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Daughter drives Disney donations

Miller backed Gehry vision from the start

Amid public squabbles over how to proceed with the design of Walt Disney Concert Hall, architect Frank Gehry found comforting words in a conversation with the daughter of the venue’s frst benefactor: Diane Disney Miller.

Up until then, Gehry didn’t know her at all, thanks to the common practice of architects keeping an arm’s length from donors. But this was an exception. “She said it reminded her of her father, Walt, when the studios would give him a hard time,” Gehry recalled recently.

Miller was steadfast in her support of Gehry, and in the 1980s, earmarked $14 million of her family’s money for his firm to finish the project’s design drawings. To Gehry, it meant his vision for the hall wasn’t compromised.

Throughout the history of the Walt Disney Concert Hall — a Matterhorn ride of ups and downs, twists and turns –Miller has been a critical player in seeing its completion. Shunning the limelight and publicity, Miller helped oversee her family’s contributions to the project, which have totaled more than $100 million, including interest.

“She was a driving force in overcoming the obstacles that were there,” says Dick Lippin, a communications adviser to the Disney family. “She was a passionate champion of the project in the face of adversity.”

Outside of Disney Hall, Miller’s public efforts in the past few years have included philanthropic activities and producing histories of her father’s career. The most recent, “Walt Disney: The Man Behind the Myth,” was a well-received docu that made the film festival circuit in 2001.

But by and large, she shuns interviews. “She’s a very private person,” says Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. (Miller is an asscoiation board member.)

Miller, now 69, is the eldest daughter of Walt Disney, who died in 1966, and his widow, Lillian, who died in 1997. Miller’s sister, Sharon Disney Lund, died in 1993.

Miller and her husband live in Napa, Calif., where they own the 600-acre Silverado Vineyards. Since 1984, when Ron Miller was forced out as the head of Walt Disney Prods. and replaced by a new management team led by Michael Eisner, the couple have rarely commented publicly about Walt Disney Co. corporate matters.

But talking about her father she has said he was a lover of classical music. He was a founding member of the Music Center and even considered locating the CalArts campus downtown, although it ended up in suburban Valencia.

When Dorothy “Buffy” Chandler launched her grassroots campaign to raise money for the Music Center in the late 1950s, Walt Disney designed the paper “Buff bags,” which volunteers used to canvass shopping centers and other public places for smaller contributions.

It was Miller who suggested to her mother, Lillian, that she contribute the $50 million in seed money in 1987 to get the hall built. They had few restrictions on its designs, other than it be something grand.

“My father would love this hall,” Miller predicted in 1992, “as it reflects his innovative and artistic nature.”

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