Immortal Aspirations: Beethoven in Pershing Square and L.A.'s Striver Mentality | KCET
Immortal Aspirations: Beethoven in Pershing Square and L.A.'s Striver Mentality
Pershing Square sits atop a giant parking lot. Perhaps this is fitting, that the largest park in downtown Los Angeles finds itself vibrating from below with the very cars that define the city the world over. Cars surround the one-square block park above as well. The concrete heavy, modernist landscaping of the 1992 redesign causes the sounds of the park -- machines, munching managers, and mariachi bands -- to amplify. I found myself sweating from the heat, which was fragrant, filled with aromas from the many stalls selling quick Thai, Chinese and Greek food to the businessmen and young urban dwellers who throng the area at lunchtime.
Behind the strange purple bell tower, away from the throng, there is a small courtyard, really no bigger than a wrestling ring, where birds can suddenly be heard and seen. It smells a fright, since a small patch of dirt designated for dogs is directly across from it. A few homeless folks sleep or chat, but otherwise the ring is empty, save for the three statues that have been shoved into the space seemingly willy-nilly. There is a Calvary officer from the Spanish-American war, a doughboy from WWI, and a cannon from the USS Constitution -- pretty standard American fare.
And then there is Beethoven. Yes, Beethoven, the great German composer, brooding and deaf. Seven feet and ten tons of bronze, he is walking with his hands clasped behind his back, his vest unbuttoned, a look of intense concentration on his face. This is not his first place in the park, nor is it his second. He, along with these other forgotten statues, was once in a place of great honor, back when Los Angeles was trying admirably to become the city it thought it needed to be.
A World Class Statue
The Pershing Square of the 1930s was very different than the place we experience today. Leafy and green, with a large fountain, shaded paths and old men on benches, it was a park you would expect to see in any of the big cities back east. In the evenings, a well-heeled tourist could stroll from the ritzy Biltmore Hotel through the park to catch a show at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which had called the old Clune's Auditorium on Fifth and Olive home since the 1920 season.
William A. Clark Jr., senator's son and copper baron, had founded the Philharmonic a year earlier, in 1919. An amateur violinist, he would often sit in with musicians as they played. In 1928, a testimonial concert honoring Clark had raised money for a memorial, and in 1932 plans were started for the commissioning of a statue of Clark's favorite composer, Beethoven. The Philharmonic would use the testimonial concert funds to make the statue and then donate it to the city, so that it could sit in Pershing Square, eternally staring at the Philharmonic Auditorium, imposingly standing directly across.
So far, so sophisticated. Enter sculptor, Arnold Foerster. Enter art, with an L.A. twist.
Arnold Foerster was a very tall and ruggedly handsome man. A journeyman sculptor/architectural engineer who claimed to have studied at the Vienna Academy of Art, he was said to have sketched in Asia and built railroads in Brazil before moving to Glendale in the late teens. He had married a former stage actress named Willa Wakefield, and settled into a very middling career producing commercial art. But when he heard about the Philharmonic's planned Beethoven statue his artist's fire was rekindled. According to Foerster, he suddenly had a vision of Beethoven roaming through the woods (the same woods Foerster claimed to have played in as a child), as he composed his Ninth Symphony.
Through a fiddle player he knew, Foerster was able to reach the Philharmonic brass and convince them that he was the man for the job. As he sculpted in clay, the Cecil Frankel string quartet, courtesy of the Phil, played Beethoven in his Glendale studio for hours on end. But just as the mold was being sent to the California Art Bronze foundry to be cast, and native California marble was being carved into a base, the California crackpots started coming out to play.
In July, T.P. Hull, who called himself the California representative of the "Nation League," filed a protest against the erection of the proposed statue of Beethoven, or any other foreign person, in Pershing Square. When a plaster cast of the statue was shown to the city park board, Beethoven's baggy pants caused consternation among some of the commissioners and one Ms. Adele Lewis of Riverside Drive, who wrote the board the following letter.
