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From bean fields to ballet: Segerstrom Center celebrates 25 years

COSTA MESA — Bonnie Hall was there when the cultural ground in Orange County shifted to the rousing sounds of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

On opening night, Sept. 29, 1986, the soprano and other members of the Pacific Chorale sang the vocal climax of the symphony's final movement. They and another O.C.-based chorale accompanied conductor Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a concert inaugurating the county's first world-class music and dance venue.

The Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa was born.

"It was a pretty proud moment for Orange County," said Hall, who later became founding executive director of Arts Orange County, a nonprofit arts advocacy group. "It was a significant symbol of Orange County's declaration of cultural independence from Los Angeles — at least in the performing arts — and it was a catalyst for O.C.-based organizations to aspire to a level of excellence."

OCPAC, which has since expanded and was recently renamed the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, is now preparing to officially commemorate its 25th anniversary Friday through the coming weekend.

The name was changed to honor the family who donated parcels of its land holdings in northern Costa Mesa on which the arts complex stands — and who made substantial cash donations toward its development. The center is the county's largest nonprofit arts institution.

The planned celebration promises to be as big and sweeping as the national and worldwide reputation for excellence that the center has established since opening in the autumn of '86.

It has carved out a name particularly as a top Southern California venue for classical dance productions. The center has worked with noted choreographers to stage West Coast and international premieres of classical dance productions, among others.

During the commemorative weekend, the center will offer some free shows along with premium box office programs.

Center officials are billing the upcoming celebration and anniversary season around a theme of inclusiveness. They say they plan to maintain the institution's long-running commitment to educational programs with local schools, and make its range of artistic programming more accessible and appealing to the general public and younger generations.

Toward that end, the center will launch the "Access for All" initiative this season, reserving 10,000 tickets priced at $10 apiece. The discounted tickets should give buyers access to shows across the center's core disciplines: classical dance and music, Broadway musicals and jazz.

"They're being made available for different performances of all the genres we present all year to make sure that everybody in the community can participate in what the community has created here," center President Terrence W. Dwyer said.

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O.C. rising

When the 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall opened in September 1986, the vision of Richard Lippold's "Fire Bird" sculpture — spreading its wings within the frame of a red-granite grand portal arch — heralded a new era for Orange County.

The booming and sprawling county had finally "arrived" and "come of age," as Los Angeles Times reports from the period put it.

"Culture was finally catching up with commerce," a Times editorial proclaimed in July 1983, when ground was broken for OCPAC's construction.

And on the day that the $73-million concert hall finally opened, Sam Hall Kaplan, a Times design critic, pointedly observed that the new arts venue promised to give the nearby South Coast Plaza shopping center "a new and exciting urbanity; a place to be entertained and enriched, to see and be seen, an opportunity to beat back the specter of a stultifying suburbia that has long hovered over the county's cultural maturation."

It may have taken three years to build the center, but the project to bring such a venue to Orange County began in the late 1960s. Various groups — including the Newport Harbor Foundation, created in 1969 — had formed with the mission of bringing a performing arts venue to Orange County.

Some of the groups eventually united under an umbrella organization called the Orange County Arts Alliance, which was the precursor of Arts Orange County.

"[The movement] was fragmented," recalled Ron Yeo, a Corona del Mar architect who helped lead the alliance in the 1970s. "What we were trying to do was bring them all together to raise the county's cultural level."

A point of pride for area art lovers, and members of the county elite involved in the capital campaign, is that funds for building OCPAC were raised entirely through private donations from the Segerstrom family and many other philanthropists.

Classical music lovers in O.C. had grown tired of having to drive the freeways into Los Angeles to catch world-class performances. They wanted a world-class performing arts center that their county could call its own.

The O.C. landscape for serious music was sparse. Some who were around at the time even likened O.C. then to a "cultural desert" sandwiched between L.A. and San Diego counties.

Whenever touring classical musicians and the Los Angeles Philharmonic occasionally ventured behind the so-called "Orange Curtain," they would perform in the auditorium at Santa Ana High School, or at music halls or gyms on the campuses of UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton.

Shari Esayian, of Newport Beach, a longtime patron of the arts center, recalled a mid-1970s performance in O.C. by pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. He played in a campus gym, and his audience sat in the bleachers.

"If anybody moved, there was all this creaking," said Esayian, president of Founders Plus, one of the center's community support groups that spearheaded the fundraising campaign and helped to organize the center's 25th anniversary gala on Sept. 23.

