Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Talking Old Hollywood: Linda Dishman, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Conservancy

Linda Dishman, Executive Director of the L.A. Conservancy. 
Photo by Gary Leonard.

Talking Old Hollywood is a regular series on Dear Old Hollywood where writers, filmmakers, fellow bloggers, artists, historians, or pretty much anyone who is interested in classic movies will have a chance to highlight projects they are working on, share a little of their background and discuss their interest in old Hollywood and classic movies.

This week Linda Dishman, the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, talks about everything from preservation, events organized by the L.A. Conservancy including classic movie screenings in historic theatres, to where you can have an old Hollywood style wedding.

Linda, what got you interested in preservation and how did you get involved with the Los Angeles Conservancy?

When I was young, we would visit my grandparents and aunts and uncles who lived about an hour away. On each trip, we would drive by the hospital where I was born. This sense of my parents celebrating something that was important to them (my birth) was meaningful and powerful, and it cemented for me the role that buildings have in telling stories.

I was familiar with the L.A. Conservancy when I lived and worked in Pasadena in the mid-1980s, and I even took several of the tours. I had worked in preservation at the local, state, and national levels of government, and I was ready to approach preservation from a different perspective when the Executive Director position was advertised. What I particularly liked about coming to the Conservancy was the combination of advocacy and educational efforts in saving the places that matter to Angelenos.

Are there any Los Angeles area buildings you are especially proud of that you were able to save?

I have to say that my favorite "win" is the former Cathedral of St. Vibiana (now known as Vibiana), which dates to 1876 and was designed by the first licensed architect in Los Angeles. It was one of our toughest, and ultimately most successful, preservation efforts. We didn't just prevent the building's demolition. We found a preservation-friendly buyer and brought in eleven architectural firms to create a new vision for the building so people could see the possibilities.

Saving Vibiana was a real turning point for the Conservancy. We were up against the entire power structure of the city,  including the Catholic Archdiocese who owned the building. In many ways it was a defining moment for us - a real "gut check" in terms of how hard we would fight to save an important building. Our work saving Vibiana also helped change people's attitudes toward the Conservancy and preservation, which is almost as important as saving the building itself. We stood up for this building, and people took notice.

Are there any Los Angeles buildings you wish could have been saved, but unfortunately lost the preservation battle?

I would say that our most disappointing loss is the Ambassador Hotel, which we spent two decades trying to save, including filing several lawsuits. We tried hard to adapt the hotel into a school for a school district that wanted a new building. When adaptive reuse was no longer an option, we shifted our plans...several times. We showed them how to build classrooms around the hotel building, and then how to turn the hotel into affordable housing. A developer is all about the bottom line, and we can often work with that and find a middle ground, but in this case, the school district steadfastly maintained that their need to tear it down was more important. There was just no getting around that.

Volunteer docent Randy Henderson leads one of the Conservancy's popular walking tours. Photo by Deissy Flores.

The Los Angeles Conservancy puts on many events and tours that the public can participate in. Can you tell us about those events/tours?

We've always had a twofold mission of advocacy and education, because raising awareness of historic places is essential to building support for their preservation. We have a very popular series of eight regular walking tours that explore various aspects of architecture in and around downtown L.A.

Each spring and fall, we also hold a one-time-only special tour to spotlight a particular geographic area, architect, style, or other topic. We often pair those events with panel discussions or other public programs to delve a little deeper into a topic. We also have important fundraising events, such as our annual Preservation Awards Luncheon that honors outstanding achievement in the field, as well as benefits at spectacular private homes.

And of course, our Last Remaining Seats series of classic films in historic theatres draws over 10,000 people each summer into the wonderful historic movie palaces of Los Angeles.

Linda Dishman welcoming guests to the 1930 Saban Theatre for a 2012 Last Remaining Seats screening. Photo by Larry Underhill.

Last Remaining Seats is one of my favorite events. Is there any possibility of that becoming a year round program?

Perhaps if our mission focused on historic theatres, but we work to preserve all types of historic places throughout Los Angeles County, so we have lots of other things to do! Last Remaining Seats won't be a year-round Conservancy program. But we are thrilled to see more organizations start to program these venues with classic films or other entertainment. That was one of the main goals of starting the series back in 1987 - to prove the viability of these theatres in drawing audiences today, even though it may take creative new types of programming.

Now that I have a young daughter, I'm already thinking of opportunities to expose her to Los Angeles history. Does the L.A. Conservancy have any events/activities that are good for families?

Absolutely. We offer versions of our Historic Downtown and Union Station walking tours tailored specifically for youth and families, and our website has a number of downloadable guides and activities for youth and families that are perfect any time. And our annual matinee features a classic family-friendly film.

One of the regular features on Dear Old Hollywood are posts showing filming locations for classic movies. Is there a classic movie or are there a few classic movies you enjoy because of the way Los Angeles is portrayed as a location?

Great question. They really run the gamut, from downtown in the great silent films of the 1910s and 1920s to the 1970s depiction of 1930s Los Angeles in Chinatown. Every single time I drive by the Archer School for Girls in Brentwood I think of Chinatown.

If you could travel back in time to another era of Los Angeles for a dinner and a movie date night, which L.A. restaurant would you eat at and which theatre would you see your movie?

Hands down, opening night of the Los Angeles Theatre would be an amazing time travel experience - everyone dressed to the nines, watching the premiere of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights and experiencing the Los Angeles Theatre for the first time.

Do you have a favorite "old Hollywood" restaurant or bar that is still around?

I love Musso and Frank. Not only does it look historic but the staff is so old school that you feel as though you have stepped back in time.

One question I get asked a LOT from people who are getting married is where they can have an old Hollywood style wedding. Are there any Los Angeles locations with "Hollywood" history that are available for weddings?

Oh yes - from the King Gillette Ranch in Malibu to Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills to a yacht once owned by John Wayne. We have dozens on our online list of historic sites available for special events.

Who can get involved in the Los Angeles Conservancy and what do they need to do? What kind of opportunities are there?

Anyone! There are lots of ways to get involved with the Conservancy, from becoming a member, to volunteering, to hosting a special event, to sharing their great photos of historic places, and more. Just visit our website for more information.

The Orpheum's Mighty Wurlitzer organ, the last remaining theatre organ on Broadway. Photo by Gary Leonard.

What's coming up next for the Los Angeles Conservancy?

We'll wrap up this season of Last Remaining Seats in late June (with screenings of the silent Ben-Hur June 26 and Casablanca June 29). We're hard at work on a number of preservation issues, including preventing demolition of L.A.'s first large-scale garden apartment community. Our special spring/summer program, Curating the City: Modern Architecture in L.A., continues through July. And we're planning great new programs for the fall. Every day's a new adventure at the Conservancy!

Thanks Linda. That was fascinating!


Christian Esquevin said...

Great interview Robby and a fascinating subject. I grew up in L.A. and remember some of those now lost gems: the Richfield Building,the Ambassador and its Coconut Grove, the Brown Derby. Thankfully St. Vibiana was a success and the former Bullock's Wilshire still stands, and the Griffith Park Observatory was renovated. Bravo to the the LA Conservancy for their efforts.

Silver Screenings said...

Terrific interview! Linda Dishman sounds like a remarkable - and very busy! - woman.

People who work so hard to preserve heritage buildings a true gems, aren't they?

Paul D. Marks said...

Great interview, Robby. And the LA Conservancy does a terrific job! -- Paul Marks


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