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The Park – Walt and Lillian’s Musical Legacy


In 1964, the newly-built Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles was opened to much fanfare. It was the city’s crowning achievement, having lacked a modern concert hall for many years. Walt and Lillian Disney donated a wad of money to the project and were to be given a personal tour of the hall prior to dedication. I was the PR person for the park’s new “ambassador”, Miss Disneyland, and as such escorted her to the pre-dedication event. There was a bevy of Music Center execs there, along with the press, to greet Walt and Lillian and the photogenic Miss Disneyland.

The music director at the time was the young, Indian conductor Zubin Mehta. He was known for his fiery passion and diva-like temperament. Only 26 years old at the time, he was already considered a musical boy genius. To complete the picture, he usually dressed all in black. That, together with his swarthy dark complexion, made quite an impressive and dramatic presentation.

As part of the day’s tour, we were all ushered into the concert hall so that the Disneys could see where their dedicated seats were located, complete with their names in gold on the arms. Mehta was conducting a rehearsal on the stage, so the rest of the house was fairly dark. The execs were keen on showing off the beautiful new interior and were quite verbal. Suddenly, Mehta whirled around on the podium and faced the darkened hall and announced in a very loud and peeved voice “I can not work this way!!!!,” brandishing his baton at the faceless intruders. The 100-piece orchestra fell silent behind him, violins coming to a screeching descent and horns faded away. Little did this brash young man know that he was yelling at one of the hall’s biggest donors, and had he known, would he have cared? The execs froze for a moment. I was momentarily stunned at such an outburst. Miss Disneyland had gone pale with embarrassment. (To think that anyone would talk to The Walt Disney like that!) But Walt, knowing that he was not in his own “mouse house” but in Mehta’s house, wisely and quietly took Lillian by the arm and found the exit. Outside, the apologies were effusive and the Disneys were gracious in their acknowledgement that they had caused the stir.

Fast forward to 2003, when the architectural gem – Walt Disney Concert Hall – was opened across the street with the help of $50 million from Lillian and $25 million from The Walt Disney Company. It is considered to be one of the finest concert halls in the world. Designed by Frank Gehry, it is the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A recent PBS documentary made it clear that Gehry was among the least likely architects to win the competition for the hall, as his use of plain materials such as sheet metal and native wood in many of his creations wasn’t “elegant” enough to grace a performing hall for classical music. Gehry maintained that he wanted to emulate Walt’s apparent leaning toward populism, a kind of non-elitist, for-the-people philosophy. Classical music is for everyone. Apparently, Lillian and the rest of the family agreed with him.

Interestingly, today’s music director is another young, fiery conductor, one Gustavo Dudamel of Venezuela. Affectionately called “The Dude” in hip Los Angeles, Dudamel is just 32 years old and recognized internationally as a rising star, known for his eagerness to bring classical music in all of its forms to all of the people. The hall and “The Dude” are among the most generous gifts ever made to the City of Los Angeles – from the guy who was “ssh-ed” 40 years earlier at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion across the street.