The Rene and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall opened last Friday. You may have read about it in The Orange County Register, Los Angeles Times, OC Metro, Riviera and Coastmagazines over the past few weeks, a breathy and consistent buildup revolving around the notion that the hall would announce Orange County's entrance onto the international cultural stage. A KCRW two-part documentary celebrated the hall as "The Best of Everything" and "A Magical Milestone." (One milestone that may take magic to reach is the hall's $200 million price tag. Though Segerstrom doubled his original donation of $20 million, fund-raising efforts have fallen $50 million short.)
For reporters who work outside the area, the hall's opening provided an opportunity to indulge in regional stereotypes and overarching images of parachute journalism. Think vanished orange groves, ultra-tanned surfers and Republicans. But what do real Orange County residents think about the hall?
I put it to Diane Limpizano of Costa Mesa: What does the Rene and Henry Segerstrom Hall meanto you?
"I don't know what that is," said Diane Limpizano of Costa Mesa. "What is that?" Though we had been told the hall's significance would span continents, it had escaped Limpizano, who was shopping at the Lab in Costa Mesa, about a mile south of the hall. Limpizano had never heard of it. Neither had Sheree Tamlin of Fullerton or Kevin Robrigado of Chino Hills. ("So when you think about culture and Orange County, what comes to mind?" "The beach.") Let's ask Beth Stanley of Bakersfield. ("This is our first time in Orange County." "Whattaya think?" "It's nice.")
Rich Basile of Laguna Hills said he had never heard of the hall, but "I like the name."
Because he admires Henry Segerstrom? Because he admires Segerstrom's most famous creation, South Coast Plaza?
"No, because I grew up in Fountain Valley and we used to race on Segerstrom [Avenue]," he said. "I had a super beetle. Yeah, that was a lot of fun."
* * *
Less than a block up the street, Richard Meredith was holding a sign in the shape of a giant arrow with "Liquor Beer!" written on it. Meredith does this two hours a day, seven bucks an hour, for the convenience store across the street. "Pocket change," he says, so that he can follow his real passion, working with a local organization called Christian Volunteers that gets food to local soup kitchens. He lives just a block from where he stood. He'd never heard of the hall.
"It's just more stuff that's making the county too crowded," said Meredith, who was born and raised in Santa Ana. Now that he had heard about it, did he think the hall would have a big effect on Orange County's reputation?
"Ah, who cares? That's for them," he said, waving his hand up the road. "You know what I'm thinking about? I've been at [Santa Ana's] Catholic Worker in the morning, early, like 6 a.m. And I've walked around and seen the people asleep. And all you can see, because people cover themselves up from the cold, are the feet. And every time I'm there, I see more and more little feet. Kids. That's what I'm thinking about. Little feet."
* * *
On opening night, a parade of feet, shiny and bejeweled, made their way up the red carpet that led to the front of the Segerstrom Hall. There was a lot of money walking up that carpet, yet the whole thing played out like a sad sendup of the Academy Awards. Local journalists and broadcasters gazed at the gowns and tuxedos that sauntered by, some—most—slower than the next. It was an old crowd, and there was much hunching and flakiness making its way up that carpet, and the old line "I've seen younger faces on cash" popped to mind. The old men were either accompanied by younger trophy wives or wives their own age, many of whom had stretched faces that seemed void of emotion, the face lift(s) imposing on them a kind of composed tension, like the Golden Gate Bridge.
It was an interesting crowd in that there was a lot of money but many had made it in the manly areas of development and construction and thus bore the air of regular folk. The men in their tuxedos all had the unmistakable mark of men supremely aware of wearing tuxedos. On the other hand, they all seemed totally comfortable considering the food on the trays of the servers who were walking around without considering the servers themselves.
These aren't just rich people, these are movers and shakers. The kind of people who get things done, who get area-defining concert halls built, give or take $50 million. Still, the closest anyone came to celebrity was one guy, a photographer it turns out, with a scruffy beard and porkpie hat who had a Kevin Federline vibe going on, unintentionally we can only . . . FUCK IS THAT ANJELICA HUSTON!? It is! Anjelica Fucking Huston! She's here with her husband, the artist Robert, Robert, I can't remember his last name, but he's the guy who created the huge gold doors that adorn the entrance of Our Lady Queen of Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles. I walked up to him and asked—him being an artist and all—what he thought of the building, making sure to keep my back to Anjelica to prove that I wasn't impressed with that celebrity crap or the fact that she looked magnificent in her white gown and downy regal air. "So," I asked Robert, "whattaya think?"
"It's nice," he said.
I told him that LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne had called the design safe, and that the hall's wavy glass exterior reminded him of a luxury-car showroom.
"What does he know?"
I told him that George Zagner, an engineer, and his wife, Ursula, both originally from Poland, had said they thought the area could do with a few trees, "something organic," that the hall was "very nice" but "too sterile" and "has no soul."
"What does he know?" Robert said.
* * *
Okay then, what does Robert really think about this?
"I like it, it's nice."
"What do I know?"
Pain in the ass? Sure. But very cool. Robert What's-His-Name is my new role model. By the way, I'm lying about not knowing his last name. It's Graham. Robert Graham. I know this because I went to the event's PR staff and asked about his last name. One woman immediately got on the walkie-talkie and asked, "What's Anjelica Huston's husband's last name?" There was a pause, and then someone on the other end said, "Anjelica Huston's here?"
Then it was time to actually go in the hall. The concert hall itself is far more magnificent than the outside. Undulating lines, pale wood offset by red chairs, it's gorgeous. The Pacific Symphony played and was in fine form—like I would know—on their own and when playing with the evening's featured performer, Placido Domingo, who, I don't care what anyone says, can sing.
By the time the orchestra was halfway through a Mahler symphony, my stomach had begun to eat itself. I hadn't eaten since noon and it was now around 9 and I had an empty stomach because I had refused the crab puffs from the servers, with whom I made consistent eye contact and asked how they were, so now, hungry and tired, I alternated between blacking out, dozing off and hallucinating. Of the last, the only one I can remember was a rather mundane scenario involving Anjelica Huston putting on her makeup in the car on the ride over.
It was about this time that the buzzing in my head started. Low at first, but consistent and louder. I found out later that everyone could hear the omnipresent hum caused by a surge arrester that went off when workers outside the hall were powering up the equipment necessary for the post-concert festivities. Those festivities proved that rich folk get just as geeked up for fireworks as any 8-year-old kid, as they ooohed and aaahed the pyrotechnics.
So what did it all mean?
"It means we're having a wonderful time," said one lady kinda doing a little mambo all by herself.
The rich couples were now busy making their way over to the party tent or having their pictures taken in those rich-people-at-benefit poses you see. A couple walked by one photographer and his colleague. "Wait," the colleague shouted at them, pausing for effect. "I'm from Riviera."
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"Ooooooh," the couple squealed and quickly got in line to have their pictures taken in front of the hall, which shone and sparkled. It looked very nice.
* * *
The following morning my daughter asked me where I'd been the previous night. I showed her the front page of the LA Times and its picture of a lit-up Segerstrom Hall. My daughter is extremely artistic, so I asked her what she thought.
"Mmmm," she said. "It's nice."