01/25/2011 04:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

From Bean Field to Bonanza: Name Change for Orange County's Performing Arts Center to Segerstrom

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Actress Jacqueline Bisset with two Russian dancers from Bolshoi Ballet

"You'll be driving down to the event in a limo with actress Jacqueline Bisset," said high-powered p.r. lady Caroline Graham. That's an offer that no red-blooded male on earth would refuse. So I found myself on the way from Los Angeles to the city of Costa Mesa, about an hour and a half down the 405 Freeway. The event was supposed to be a secret, but in the car I had wrestled it out of Miss Graham...the Orange County Performing Arts Center was being renamed The Segerstrom Center for the Arts. It just so happens that I had been collecting lots of random information over the years about this rather extraordinary philanthropic 'farmer,' Henry Segerstrom, and now I would have an opportunity to show off. As we drove, I told the bemused Miss Bisset about how the Segerstrom family had immigrated from Sweden to Orange County in 1898 via St. Paul, Minnesota, and acquired a thousand acres of barren farmland, which they planted in lima beans. (Lima beans? I thought they came in cans.)
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Gov. Schwarzenegger giving Governor's ring to Henry Segerstrom.

Young Henry grew up during the depression of the 30's and entered Stanford University in 1940 at the age of 17. But the need for Army artillery officers was desperate, and in 1944 the Second Lieutenant was sent off to Europe, where he was gravely wounded by shrapnel, received a Purple Heart, and spent the next two years in military hospitals while earning his undergraduate degree and then an MBA from Stanford in 1948. He returned to the family farming business, but after the Santa Ana Freeway opened the land became even more valuable for development, and Henry and family started a management and real estate company, C,J. Segerstrom and Sons, of which he is now managing partner. The first major accomplishment was the creation in 1967 of the South Cost Plaza, one of the world's most ambitious and successful shopping centers. Never been? It's fabulous, lots of luxury outlets, great stores and good food, all overseen by a dynamic woman named Debra Gunn Downing. The Cartier boutique there supplied their named champagne for the party this night, served from crystal bottles that sell for $1250. In France, if you can find it.

Cartier Champagne
Rare Cartier champagne from France was served from its crystal bottles.

Huffington readers know that I am an architecture buff, so I relish just being here. Brilliant architect Cesar Pelli worked at Gruen early on and formed an association with Henry which would prove to be enormously productive and astonishing...the stainless-steel Plaza Tower is his, along with the SCP mall renovation and the new Henry and Renee Segerstrom Concert Hall, a 2000-seat, $200 million state-of-the-art showpiece, adjoining to the Segerstrom Hall seating some 3,000, and the South Coast Repertory Theatre. It was the latter which kicked off this amazing 14-acre development, a worthy companion to New York's Lincoln Center and Washington's Kennedy Center.

The story of how the family sat around a kitchen table with community leaders at the family homestead on Fairview Road in the early 70's and agreed to provide the initial land grant and $6 million funding for the South Coast Repertory theatre is legendary. Former Gov. Arnold Schwartzenneger referred to it this night, while giving Henry a duplicate of his Governor's ring. This amazing cultural center will be augmented one day soon with the opening of the Orange County Art Museum (moving from Newport) on additional land donated by the family.
Jackie Bisset snapping a photo
Jackie Bisset on the other side of a camera!!

Henry and wife Elizabeth have worked mightily to make this center a home for all of the performing arts, especially dance and specifically ballet. Tonight, Jackie Bisset and I had the pleasure of meeting two leading dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet who are performing here this week, Natalie Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. And Elizabeth Segerstrom told us that they have commissioned a new ballet for the Bolshoi which will debut here in October 2012 starring these two dancers. With the upcoming 25th anniversary of the center, I was touched by the family's gesture of offering 10,000 "Access to All" tickets at $10 apiece for everyone to attend the various upcoming events, thIs on top of the 14 acres and some $150 million already given since that kitchen table discussion in 1974. (And don't forget the 66-foot Richard Serra sculpture, "Connector," on the plaza, which Henry commissioned.) The evening ended with a $100,000 fireworks display, but my fireworks were internal, spending an evening with the lovely Miss Bisset.