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Classical gassed

New showbiz generation seems to snub fine arts orgs

Hollywood isn’t often lauded for its values, but even the cynical won’t dispute the community’s history of philanthropy. Whether for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, Jerry Lewis’ efforts on behalf of muscular dystrophy or the late Danny Thomas’ establishment of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, members of the film and television elite have long given their time and money to good causes far and wide.

But when it comes to the fine arts — as opposed to medical charities or social causes — the picture, like an unpreserved silent film, becomes murky. Sure, Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Jones, now 86, is still a presence at the Pasadena museum founded by her late husband, Norton Simon. And last year, a major theater devoted to new plays was named for Kirk Douglas. Yet Hollywood’s funding of organizations like the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Opera is far from what it could be.

It wasn’t always so. At the opening of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1964 — home to the Philharmonic until 2003 and the opera from its founding in 1986 — Hollywood royalty stood shoulder-to-shoulder with old-money families like the Dohenys, the Bings and the Chandlers. Both groups had united in common cause to bring the city its first purpose-built arts complex, the Music Center, built downtown atop Bunker Hill. The Pavilion was the first of its three halls to be completed, followed by the Mark Taper Forum (1967) and the Ahmanson Theater (1968).

That Herculean undertaking could not have been accomplished without Hollywood’s financial support or prestige, something reflected in the gold-letter names affixed to the walls just inside the Pavilion. A quick scan reveals Jack Benny, Nat King Cole, Marion Davies, Walt Disney, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Mervyn LeRoy, Randolph Scott, Frank Sinatra, Jules Stein and Jack L. Warner among them.

In subsequent years, other film and TV luminaries joined their ranks, including Fred Astaire, Gene Autry, Saul Bass, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, George Cukor, Charton Heston, Norman Lear, Walter Mirisch, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Elizabeth Taylor and Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner — with larger contributions coming from Carol Burnett, Johnny Carson, Michael Eisner, Sherry Lansing, Henry Winkler and Bud Yorkin.

Gregory Peck, Ray Stark, Max Steiner and Richard Zanuck were even more generous, and Kirk Douglas and Garry Marshall still more so. But the Music Center’s biggest Hollywood benefactors remain Danny Kaye, Ginny Mancini, Neil Simon, Lew Wasserman and John Williams.

The dilemma should be obvious. Though the Music Center enjoys the sponsorship of corporations and foundations, to say nothing of civic-minded individuals not associated with Hollywood, its connection to the industry most associated with Southern California is on the wane.

While Mancini, the widow of film composer Henry Mancini, and Marshall and his wife Barbara remain Music Center stalwarts, as do Winkler and his wife Stacey, many other industry donors have either retired from public life or died. Their absence has created a void, one unfilled by younger members of the Hollywood community.

“I would not say there is a special connection now,” said Mancini recently. “We are in a quandary as to why the entertainment industry isn’t more supportive of the arts in general, and especially in our own community. There was a time when people in Hollywood were very generous in their sponsorship, but it’s different today.”

For proof, one need only look to the building of the Music Center’s newest venue, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, completed in 2003. The $274 million edifice came into being thanks a mighty civic effort, but among the legions of big donors, only a handful had Hollywood connections, and none carried the glamour of a Grant, Taylor or Wood.

Besides Mancini, the Marshalls, the Winklers, Lansing and many members of the Disney family, the list includes John Gavin and Ron Meyer — not exactly a tidal wave of industry support for a project that bears a name virtually synonymous with Hollywood.

Marshall suggests reverse snobbery may be the culprit.

“There is a certain feeling of, ‘Oh, that’s just for rich white people, and I don’t want to hang with them,’ ” he says. “I think a fear of elitism is a big reason that Hollywood people are reluctant to go to the opera and symphony.”

But why such feelings of alienation would take effect now, after decades of support, is unclear.

“There were the Europeans back then,” offers Marshall, referring to the crush of cultured emigres who populated Hollywood in the wake of World War II. “That’s who went to the symphony. But you can’t support the arts just with people in walkers. You need some who can run about. And when I sit at the Hollywood Bowl and look at the other boxes, I don’t see a tremendous amount of showbusiness.”

The observation that auds for the performing arts are declining actually makes Hollywood’s support of the symphony and opera all the more important. For no one disputes the uplift inherent in such disciplines.

“These arts provide a sense of self and an opportunity to daydream in the best sense,” says Mancini. “I hope that the entertainment community can see that a brighter future is possible and actually does something to achieve it.”

But if altruism won’t do the trick, Mancini offers another, equally compelling, reason for Hollywood to recommit itself to supporting fine arts.

“Because it feeds our needs, too,” she said. “This is a pool from which all creative people can draw.”

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