side orders

Touring L.A.'s Mouse House

Sunday, March 7, 2004

Downtown Los Angeles before the Walt Disney Concert Hall: Empty, bleak, why go?

Downtown L.A. after: Striking architecture, illuminating tours, go.

Before the hall's opening in October, the Bunker Hill area was known for little beyond the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the former red-carpet site of the Academy Awards (even Oscar fled, returning to Hollywood a few years ago). Otherwise, its streets were as forlorn as an abandoned movie set.

But now the region is deserving of a second glance. Joining Frank Gehry's silvery hall is the Lego-like Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, as well as revitalization projects that include million-dollar hotel renovations, designer restaurants and art galleries. As for the Gehry building -- pardon us, the Walt Disney Concert Hall -- it is worthy of its own visit, even when its residents, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Master Chorale, are not playing.

"There's no nightlife downtown; people have to drive for it," explained a guide during a free Symphonian Music Center Tour that includes the lobby of the Disney Concert Hall, among other sights. "But we want to create this area as a center of the city, develop it as a sort of cultural center. And the Walt Disney Concert Hall is part of it."

The concert hall joins the Chandler Pavilion (multipurpose facility), Ahmanson Theater (touring companies) and Mark Taper Forum (contemporary American dramas) in the great hulk known as the Music Center, which takes up a full side of Grand Avenue. (The complex also includes the new REDCAT, a theater and art gallery around the corner.)

But the Disney Concert Hall stands apart: It not only sits across the street from its compatriots, but it thrills like a rock show, while the other buildings are as exciting as lite FM.

The center's pull was immediate. Twenty thousand folks showed up in November, when the slapdash tours were 15 minutes long and covered only the second and third floors of the five-level building. In December, more than 6,700 visitors took the expanded 45-minute audio tour, and the holiday weeks were sold out. On a brisk January weekend, the building was thrumming with people dining in the cafe, perusing the gift shop, snapping photos and bumping into each other, oblivious to the world outside their headsets.

The tour's not perfect, as many of the floors are off-limits. Mainly, you can see the swooping stainless-steel exterior, often likened to a floating ghost ship; the airy lobby, with its sky-high glass doors that retract in warm weather; and the two-tiered outdoor garden, with a children's theater, flower beds and a giant rose fountain made of Delft china fragments (a nod to Walt's wife, Lillian, who adored fine-dining pieces). There's also a gift shop and a cafe.

Oddly, the 2,265-seat auditorium is only for the eyes of concert-goers.

"We can't go into the auditorium?" questioned a dumbfounded woman to the young man distributing the audio guides. He shook his head no. "But isn't that where the concerts are held? Isn't that the point?"

It is, but still no luck -- especially bad since the hall was dark that weekend, so you couldn't even buy a ticket. There is, however, a model of the venue outside the Chandler Pavilion. And enterprising visitors, or at least those who are hungry, can find two flat-screen TVs in the cafe that display live images of the hall and even the performance -- unless someone changes the station, as a security guard did during my visit (to a football game).

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