A Community Celebrates 14

Segerstrom Center for the Arts 
Launches its 30th Anniversary Celebration

September 29, 1986 is the date that changed everything for the performing arts in Orange County. The county officially celebrated the opening of its own performing arts center. 
Originally called the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the new Center’s 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall was packed on opening night to hear Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform, along with the county’s two master chorales–Master Chorale of Orange County and Pacific Chorale–as well as acclaimed soprano Leontyne Price and actor James Whitmore’s narrated performance of Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait.

What followed was remarkable. The Center’s Broadway and dance series were sold out, as were performances for each of the Center’s artistic partners–Philharmonic Society of Orange County, Pacific Symphony, Opera Pacific, and the two chorales. People became educated in the arts, some having never attended a musical performance. Los Angeles Times music critic Martin Bernheimer’s acid reviews mocking audiences clapping during symphony movements were constant, but, no matter, we moved on and ultimately garnered national acclaim as the Center expanded its programming and its size to multiple performance venues.

How It Began

The dream of a “music center” began with arts lover Catherine Quick in 1972 when, through her efforts, fundraising began for what was labeled the Orange County Cultural Center. Fundraising shifted into a higher gear when in 1974, the Christmas Candlelight Concert was launched in a vacant Kresge five-and-dime store in Orange, with Carmen Dragon and the Glendale Symphony and the Master Chorale of Orange County and Trinity United Presbyterian Chancel Choir performing an evening of beloved holiday classics. With no electricity, candlelight was de rigueur, thus the event’s name. The newly-named Orange County Music Center, with Chairman Tom Moon at the helm, drew much-needed media attention for the cause.

After more than 20 potential sites for the center were considered, in 1979, arts activist Elaine Redfield urged Henry Segerstrom and his family to consider donating a site for the arts complex. Within a few months, the Segerstrom family donated a five-acre parcel across the street from the family’s South Coast Plaza shopping center. In addition, the family gave a $1 million incentive grant, followed less than two years later by a $5 million challenge grant.

With Henry Segerstrom named chairman of the OCMC in 1980, the drive to raise funds for the $73.8 million capital campaign to build a large, multi-purpose concert hall was underway. By opening night, a very generous community had completely funded the now-named Orange County Performing Arts Center, and, with Thomas Kendrick and Judith Morr, both former head execs at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center, leading the way, the performing arts in Orange County exploded.

The Next Steps

Talks began in 1988 to design and construct a concert hall, but it wasn’t until 2003 that groundbreaking took place, thanks to a $40 million naming gift from Henry and his late wife Renée Segerstrom toward the concert hall, a multi-use theater, an education center, public restaurant (Leatherby’s Café Rouge) and arts plaza.

Twenty years to the day–September 29, 2006–the $240 million, 2000-seat Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall opened with a performance starring celebrated tenor Plácido Domingo and Carl St. Clair conducting the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale. An unprecedented Mariinsky Festival followed featuring the esteemed Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra, Opera and Ballet performances. The 375-seat Samueli Theater, in recognition of a $10 million gift from the Henry Samueli Family Foundation, opened with a performance by Grammy Award winner Sheryl Crow.

Earlier in the Center’s 20th anniversary year, Henry and his wife Elizabeth Segerstrom unveiled the $10 million commissioned Richard Serra “Connector,” a towering work located on the plaza. It joined the “Fire Bird” indoor/outdoor  Richard Lippold sculpture at Segerstrom Hall, also donated by the generous family.

In 2011, in a gesture to the Segerstrom family’s extraordinary contributions, including the land for the 14-acre complex, which includes Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory and the future home of the Orange County Museum of Art, the Center was renamed Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

A New Era

With Kendrick and Morr retiring in 1993, followed by a short tenure with Tom Tomlinson and a nine-year stint by Jerry Mandel, Terry Dwyer came on the scene as center president and COO in 2006, six months prior to the concert hall opening. Dwyer’s prior experience as director of Houston’s Tony Award-winning Alley Theatre and as managing director of the Tony Award-winning La Jolla Playhouse, served him well.

“I thought to join a great institution such as this at a time of transition and dramatic growth was an incredible opportunity to make a difference in its future and to explore how it could further contribute to the quality of life in the community,” Dwyer says.

To help achieve his goals, Dwyer has launched three key initiatives and programs to redefine the Center as a civic resource, along with being a leading cultural and educational resource to Orange County’s diverse communities.

The Center for Dance & Innovation initiative will offer a wide range of programs connecting the Center to the community, including its flagship, the American Ballet Theatre William J. Gillespie School, which opened in 2015 and is an expansion of the 30-year relationship between ABT and Segerstrom Center. It is housed in the Judy Morr Theater, named for the longtime dance aficionado and executive vice president, who returned to the Center in 1996 after her brief retirement in 1993.

The Center Without Boundaries initiative is creating innovative civic practice-focused partnerships between Center and non-cultural community organizations, such as Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Alzheimer’s Orange County, Camp Pendleton, and El Centro Cultural de Mexico.

The third initiative, which involves the transformation of the arts plaza situated between the Center’s two main halls into a cultural town center for all of Orange County, is called the Julianne and George Argyros Plaza, thanks to the philanthropic couple’s $13.5 million gift. The 46,000-square-foot public space will provide a wide range of amenities as well as programs, all free, 30 to 40 weekends a year.

“The evolution of Segerstrom Center has allowed us not only to be defined by our world-class performances but also by our vast array of community engagement and educational programs on our Argyros Plaza and in locations throughout Orange County,” Dwyer says.

And, speaking of world-class performances at this internationally-renowned cultural destination, accolades abound for the Center’s programming and its acclaimed series–International Dance, Broadway, Cabaret, Chamber Music, Spotlight, Curtain Call, and Jazz Weekend. Also of note is the Family, Discovery and Explorer Series for children and special events, with such outstanding performers as Patti LuPone and Kathleen Battle scheduled.

Dwyer credits the Center’s board of directors for much of the success.

“The strength and compassion of the community leaders who comprise the board are probably the single most important factor of the continued success of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.”

It’s been a long road from Catherine Quick’s dream of a music center, but what a marvelous journey it’s been, thanks to the Segerstrom family and the thousands of arts supporters who have given their treasure, volunteer efforts and attendance at a myriad of performances. Hear! Hear!