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LA Music Center 50th Anniversary: Who was Dorothy Chandler?

On December 6, 1964 — 50 years ago this week — the Music Center opened. Home now to the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson Theater and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Music Center originally consisted of just one building: the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which still hosts music today.

Dorothy Chandler — born Dorothy Mae Buffum — was the wife of Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler. For almost 10 years she made the building of a concert hall in Downtown Los Angeles her driving cause: she lobbied politicians, spoke before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and solicited donations from her wealthy friends.

Chandler died in 1997, but among her many descendants is Harry Chandler, her grandson. Harry was there on opening day, and shared his memories of his grandmother with KPCC's Patt Morrison.

On Opening Day at the Music Center

As an 11 year old boy, I wasn't exactly thrilled by classical music, or long ceremonies. So, while I was very proud of Mama Buff — as we called her — it wasn't my finest and most fulfilling afternoon in my life. There were a lot of speeches. A lot of people I didn't know. I was seated front row on the aisle, so I couldn't — I had to behave.

Finally, the concert started. After about 20 minutes, I was kind of bored. And I had secreted in my coat pocket a little AM/FM radio. And so I discreetly put the little earphone on and tried to tune in to KRLA, which was the Pasadena rock station of the era. Unfortunately, the Pavilion was so well built that I could get no signal.

On being Dorothy Chandler's grandson 

I remember a lot about her personality. And then in later years, after her husband Norman passed away, I was her main escort [to the music center].

She was very regal. And that was her mannerisms. Even as a grandmother, she was not a grandma that put me on the knee and bounced me when I was a kid. Often, the only times we would see her during the year would be at the holidays.

And my two great memories of that are: we had finger bowls, which is the only place I've ever had finger bowls. So you had to wash your fingers before your meal. And then, she required all her grandkids, after the meal, to stand up one by one and make a toast!

On the Music Center's legacy, as Downtown LA expands its artistic reach

Look at Paris: what's the core of arts in Paris? The Louvre has been there for generations, but they have so many great new things. So I don't think it matters whether it's the core. Certainly, if you want to hear symphony, you come here. If you want to hear opera, if you want to watch great theater. To me it just kind of helped create the momentum by putting this building and this music center together.

On attending Music Center concerts with Dorothy Chandler

One of my special memories was with my grandmother, we went first to dinner. And at our table was Zubin [Mehta, the conductor and music director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic]. I had met him in passing, but never really had him for dinner. And he was conducting that night. So what was really great was to spend the whole evening dinner with him and then watch him go out on the stage. And of course we had those wonderful seats that Dorothy had. Somewhere, in that moment of bowing to the audience he tipped his head and looked up at us. He gave a little expression — that felt pretty great.

It was great. Zubin is a very interesting man, he's very cultured. But he was also very deferential to Mrs. C, as he called her. My wife was at that dinner, and during the course of the evening Mama Buff said something about women as a gender. It was kind of horribly outdated, what she said. I took it upon myself to say, "Well, I'm not sure modern women might agree with that statement."

Suddenly, she went cold. Dead cold. And she looked at me. I don't think someone had interrupted — not interrupted — someone had taken issue with her statement in quite a while. So during the whole performance, as much fun as it was watching Zubin conduct, she never looked at me. She never was warm. She was upset. And this continued all the way down to the parking garage. I drove her home — not a word, not even a look. 

My wife was smart enough to stay in the car while I walked her up to her front door. We rang the front door, and she had her back to me. I didn't know what to expect. And suddenly she turned around, and she was in tears. And she said: "Thank you. Only my grandson would have told me when I was wrong, and I appreciate that."

The Music Center celebrates its 50th anniversary with a handful of events. Check the Music Center's website for details and info.