed the working drawings for the similarly curvy construction in Bilbao. Broad maintained that it was a procedural matter, that he wanted to assure donors that Disney Hall could be completed on time and within budget. But the two men had a history--a falling-out years before over completion of Broad's Brentwood residence, which Gehry had designed.

Gehry responded by threatening to walk off the Disney Hall project. That's when Miller stepped in. The nature of the Disney family's gift made them, and not the Music Center, Gehry's client. She mandated that the money still left from Lillian Disney's original gift--at that point, about $20 million--be used to hire Gehry's firm to do the working drawings for Disney Hall.

Her logic was simple: "I trusted Frank, and there wasn't anyone else I had confidence in. He said, 'We can do the drawings,' and I knew he could."

Music Center president Stephen Rountree, who has served on Disney Hall's oversight committee since 1998, when he was an executive at the J. Paul Getty Trust and had played a major role in overseeing the opening of the Getty Center, says it was "a very difficult and courageous decision for [Miller], and for the entire project, to stick with the visionary architect who clearly had developed this very complex and subtle building."

Gehry says he didn't get to know Miller well until after she chose to support him. "I said, 'Why did you defend me so much?' And she said when she was a kid, she remembers her father coming home from the studio after getting beaten up by studio people and hearing stories about how they compromised his work. She didn't want that to happen.

"She's 'St. Diane,' I think," Gehry says. "She's the cornerstone in seeing this project happen."

However much she might have preferred to walk offstage, Miller's role in the Disney Hall drama did not end there. In August 1997, she was appointed co-chairwoman of the Disney Hall committee with Broad, and Miller spent the ensuing year commuting to Los Angeles from the Napa Valley winery or her apartment in San Francisco to attend meetings. She resisted initial pressure from some of the project's powerful leaders to relinquish the Disney family's control of the project once Gehry's firm was engaged to do the drawings.

Miller also held another strong card: In 1994, the Disney family had pledged an additional $25 million to the hall, payable only when the building was a definite "go." In Miller's view, the project was not a "go" without Gehry.

It took Miller a year of active participation in the committee process before she felt confident that Gehry's vision would be preserved. In the summer of 1998, she signed over control of the design to the Disney Hall committee. At around the same time, she also authorized that the additional $25 million the Disney family had pledged in 1994, dependent on whether the building would be built, could now be spent on Disney Hall construction over the next three years. At that point, Broad also stepped down as chair of the committee, turning over that job to former banking executive William E.B. Siart.

"She never attended another meeting after that," recalls Jack Burnell, who oversees project management.

"I kept hearing references [such as]: 'They say you have to give up your power.' I'd say, 'What power?' " Miller exclaims. "I just felt it was important to hang in there for my mother's interest. That's the only time we asserted any ownership rights, with that last bit of the gift.

"I got sort of tired of being the center of controversy," Miller says. "I'd done what I had to do and I was standing by it, and I don't mind if you print that."

Others involved, including Broad, call the process amicable. "There's more than one way to skin a cat, and Frank's way was one way, and it worked out fine," Broad says. "Whatever doubts I had at the time, I shouldn't have had."

But Miller, less accustomed to such conflicts, found her year of active participation highly stressful, and notes that there are still people she's "mad at."

If Gehry's name had been taken off the project, Miller asserts, so would Walt Disney's. "I thought often, in those dark times, if it went ahead and it was done Eli's way, I would not let my father's name be on it," she says. "We'd be out of there. And they could call it something else if they wanted to."

The Disney family's connection to the Music Center dates back to the center's birth in 1964. Walt Disney was among the many prominent Angelenos who aided Music Center founder Dorothy Buffum Chandler--wife of Norman Chandler, third publisher of the Los Angeles Times--in fund-raising and planning for the performing arts complex.

As she does with just about everything in her life, Miller credits her father for her love of music. "Dad was doing 'Fantasia' when I was something like 7 years old," says Miller, who grew up in Los Feliz and attended the Marlborough School for Girls in Hancock Park. "We didn't have all that much music in the house, because I don't think most homes had really good sound systems at that time.

"But movies--in every movie, it seemed that Arthur Rubinstein or Jose Iturbi was playing something by Chopin or Rachmaninoff, and at 7 I said, 'I want a piano,' and that was my birthday present. I have that little piano still in my house; it's a little upright Baldwin Acrosonic. And then when I was 16, he decided I needed a better one, and we got a beautiful used Steinway."

Along with the concert hall that honors her father, the family is developing a Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, inspired by a small Disney exhibition in 2001 financed by the family and organized by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Miller explored locations in Kansas City, Mo., where Walt Disney's family moved when he was a boy and where he started his first animation company, Laugh-O-Grams. She also considered Burbank, and even the possibility of creating a museum inside of Disney Hall before settling on San Francisco, simply because it is her home.

