In the 1940s, many years before he fled the Iranian Revolution and became a rich man in America, Younes Nazarian was a boy from the Jewish ghetto selling and replacing light bulbs in the alleys and bazaars of Tehran. He was slight and swift, climbing ladders and making change in a world at war.
That youthful enterprise eventually turned into careers manufacturing construction machinery and running an import-export business. But Nazarian's factory and wealth were threatened by rising Islamic clerics seeking to overthrow the shah. He and his wife, Soraya, and children left their home, and by 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran and changed the designs of Middle East politics, Nazarian was working on his second fortune in California.
"It was not a good feeling to start over again but I didn't have another choice," said Nazarian, 86, head of Los Angeles-based Nazarian Enterprises, which invests in alternative energy, logistics technology, aerospace and real estate. "I had to build again. I had done it once."
The spirit of that reinvention as a first-generation immigrant among a growing Iranian American community prompted his family's $17 million donation Tuesday to the Valley Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge. It is the largest single arts gift to the state university system and highlights the center's diverse programming as a leading San Fernando Valley venue for world class acts that resonate with the region's evolving cultural landscape.
"The Nazarians are an immigrant family. That sentence means a lot," said Thor Steingraber, executive director of the 1,700-seat VPAC. "It's important and exciting to have a major donor who shares our values around the diversity of the American tapestry. The Valley is changing so quickly right now."
For years, the Nazarians have supported performance institutions across Southern California, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Skirball Cultural Center. But VPAC is a new voice outside the traditional and geographic arts orbit, and the donation comes as an architectural resurgence in Los Angeles is spurring broader questions about aesthetics and identity. The center reflects the area's many communities, including concerts by Chinese classical pianist Yuja Wang, the Russian National Orchestra, Mariachi Vargas and Pakistan's Sachal Jazz Ensemble.
"Los Angeles is a very invigorating place to be in terms of art. It wasn't always like that," said Nazarian's daughter, Sharon, president of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation. "When we first came from Iran, L.A. was not really well known as a mecca of the art world. But I think today we're a serious player. The creativity California represents is penetrating the arts world."
She added: "We in the Iranian American community are ready to make our mark in the arts and culture arena. It's almost four decades since the revolution and we feel as a family that we have a responsibility to give back to the community."
The VPAC will be renamed the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts or "the Soraya" for short. Imagined after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the center, which took a decade to plan and build at a cost of $125 million, has gained in reputation since it opened six years ago. The Nazarians' donation will strengthen the center's varied programming at a time, said Steingraber, when the region "is in the middle of a great experiment. Can we decentralize the arts in Los Angeles?"
In their offices overlooking Century Park West, Younes and Soraya reminisced the other day about the roads that brought them here. Framed pictures from Iran, another life, sat on shelves, and Younes, who wore a striped shirt, suspenders and big glasses, pointed to a photograph of a front-end loader he built decades ago in Tehran. He spoke of finance while Soraya, a sculptor who works with Carrara marble, mentioned that "stone is hard but it also has life." They shifted from English to Farsi, talking about birth certificates, possessions and things left behind.
"It's better that you don't come back," their friends in Iran told them in 1978 when the Nazarians went to New York on vacation during the rumblings of a revolution. They had left with only suitcases. Soraya and three of her children didn't return, but Younes and Sharon went back to Tehran later that year. Amid street protests, intensifying Islamist sentiment against the shah and fears that Jews would be targeted, they flew to Israel and on to America.
"We were one of the lucky families," said Sharon. "We didn't have to flee through the desert."
With his factory in jeopardy in Iran, Younes, who had business connections in Israel and Europe, moved to Los Angeles and, with his brother, Izak Parviz Nazarian, bought Standard Tool & Die (Stadco), which makes parts for the aerospace industry. Younes invested in and served on the board of San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc., a telecommunications company with a net income today of more than $5 billion. He is also a major shareholder in ANG Inc., which deals with specialized equipment for the defense, robotics and medical industries.
"I feel very lucky that destiny without any plans brought me and my family to the United States," said Soraya, whose sculptures have been commissioned by the Saperstein Middle School in Los Angeles and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "The American people were so loving. They were helping us. They were kind to teach me to learn about American culture and to raise my children to understand them."
The family's connection to CSUN began with son David, an investor, who graduated from the university in 1982. In 2014, he donated $10 million to its college of business, which was renamed after him. The other Nazarian children have also been active in art, education, business and philanthropy: Sam is a nightclub and entertainment impresario; Shulamit runs an art gallery; and Sharon is the founder of the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israeli Studies at UCLA. Leaders in Los Angeles' Persian Jewish community, the Nazarians have deep ties to Israel, including their Ima Foundation in Tel Aviv, which invests in education.
Younes Nazarian likes telling the story – though Sharon urged him to keep it short – about the woman who called out "lampy,lampy" when he was a boy hawking light bulbs. She waved him over to replace a burned-out bulb in her backyard. He fetched a ladder but started shaking as he climbed. She worried he would fall and called for him to come down. But he said he would make good on his promise. She gave him a big tip when he finished, which, he said, taught him the value of keeping his word.
"I have nine grandchildren," he said. "They ask me, 'Grandpa when you left Iran you left your factory, showroom, house. You left everything. But how did you become rich in America?' I told them: 'A good name.'"