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From bean fields to ballet: Segerstrom Center celebrates 25 years

The arts complex in Costa Mesa helped transform the county from a 'cultural desert' between L.A. and San Diego to a place where world-class performers come.

September 28, 2011|By Imran Vittachi

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.

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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.

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