Relationship issues

Can hall bridge gap between H'wood and downtown?

On opening night of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1964, Bob Hope surveyed the simple opulence of the new building — the graceful, curving balconies, the palette of coral and gold — before taking in Zubin Mehta’s masterful rendition of Richard Strauss’ “Fanfare.”

At some point he caught up with columnist Hedda Hopper, and remarked to her, “Wouldn’t it be a great place for our Academy Awards?”

“Our” meant the industry, which generally didn’t mix with the crowd of downtown leaders and Pasadena socialites. And even though the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion has since hosted the ceremony 25 times, Hollywood has never really warmed up to downtown cultural institutions.

Almost 40 years after the Pavilion’s opening, civic leaders and even a few industry leaders see a new chance to garner greater entertainment interest in the heart of the city. For one, many see Disney Hall as such an architectural gem that it will inevitably lead to the critical mass of shops, businesses, restaurants and living spaces that are impossible to ignore.

“Anyone from the entertainment industry who is going to be there will be impressed and they are going to want to associate with Disney Hall,” says Eli Broad, the billionaire philanthropist who spearheaded the drive to revive the project when it stalled in the mid-1990s. “It will be viewed throughout the world as what Los Angeles is about, the same way the Opera House is viewed in Sydney, Australia, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.”

In the weeks leading up to the opening, people like David Geffen have called for Gehry-led tours. Steven Spielberg and other luminaries are expected at one of three gala openings, this one an Oct. 25 concert led by John Williams. And the week after the hall opens Warner Bros. will host the world premiere of the “The Matrix: Revolutions,” in the new icon.

“If there was a rift (between Hollywood and downtown), it is slowly going away,” says Casey Wasserman, owner of the Los Angeles Avengers arena football team. “The hall is going to open a whole new world of awareness.”

Wasserman’s grandfather Lew was instrumental in drumming up entertainment support for the Music Center after being tapped to raise money by Dorothy “Buffy” Chandler.

The result was a unity of the so-called old money and new money — which many took as euphemisms for WASPs and Jews — to create a cultural institution that would draw all aspects of L.A. society to downtown. Some took to calling the slender-columned Pavilion as Los Angeles’ version of the Parthenon.

In the years since, even as ethnic and class divides are fading, the interest from many in the entertainment industry in downtown’s cultural scene has been ambivalent.

Only a handful of industry leaders — such as Paramount’s Sherry Lansing, CAA’s Robert Bookman and ICM’s Jeff Berg — serve on the boards of the Music Center, the L.A. Opera, the L.A. Phil and the Center Theater Group, which oversees the Ahmanson and the Mark Taper Forum.

“I think the rap on the town was that somehow the cultural institutions didn’t invite them and weren’t nice to them,” says Deborah Borda, executive director of the L.A. Phil. “But that is sort of a 30-year-old story. That has not been the case for so long.”

Borda compares Los Angeles cultural scene to her experience at the New York Philharmonic, which generated “constant” interest from Broadway professionals. By contrast, she says it has been difficult to get more entertainment professionals involved in the L.A. Phil.

“So the question is why has it not happened more?” she asks. “I think there is perhaps a greater sense of insularity in Los Angeles within the industry, and perhaps a greater amount of insecurity. People come and go in a much quicker way.”

Others point to the incredible demands on entertainment leaders, more visible than their counterparts in other corporations, from a host of civic groups, national nonprofits and political causes. Geffen, for example, has been an ardent supporter of the Museum of Contemporary Art, but declined when it came to major contributions for Disney Hall. Instead, he’s lately given huge sums to the UCLA School of Medicine.

Ginny Mancini, who is organizing the inaugural galas, also sees a change with the corporate nature of the business, with leaders of large congloms more interested in national concerns than parochial ones.

“There was a generation prior to this that did give,” she says, “but now everything is the bottom line. If it hadn’t been for the Disney family and their foresight, I don’t know who would have stepped up to the plate.”

Despite all the nudging and PR efforts, many civic boosters see greater interest in downtown only when there’s more of a there there, a sense of place akin to Manhattan.

Years of false starts (the fortress-like Bonaventure Hotel, opened in the 1970s, once was viewed as a draw) have given way to a new sense of momentum. The latest examples are not just Disney Hall but also the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Staples Center, as well as new boutique hotels and the burgeoning loft district.

Jeff Margolis, who exec produces the Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium, believes that the L.A. Phil’s move to Disney Hall will free up space in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for more events like kudosfests.

“The entertainment industry here would love to have our own Times Square,” he says.

Two blocks from Disney Hall, the Los Angeles Unified School District is proposing a high school for the visual and performing arts.

“That is likely to happen,” Broad says. “If there is anything the industry should be interested in, it is a high school for the visual and performing arts.”

Broad is championing the Grand Avenue master plan, which is creating a $1.2 billion private development of retail and entertainment venues, offices and apartment that would also create an enticing pedestrian streetscape in the environs around the concert hall. Included in the mix would be a theater complex, which could ostensibly be a regular locale for movie premieres.

“The entertainment industry will find downtown far more appealing now than they have in the past,” Broad predicts. “We think this is going to happen.”

(Kathy A. McDonald contributed to this report.)

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