Front page: Curtain falling on Ambassador Auditorium?

This article is reprinted by permission from The Pasadena Star-News of Dec. 22. Its original headline: "Curtain Falling on the Ambassador Auditorium? Music Lovers Rally to Save Hall From Wrecking Ball." It concerns the centerpiece of the property of the Worldwide Church of God, which until 1990 was also the site of the original campus of Ambassador College.

By Cindy Chang

PASADENA, Calif.--The 32-acre grounds of the Ambassador College campus have the air of an immaculately kept ghost town.

The sweeping lawns stay green and trimmed, and the turn-of-the-century mansions are spotless, but the campus has stood mostly empty since the early 1990s, when Ambassador College closed and the Ambassador Auditorium stopped holding performances.

The mansions will remain standing, but the financially strapped Worldwide Church of God plans to turn the rest of the grounds into a residential complex of between 1,465 and 1,525 units.

A key question now is whether the Ambassador Auditorium will succumb to the wrecking ball. The church says it will demolish the auditorium and build additional housing on the site unless auditorium proponents can come up with the funds to purchase it.

"I want people to understand that [saving the auditorium] is our emotionally preferred option, but it's our legally secondary option," said Bernard Schnippert, the church's director of finance and planning.

Stranger things

Even some of the auditorium's ardent supporters say they are pessimistic about whether money can be found to foot a purchase price that some put as high as $22 million.

"I'm not terribly optimistic, but stranger things have happened," said Carol Henry, cochair of the board for Ambassador Hall. "It's such a wonderful auditorium that it's hard to imagine something isn't going to happen to save it. But at this point it's a long shot, and the window of opportunity only gets shorter."

Pasadena city officials said that, in light of the state budget crunch, there is little chance that the city could come through with any financial assistance.

Even before the economic downturn, the city showed little inclination to allocate funds toward purchase of the auditorium, said city manager Cynthia Kurtz.

Mayor Bill Bogaard called the auditorium "a crown jewel for Pasadena because of the caliber of programming it hosted," but said the city doesn't have the financial resources to help purchase the hall.

"We'd love to step forward and save it, but it's just not within the city's budget," Mr. Bogaard said.

The Ambassador Auditorium is famed for its acoustics, which some have likened to those of Carnegie Hall. Like Carnegie, the Ambassador's relatively small size makes it particularly well suited for solo recitals and chamber groups.

From its opening in 1974 to its closing in 1995, the Ambassador hosted a world-class roster of performers, among them Luciano Pavarotti, Vladimir Horowitz and Ella Fitzgerald, and was the home base of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra.

"It's probably acoustically the best hall west of the Mississippi," said Ruth Eliel, the L.A. Chamber Orchestra's executive director. The hall's destruction would be "a real crime," she said.

Fanatical devotion

Fanatically devoted church members contributed tens of millions of dollars to purchase the campus grounds and build the auditorium during the church's heyday in the 1950s and '60s.

The church, its ranks decimated after the death of founder Herbert Armstrong and doctrinal disagreements within the leadership, has been trying to sell the property for years.

A plan to sell to a Northern California firm, Legacy Partners, fell through earlier this year. That plan called for Legacy to donate the auditorium to the city. A nonprofit corporation would have managed the auditorium and raised funds to create an endowment.

Funds for the purchase price of the auditorium would have been raised by taxing the residents of the new development.

If the auditorium is to be saved, proponents say, that salvation will likely come from a small core of wealthy donors, or perhaps even a single donor.

Maybe artists could rally

"Whatever enables this space to reopen will be a major effort and take some fairly well-connected, committed, passionate donors," said Terry LeMoncheck, executive director of the Pasadena Arts Council.

Prominent artists who have performed in the hall and remember its acoustics fondly might be marshaled to rally support for the hall, as when Isaac Stern and other artists helped raise funds to renovate Carnegie Hall, Ms. Henry said.

Some auditorium supporters mentioned the bond issue on residents in the new development as a possible solution that might be revived. But city officials have objected to plans that would apply the bond money toward the purchase of the auditorium. Bond money raised through a "Community Facilities District" should be earmarked only for infrastructure improvements like building sidewalks and gutters, they pointed out.

Once the auditorium is purchased, the Board for Ambassador Hall, which currently has about 20 members--many of them with extensive experience in fund-raising and the arts--would take charge of managing the auditorium and raising funds for operating expenses.

Ms. Henry estimated that maintaining the property alone would cost about $350,000 a year, with total operating expenses approaching $1 million annually.

Although the overall tone among supporters was one of pessimism, Pasadena does have a vibrant arts community and a pool of wealthy philanthropists who might come through to save the auditorium.

"If anyone can do it, Pasadena can do it," Ms. Henry said. "I think it's possible. I do think it's possible."

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