Disney Hall: Where Everybody Has a Name

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Disney Hall. Photo: John O'Neill

Disney Hall. Photo: John O'Neill


Oct 26, 2003


TERRY STANFILL found what she was looking for her name -- before she got as far as the Henry Mancini Family Staircase and the Ron Burkle-Ralphs/Food 4 Less Foundation Auditorium. When you donate only $50,000, all you get is your name two inches tall on a stone paver of the terrace garden at the new Walt Disney Concert Hall here.

It was the hall's long-awaited opening night on Thursday, and an impromptu ballet of ball-gowned philanthropists had begun at twilight as bejeweled women darted about searching for their names, in stainless steel letters set in stone. Men in black tie were corralling their women, reminding them that the inaugural concert was about to begin.

Disney Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, is not just an architectural tour de force. With a budget that ballooned from the original estimate of $110 million to $274 million, it became a rare naming opportunity, a kind of permanent billboard for wealthy people to have their names inscribed. Every atrium, every staircase, every reception room, even every escalator in and around Disney Hall carries the name of a benefactor.

The size of the lettering and the space occupied by donors' names corresponds to the scale of their munificence.

The names of major donors -- Alfred E. Mann and Ron W. Burkle -- are six inches tall. Those who contributed a mere $100,000 -- like Bram Goldsmith and William Siart -- had to be content with inch-and-a-half-tall letters on the Donors Wall.

The new hall, which will be home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is not only an architectural triumph for Los Angeles, it gives well-to-do Angelenos a chance to preen and to foster the pursuit of excellence in classical music in a city not known for its love of high culture.

The upper echelon of New York society has long revolved around philanthropy. Those in its ranks who dismiss Los Angeles as merely a society of celebrity, movie mojo and clogged freeways are missing out on an intriguing cultural shift taking place in the city.

''This building is a statement to the fact that there's a society here based on philanthropy,'' Andrea Van de Kamp said. ''Apart from Disney, there's very little movie money here.''

A fund-raising campaign led by Ms. Van de Kamp -- a blond dynamo with persuasive charm -- drew 283 donors who gave at least $100,000 to have their names honored. ''I would call and say, 'I have a live one. What can we name after him?' '' Ms. Van de Kamp recalled. ''And I was running out of options. A urinal, perhaps?'' she said, jokingly.

Efforts to accommodate the whims of wealthy patrons have resulted in some odd nomenclature. Take, for instance, the Henry Mancini Family Staircase. You might imagine that it is reserved for the perambulations of the composer's family. But no. It is open to all comers.

There is also the peculiar name of the auditorium itself: the Ron Burkle-Ralphs/Food 4 Less Foundation Auditorium. Does that sound like a mouthful? Don't quibble. Mr. Burkle donated $15 million to the hall, half from his personal fortune, half from the discount food chain he used to own.

And you can't miss the Edward D. and Anna Mitchell Family Foundation escalator cascade. Nor the Edythe and Eli Broad Reception Hall, for a gift of $15 million, and the Founders, a retreat for major contributors, suitably vast and exquisitely designed.

The surprise about this great preponderance of names is that it is all so decorous. No ugly bronze plaques wreck the sculptural beauty of the interior. Far from it. Some names are etched in glass. Some in stainless steel letters set in stone, some in white plaster.

''It's elegant, not gauche, and it's nice for the donors,'' Ms. Van de Kamp said. The Toronto-based designer Bruce Mau developed the system for displaying the donors' names at the behest of Mr. Gehry.

The cavorting women on the terrace are members of the Blue Ribbon, the city's exclusive all-women charity, which raises money for the music center's constituent groups: the Philharmonic, the Center Theater Group, the Los Angeles Opera and the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

''It's the charity that all the ladies want to get into,'' noted Peter Dunham, an English interior designer based in Los Angeles.

The evening attracted an unusually varied group. Some traveled from New York to attend, including Ben and Donna Rosen. Mr. Rosen is on the board of the New York Philharmonic. Michael Eisner was there with his wife, Jane. They were sitting with Mercedes and Sid Bass, Barry Diller, and Candice Bergen and her husband, Marshall Rose. Bob Graham, the sculptor; Jodie Foster; and Denise Hale, the San Francisco socialite, were there. Arianna Huffington, dressed in black lace, stopped to blow a kiss to Edythe and Eli Broad, the billionaire businessman and philanthropist who played a major part in the building of Disney Hall. And Ginny Mancini, the widow of Henry Mancini and the chairwoman of the inaugural gala, shimmered in light gold chiffon and diamonds.

Deborah Borda, the president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, noted a shift in Los Angeles society. ''Traditionally in L.A., there hasn't been this kind of mix,'' she said. ''The city is so fragmented, which has a lot to do with geography. But Disney Hall brings everyone together. Frank has made a breakthrough.''

After the concert, revelers headed to dinner in a transparent tent, the better to admire the curves of the building and the fireworks that erupted before dessert, which came in the shape of the building.

Published in the New York Times on Oct. 26, 2003 

Christopher Mason