Cindy and Tony Ellis, a Brea couple and veteran musicians with the Pacific Symphony, one of the Segerstrom Center's resident companies, recalled the pre-OCPAC days when the orchestra roamed the county. Santa Ana High School and Cal State Fullerton were some of the playing venues.

There was even a stretch in the early 1980s, Tony Ellis said, when the symphony performed its pops programs amid not-so-good conditions of the Good Time Theatre at Knott's Berry Farm.

The theater featured a bareback stage without a dressing room; it was a challenge to find a place to rehearse before concerts because there were no practice rooms.

"It was always very interesting getting to the concert because you would have to wade through people enjoying the amusement park," said Tony Ellis, a member of the symphony's trumpet section.

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Out of the bean fields

The center today includes Segerstrom Hall, the 2,000-seat Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall — a $240-million project that opened in 2006 and also houses the Samueli Theater — and the future site of the Orange County Museum of Art.

The various pieces of land that went into assembling the complex, as well as the neighboring but separate South Coast Repertory Theater Co., were parceled out of the Segerstrom family's lima bean fields as gifts to promote the arts.

The site near where the San Diego (405) Freeway intersects with the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway was one of 19 locations across Orange County considered for the OCPAC project, which, among its earlier names, was called the Orange County Music Center. According to Times archives, the locations included Santa Ana, Irvine and Newport Beach.

It so happened that during the early- to mid-1970s, the Irvine Co., the developer behind Fashion Island and much of the city of Irvine, had considered giving some land in Newport Center for the building of a music center.

But that deal eventually fell through. The Irvine Co. had attached certain conditions, which Music Center advocates apparently could not meet, according to reports from the period.

A Times article from September 1972 noted that these conditions included demonstrating a need for such a center and providing "responsible long-range plans for its development and expansion."

In addition, feasibility studies showed that Newport Beach would not be suitable for such a center, according to information from the Segerstrom Center.

Ruth Ding, a private piano teacher who joined the Music Center movement in the 1970s and chairwoman of the Sept. 23 gala, said it was difficult to get people to donate money until a piece of land had been secured.

"The big money started to come in once the site was announced," the Laguna Niguel resident said.

The pivotal moment came after Elaine Redfield, of Fullerton, discovered the site in question.

She is the O.C. woman who led the Music Center movement and was widely credited for being the first to approach South Coast Plaza developer Henry T. Segerstrom with a request for an initial 5-acre land gift. Redfield, now 93, is to be honored at the gala but her health prevented her from being interviewed.

However, Ingrid Shutkin, a longtime friend of Redfield's, recalled accompanying her on a visit to the new South Coast Repertory Theater site in the '70s, when the bean fields were still there.

Shutkin remembered how her friend gazed at one of the fields outside South Coast Rep.

"Elaine was standing out there and she said, 'I wonder whether he [Henry Segerstrom] would donate that land for a performing arts center. I think I will write to him.' And, the next day, she wrote to him," Shutkin recalled.

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'A unanimous feeling'

As for the family whose 1979 land donation finally launched the performing arts center that now bears the family name, Henry T. Segerstrom said in a rare interview with Arts O.C. that the presence and success of South Coast Repertory — whose present site was also made possible thanks to a similar land grant from the Segerstroms — gave the OCPAC project impetus that persuaded donors to give dollars.

In response to a question about whether his family's decision to donate the land was in any way seen as commercially risky — or driven by business interests, given the site's proximity to South Coast Plaza — Segerstrom said the move was a purely philanthropic one.

"In retrospect I think it's quite a tribute to the Segerstrom family that there was a unanimous feeling that we should support the arts without reservation," he said in an interview at his Fairview Road offices in Costa Mesa.

In fact, Segerstrom revealed, the land on which the newer, serpentine and glassed-in Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall stands was originally slated for hotel development.

After Segerstrom Hall opened in the 1980s, Segerstrom said his company planned to build a hotel; they even hired famed architect I.M. Pei to design it. Plans for the hotel began in 1985 but were scrapped in 1989, according to records from C.J. Segerstrom & Sons.

"We were ready to go ahead with the construction when the national economy hit a bump and we had to give up the immediate prospect of a hotel," Segerstrom said.

It was at that time, Segerstrom said, "that the successes of the Orange County Performing Arts Center were so strong that the community wanted to have a separate concert hall, so we gave up our entitlements that established the value of the land to convey those same pieces of land to the performing arts center … "

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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