When in 1981 the Orange County Music Center officially changed its name to the Orange County Performing Arts Center, architectural plans were unveiled for a new performing arts center.
Charles E. Lawrence, of Caudill, Rowlett, Scott Architects (CRS), were chosen together with A. Harold Marshall, Dennis Paoletti, and Jerald R. Hyde to design the acoustics. The contractor, C.L. Peck, announced that he would build the Center without taking a profit. The asymmetrical design of the building would have an advanced acoustical system and excellent sight-lines.
The multipurpose theater was constructed in concrete and clad in red granite. The stone selected was Napoleon Red Swedish granite, quarried from a single striation of stone in Malmo, Sweden. From the quarry, the blocks of stone were shipped to Italy, where they were cut, polished, and honed to reveal a subtle gray hue. Henry visited both Swedish and Italian locations to examine the stone and the process. Years later, on the 350th anniversary of the first Swedish colony in America, The King and Queen of Sweden, after visiting the historic colony in Maryland, accepted an invitation by Henry and Renée to visit Costa Mesa and Segerstrom Hall with its Swedish red granite cladding. Henry presented them with a small red granite replica of the grand portal of the Hall.
One year before the performing arts center opened, Henry Segerstrom arranged for Len Bedsow to join the building project in order to supervise the acousticians, architects, and contractors as well as to help raise money for the new Center. Bedsow was known for his unwavering vision for the multipurpose theater, determined to prevent the facility from becoming an expensive community theater. For the management and artistic direction of the Center, Thomas Kendrick and Judy Morr left their positions at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, to lead the Orange County center into the future.
The vision of the Center’s founders became fully realized on September 29, 1986, when the Orange County Performing Arts Center opened for the first time. The soprano Leontyne Price inaugurated the Center, singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ along with Zubin Mehta conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The Orange County Performing Arts Center is one of the nation’s most innovative and technically advanced structures for the performing arts. Its 3,000-seat multipurpose theater designed with a proscenium stage was named Segerstrom Hall the year it opened. It was only the second full-scale opera house in California. The first was the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center built in 1964, was actually built for Broadway musicals. In fact, the gridirons of Segerstrom Hall are nineteen feet higher than those of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. A Founders’ Hall was designed as a versatile black box-style space suitable for many purposes and occasions, with a 65-foot-wide room and a 26-foot-wide raised stage. Multiple staging and seating configurations were possible for performance, rehearsals, cocktail gatherings, meetings, seminars, and special events.
The Performing Arts Center is Orange County’s largest nonprofit arts organization and built entirely through private funding. The Center revised its bylaws in 1987 to merge its board of trustees with the board of directors, naming Henry T. Segerstrom as president and chief operating officer. He served for three years, guiding the Center’s achievements and consistent artistic successes, and establishing it as a valuable cultural resource for the entire community. Its international programming, that included performances of the Royal Ballet of London, with Rudolf Nureyev in a minor role, the Grand Kabuki, and operas by Gilbert and Sullivan, has earned the Center a reputation as one of the leading presenters of dance and music, bringing award-winning musicals from Broadway and some of the world’s most important classical, jazz, and cabaret artists to Orange County. Beverly Sills even proclaimed that the Orange County Performing Arts Center was her home away from home.
Talk of a multipurpose facility or concert hall in Orange County can be traced as far back to 1946, when Catherine Quick, a Santa Ana resident, approached Santa Ana officials about building a music center on surplus military property. Nothing came of the notion and serious interest was slow to develop. In 1954 the Orange County Philharmonic Society was founded to present visiting orchestras, a mission made difficult by the absence of an acoustically adequate hall. In 1965 a group in nearby Fullerton considered building a major performing arts center there, but found the project economically unfeasible. Prospects for a cultural center were also studied for Newport Beach, in 1970, but the studies showed a lack of community financial support for a performing arts center.
The focus swung back to Santa Ana, where the business community leader’s crusade for a music center started up again. A small group of citizens formed a community orchestra with aspirations for creating a multipurpose hall for the performing arts. The orchestra played in the various college and local high school auditoriums. As it was looking for a permanent home and advancing its fund-raising profile, the organization took the name, The Orange County Music Center.
In May 1979, the Orange County Music Center’s new president, Elaine Redfield of Fullerton, who was also a board member of the South Coast Repertory Theater Company, approached Henry Segerstrom about another possible donation of land. She had been spearheading the search for a site to build a facility for the Orange County Music Center for many years, publicizing nineteen prospective locations, from the University of California at Irvine to a ten-acre gift of land in Orange. None were deemed suitable. Other community leaders agreed that it was finally time for the public to have a world-class performing arts venue. The region’s population had by then grown to almost two million residents, businesses were building their headquarters in Orange County, and major educational institutions were being established.
The South Coast Repertory Theater Company conducted a study, examining the residential locations of their season ticket purchasers. 50 percent of their audience turned out to live north of the San Diego Freeway and 50 percent lived south. Len Bedsow, once head of the Civic Light Opera in Los Angeles had thoroughly studied his audience and its preferences as well. He determined that 35% of the audience for the Los Angeles opera company came from Orange County. Additionally, three of the county’s existing arts organizations—the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, the Pacific Symphony, and the Pacific Chorale—needed a concert hall with seating and acoustics appropriate for both their needs and the caliber of their artists. The time seemed right for the creation of such a cultural institution.
Without hesitation, and with great enthusiasm, Henry, his uncle Harold, and his mother Ruth Segerstrom, agreed to donate five prime acres of land adjacent to the South Coast Repertory Theater as well as to provide a cash gift of one million dollars to launch the effort. The Segerstroms believed that a state-of-the-art performing arts center and the fund-raising campaign that would be required to build it could unite diverse geographic, social, economic, and political constituencies, thus permanently encouraging both a high level of philanthropy and a position of prominence for the arts within the region. The request for land presented an opportunity for the Segerstrom family—which had been part of the community for nearly ninety years—to make a contribution of lasting value, one that would represent the family’s dedication to Orange County for generations.
For Elaine Redfield and her colleagues, accepting the land gift was contingent upon parking availability for the visitors to the performing arts center. Accordingly she requested that the Segerstrom family secure a commitment from the city of Costa Mesa for a parking structure. The Segerstroms agreed and strove to get the city’s cooperation but ultimately it rejected the proposal for a parking structure. In order to justify building a car park for use by audiences of the Performing Arts Center, the city did agree however, to entitlement for the Segerstroms to build an office building sized to support the needs of the Performing Arts Center garage. Ultimately agreement was obtained but the negotiations were lengthy and complex. This entitlement allowed for eventual construction of Center Tower, a 21-story office building.
Henry Segerstrom was asked to take on two roles in the development of the Center: fundraising and leadership, and later serving as the first chairman of the operating entity. In 1980, when plans for the Center were just beginning, Henry agreed to serve as chairman of the trustees. The core of the fundraising efforts revolved around eleven dedicated trustees. Their joint activities were successful in raising funds and securing pledges that ultimately covered the entire cost of the building project by opening night. Henry describes the thrilling moment when he stood before the first audience on that opening evening, as chairman of the trustees to announce to 3000 people celebrating that evening that the hall was completely paid for. He received a standing ovation.
“He [Henry Segerstrom] is a man with vision, a man of determination, and a man of taste. You see all of that in the Performing Arts Center.”
–Thomas Kendrick, First President of the Performing Arts Center