10/22/2013 11:53 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The WALLIS Opens to Great Acclaim!

Beverly Hills is a happening place, perhaps the most exciting small city in the country. Fifteen years ago I left the Wilshire corridor when rents became astronomical there and moved to a wonderful garden apartment in the heart of Beverly Hills, which I describe as "being two blocks from Neiman-Marcus," next to a cosmetic surgery building, across from a small hotel frequented by airline personnel, and a block from Beverly Hills High, the most exclusive high school in the nation with oil wells pumping on its football field. I can walk around the corner to a small Thai restaurant, Cool Basil, located in a parking lot on Linden. We have a fine police department under Chief David Snowden, an activist City Council led by Mayor John Mirisch (whose film family I have know for four decades). We just saw the start of the city's celebrating its 100th anniversary with a parade of horses on Rodeo Drive, the most affluent shopping street in the nation, akin to New York's Fifth Avenue but with constant sunshine and easy parking. (We recently wrote here on Huffington about the horse riding bridal path which ran down Sunset Boulevard to Rodeo Drive until 1965.) The city of 34,210 people features some of the finest eating places anywhere, from Wolfgang Puck's Spago and Cut to the Grill-on-the-Alley, Dragos' Il Pastaio and Piccolo Paradiso, along with some excellent Chinese eateries... Mr. Chow, Xi An, and the amazingly luxurious new Hakkasan.

Jamie Tisch, Wallis Annenberg, James Ferragamo at event. photo by Jay.

What we didn't have was a major cultural presence. Almost nothing, no bookstore anymore to no major movie theatre, certainly no large theater for live performances. Until now! About 15 years ago a small group of B.H. people led by former mayor Vicki Reynolds and Playboy's Richard Rosenzweig decided to try to rectify that situation... a woman named Lou Moore who had worked at the Geffen Playhouse before retiring, a retailer named Fred Hayman who was the face of luxury selling on Rodeo with his Giorgio, along with restaurateur-financier Jerry Magnin and philanthropist Paula Kent Meehan, as well as a handful of city officials and residents. But waiting in the wings was a new factor, a courageous (and wealthy) woman named Wallis Annenberg, an heir to the publishing fortune of her father, Walter Annenberg, and a vice chair of their family foundation. I have known the shy, reticent Wallis slightly over the years, and visited her BH home for a luncheon meeting. I have written several times about her wondrous founding of the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City and other acts of selfless giving. But the big kahuna was yet to come: her gift of $15 million in 2004 -- followed by another $10 million grant -- to begin the process of building a cultural center in Beverly Hills akin to the finest such in the nation. And last week it came to fruition... did it ever!

Annenberg family, photo by Annenberg Foundation

Lou Moore is the Executive Director.

Located in the heart of Beverly Hills, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (the Wallis) officially opened its doors with a series of galas. The official programming begins on November 8 with the Martha Graham Dance Company, an event which I will certainly attend. This new venue transforms a Beverly Hills city block facing Santa Monica Boulevard between Crescent and Canon Drive into a vibrant new cultural destination with two distinct elegant buildings, the historic 1933 Italianate-style Post Office and the new, contemporary 500-seat state-of-the-art Bram Goldsmith Theatre. This latter structure has elicited a lot of controversy among my readers, with several questioning the façade with slits meant to memorialize all of the letters which flowed through the post office. It is Swiss Pearl, a fiber-reinforced concrete material that matches the original Post Office's terra cotta architecture. Some felt it should have been more akin to the style of the older building. Hell, no, I love the modern-looking façade and think in years to come people will certainly appreciate the intellect behind such an audacious front.

The Grand Hall on opening night. photo by jay.

WPA postoffice mural by Charles Kassler. photo by jay

These two structures embrace the city's history, its past (the post office) and its future (the theatre), creating a wonderful new cultural landmark in our fair city. They've kept the bare bones of the treasured post office (now called the Paul Meehan Historic Building, due to her $5 million gift), with its marbled walls, vaulted ceilings, and refurbished murals, but existing spaces are reimagined into a 150-seat Lovelace Studio (no, not that Lovelace!), a theatre school for young people opening in 2014, as well as a cafe and a gift shop. The familiar entrance, which closed as a postoffice in March, 1999, has become The Grand Hall, a very impressive lobby that is the starting point for all of us to gather new memories inside the distinctive buildings. I was told that 24,000 terra cotta roof tiles had been removed and reinstalled because of waterproofing. The buildings are surrounded by lush intimate courtyards, a sunken Jamie Tisch sculpture garden, and a promenade event terrace. There's a subterranean three-level parking garage operated by the city.

Entrance to Bram Goldsmith Theatre,

Bram and Elaine Goldsmith donated $5 million for the theatre. photo by jay

Lou Moore told me at the Friday event that the WALLIS will be a home for artists from around the world and audiences of every age. She emphasized to me that this was a center for all of Los Angeles, not just us lucky BevHills folk. I told her that the Natalie Cole concert that evening in the Bram Goldsmith Theatre demonstrated to me that it was the single most exciting theatre of that size I had ever seen. Incredible, with its high ceiling and amazing acoustics. Since I wear hearing aids, I was excited to learn that it is the first theatre on the West Coast to feature an Induction Coil sound system, so that sound is sent directly to our own aids instead of requiring borrowed ones. They even have a soundproof room in the back for families with kids and special needs. It was made possible by an initial gift of $5 million from Bram and Elaine Goldsmith. (Editor's note: I bank at his City National Bank, and take pride in all of their public spirit.) Ginny Mancini and I were walking through the main building on Friday evening and we spotted an elegant smallish room fitted out with wood paneling and leather couches, a quiet haven in a hectic world. I later learned that it was the David Bohnett Founders Room, named for our friend and former chair of the L.A. Phil. It was once the office of the postmaster, and will be a used for major donors, VIP guests and private events.

The David Bohnett Founder's Room photo by jay

The beautiful Ginny Mancini at the opening. photo by jay

At the dinner on Friday, I had occasion to meet the architect, Zoltan E. Pali, who is a Los Angeles native. He and Renzo Piano are also designing the Academy's new film Museum, and I complimented him on the imagination which everyone has demonstrated to make this center beyond-the-ordinary in every way. As I mentioned, the first event at the new center will be the Graham dance company on Nov. 8th and 9th. That will be followed by the play, Parfumerie, by Miklos Lazlo, from Nov. 26th to Dec. 22nd. I remember that this is the play, about sparring employees at a shop who unknowingly are writing love letters to each other; it inspired the musical, She Loves Me, and the films, "The Shop Around the Corner" and its remake, "You've Got Mail" As a special program accompanying it, , they will have an exhibition on perfume entitled "Timeless Scents", a history of iconic scents through the ages.

The WALLIS will be a must see for all visitors to our city, as well as a focus for all residents of L.A. and their children. I am a fierce believer in indoctrinating children at a young age in the theatrical arts, in music and dance, and with this new center we have a way to further that vital task. As Wallis once said, "The performing arts are the single most direct expression of human feeling and emotion. They are the one realm of human endeavor that reaches beyond our differences, our preconceptions, to engage and astonish us." Yes, I am fortunate to be a resident of such a forward-thinking community. Now if only they would fill the pothole in front of my house...

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