But for the longest time, Los Angeles was home to Diane Disney. She met Ron Miller, a USC football star, while both were students at the university, and Diane dropped out of college to get married in 1954. Ron Miller served in the Army and played for the Los Angeles Rams before beginning his rise through the ranks of Walt Disney Productions, succeeding Walt's nephew, Roy E. Disney--son of Walt's older brother, Roy O. Disney--as company president in 1980.

But by 1984, many company stockholders were blaming Ron Miller for lackluster corporate leadership. One of them was the entertainment giant's largest stockholder: Roy E. Disney, now company vice chairman. The board asked Miller to resign and brought in a new chief executive, Michael Eisner, and president, Frank Wells. The ouster caused a well-documented rift between the branches of the Disney family as the Millers left Los Angeles.

But the firing never shook the couple's commitment to the Music Center, or kept Miller from returning there to see her beloved Joffrey Ballet, which lost its L.A. residency in 1991 because of financial problems and moved to Chicago. Now that time has passed since the barrage of reportage surrounding Gehry's threatened departure, Miller says she's thrilled with the completed hall. She recently came to Los Angeles to lend her voice to a tape that eventually will be used for audio tours of the complex.

Unlike the grand opening of Disneyland, Miller will be present when Walt Disney Concert Hall opens Thursday. She will arrive with 25 family members, including all 13 grandchildren. The family paid for its own opening gala tickets, which range from $500 to $5,000. She says she wasn't offered free tickets by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and "I wouldn't have accepted them if we had; it would have felt weird." The group also will attend Friday's concert, and then a few family members with children will stay through the weekend to take the kids to Disneyland.

But larger than Miller's commitment to the building is her commitment to the performances inside. In addition to the Disney family's gifts for the concert hall's construction--now totaling about $112 million--the family also has pledged another $25 million, payable over five years, to the Philharmonic to endow the Walt and Lilly Disney Chair in Conducting.

Yet Miller may be more comfortable with the arts in a more intimate, private setting than in the grand arena of Disney Hall. She describes herself as passionate about Music in the Vineyards, a summer chamber music series in the wine country, where she enjoys the casual pre-concert talks about the composers. "I kind of want to know something about what I'm listening to beyond what's in the program," Miller says. Artists who stay at the family winery's guest house make use of her Steinway parlor grand piano--the one her father bought her.

Miller's interest in the visual arts also has a personal side. The Homer sketches and watercolors in the Millers' San Francisco apartment were purchased from an art dealer who once taught piano to their kids, and a Wyeth painting has a personal story too, involving Miller's sister and brother-in-law. "Sharon and Bob [Lund] and Ron and I loved Andrew Wyeth; this is going back 30 or 40 years," she says. "And we vowed that someday, when we could afford it, we'd go in together and buy a Wyeth, and trade it off between our homes. I think art has to have a sentimental appeal, or a story like that, or there's no point in having it."

Speaking of family sentiment, Roy E. Disney and his wife, Patty, took what might be perceived as a step toward repairing family ties in 1997, when the Walt Disney Co. made a $20-million matching gift for construction of Disney Hall. Roy and Patty also made a $5-million personal matching gift to the project, earmarked for the creation of a performance space named for his parents--the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, or REDCAT--to be used primarily by the California Institute of the Arts, the Valencia-based arts college founded by Walt Disney. (The late Roy O. Disney took over completion of CalArts' construction after Walt's death in 1966.)

Though Miller agrees with her cousin, Roy E. Disney, that the family problems were blown out of proportion by the press, her reaction is cool to questions about whether the gift helped heal old scars. "My mother and Dad, and Edna and Roy, they were best friends, they really were," Miller says. "But our paths are different. Roy sails; I like the mountains. I kind of fled the Disney company to my life in Napa and the life of wine, and Roy is intensely connected to the company. And I think that the Walt Disney Concert Hall is really very separate from REDCAT. I don't feel that they are really very connected, except geographically."

Roy E. Disney feels differently. "For the last six or seven years, she's kind of been away from the company and I've been in it, and there have been plenty of times when Walt's name would get evoked for one thing or another, and we sort of made a pact: If I felt uncomfortable about somebody using Walt's name, I would always call Diane and say, 'What do you think?'--and we'd invariably end up having nice chats, certainly about Disney Hall as well as other things, so I think it has kind of brought us together," he says.

He also praises Miller's choice to put her money where her mouth is when it came to defending Gehry. "In the Disney character, there is a certain amount of resolution that if it's the right thing to do, you ought to do it, you know?" he says. "I know that was really what Diane was thinking, if this is really the way the man wants it, then we've got to do it the right way, and God bless her for that.

"That's one of the great lessons life has to offer; you have to keep working at it no matter how easy it seemed at the start. We both had fathers who knew that perfectly well, so I guess we both learned that at a fairly young age."

When told that Miller describes her mother, herself and Sharon Lund as "three housewives," Disney chuckles: "If you like your housewives tougher than hell."

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