Remembering Dorothy Chandler as Los Angeles’ Music Center Turns 50

Dorothy Chandler Pavillion Turns 50
Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A “women-in-power” tribute seems to take place almost every week, but recently, a few people with good memories are paying homage to one pioneering power woman who was also, inadvertently, a culture warrior. “Tough Buff,” as she was nicknamed (not always admiringly) had the vision and resources to create the Music Center, which celebrated its 50th anniversary on Dec. 6. In so doing, she not only changed the face of Downtown Los Angeles but also forged a detente between Hollywood and the famously anti-Semitic “old money” crowd of San Marino and Pasadena without which the community’s cultural hub could never have been created.

Dorothy Buffum Chandler was cast against type for her role as a society power player. A relatively unsophisticated girl whose parents owned a department store in Long Beach, she married Norman Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and thus found herself enmeshed in a family that ruled the city like a feudal fiefdom.

The Chandler family did not like Buffy — either her style or her politics. She decided that while Los Angeles had become a booming city, it was also a cultural vacuum, and she would use the Chandler clout to remedy that.

I encountered Buffy in the early ’60s, when I was the New York Times reporter on the West Coast. I had written a piece describing the bold strokes taken by Otis Chandler, Buffy’s son, who had succeeded his father as publisher, and was remaking it into a strong newspaper with liberal leanings. He and his mother were infuriating the older members of the Chandler clan.

Buffy asked me to lunch one day to thank me for my article, but it was clear she had something more important on her agenda. Professing to be a blunt woman — which she was — she said she needed the help of Hollywood and the Westside to get her project built, and noted how much the Hollywood crowd and Downtown crowd hated each other. She noted that Westsiders read the New York Times, and that I wrote about Hollywood now and then, and asked if I could get a dialogue started.

By coincidence, I had a meeting scheduled that afternoon with Lew Wasserman, the boss of what was then MCA Universal and the ultimate Hollywood hierarch. I promised her I’d mention our conversation to Wasserman.

I am sure others had also raised Wasserman’s name, but, as things turned out, he and Buffy soon started talking. Wasserman not only contributed millions to the re-creation of Downtown L.A. and to build the pantheon on Bunker Hill, but also mobilized major Hollywood money for the cause. Walter Mirisch and Anne Douglas (Kirk’s wife) were among those to become important allies.

Buffy got her massive project built. Her family kept giving her a hard time, but she made the cover of Time Magazine and forged an eclectic circle of followers. The Music Center’s theaters, the Pavilion (later the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), the Ahmanson and the Taper, would in 2003 be augmented by the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Luminaries like director Gordon Davidson served as magnets for important talent. Davidson’s opening night choice for the Taper was a play about a nun who had sexual relations with her priest; Gov. Ronald Reagan walked out at intermission. Buffy liked the performance.

Years later, I told her she would have made a great film producer. She was, after all, a master of closing deals, of trading one offer against another. She had persuaded tightfisted stars like Cary Grant to contribute $25,000 to her cause when he wanted to ante in only $10,000, and scolded board member Burt Lancaster for not wearing a jacket or tie to meetings. Buffy clearly was tempted by the possibility, but decided to stay in her familiar domain. She died in 1998. Surely she would have been a superb mentor to today’s power women.