Ms. Lewis's complaint fell on deaf ears. On October 15, 1932 a huge ceremony marked the statue's unveiling. A large platform was set up on the Fifth Street side of the park around the veiled statue, trod upon by a group of illustrious citizens including Mayor John Porter, Arnold Foerster, and W.A. Clark himself, recently returned from a New York sojourn. The invocation was performed by Bishop Bertrand Stevens, who stated that the statue was a reminder that "man does not live by bread alone." The Phil's conductor, Dr. Artur Rodzinsky, led the entire orchestra as it played Beethoven's Egmont overture. As the music ended, Mrs. Leafie Sloan-Orcutt, counselor of the Phil's women's committee, pulled a long white ribbon, revealing the statue to the public.
This was, in many ways, a defining moment for those who fancied themselves the cultural elite of this Wild West city, which had not even had a statue until the Spanish American memorial was erected in 1900. It was also a celebration of the fact that, although the depression was devastating the country, Los Angeles was one of the few cities that had managed to maintain its annual music season. Orra E. Monnete, founder of Bank of America and Phil patron, speechified that the statue was a reminder that in hard times it was important to remember the finer, sweeter qualities of life. And then legend has it that soon-to-be Mayor Frank Shaw made his comments (though they may have been uttered at the tree planting discussed below), and in one of the great malapropisms of all time, praised Clark and the city for their magnificent "sympathy orchestra."
In a Not So Classy World
And so it went. For every dignified occasion, like the planting of nine Eugina trees in a semi-colon behind the statue to symbolize Beethoven's ninth symphony, there was something just a little off.
Sculptor Arnold Foerster saw his career take off, and quickly earned commissions to sculpt Father Juniper Serra, Griffith J. Griffith and Lafayette. In 1934, Foerster, who seems to have begun to believe his own press, stayed up for two nights in a frenzy, working on a monumental mold of the head of Christ, saying he pictured the finished sculpture "not in a church, but alone. For that man [he pointed to his image of Christ] needs no interpreter."
Foerster's career seems to have tapered off after this, and when he passed away at 67 in 1943, his body was held at Pierce Brothers until his ex-wife Willa could be located. Knowing where his bread had been buttered, Foerster's final request was that his ashes be scattered in the shrubbery around the Beethoven statue. This request was denied due to health code concerns.
This denial was comical when one acknowledges that by the time of Foerster's death, the Beethoven statue had primarily become one big poop joke. By 1941, the trees that had been symbolically planted around Beethoven had become a haven for pigeons, who had turned his flowing hair, as well as frock coat, white. Some citizens, ignorant of the nature of bronze, demanded that the broad brimmed hat that Beethoven held in his hand (which style watchers noted had become fashionable with modern men in 1940) should be transferred to his head. The city tried to remedy this situation by having him cleaned thoroughly, but it was reported that as two sour parksmen scrubbed him, the pigeons perched nearby, and once the men left, instantly reclaimed and remarked their territory.
Into the 50s, save the odd wreath laying, the only mentions of Beethoven in the L.A. Times (and there are several) were pigeon and poop puns. In 1951 Pershing Square was completely destroyed in order to build the five million dollar underground parking garage. If we could personify an inanimate object for a moment -- it may have come as a relief to Beethoven, he who had once been hailed heroic, when he was transferred to storage at Griffith Park for the duration of construction. But in 1952, when he was repositioned at the northwest corner of the new Pershing Square, at the intersection of Fifth and Olive, he was filthy, the city having been unwilling to shill out the $300 needed for a good cleaning.
In 1955, there was a rededication ceremony, a new beginning. The statue was now at the end of a lovely shaded path. While the rest of the park had been overtaken by crazed orators and cruisers, this walkway was nicknamed "King's Row," for the old pensioners who spent their days peacefully playing chess on old oil cloths. Despite this calm middle-age, excitement was just around the corner. In 1957, the statue narrowly avoided destruction when three youths in a stolen car participated in that already established L.A. pastime -- the LAPD car chase -- and careened into the park, leveling nearby trees.
In spite of the new location, the pigeons just couldn't stay away. Once more they were perching and pooping all over Beethoven, causing the jokes to start all over again, and sparking controversy over just what to do with these omnipresent fowl. On a European sojourn one columnist noticed that statues on the continent were protected by spikey needles, making him think "this is what we should have done many years ago for poor Beethoven in Pershing Square."
The Philharmonic left for the Music Center in 1960, leaving Beethoven behind to suffer the increasing weirdness of Pershing Square in brooding silence. That same year huge bouquets of flowers, each six feet high, were delivered to the four statues in the Park, with cards that read "with sympathy." It was discovered that an 88 year-old mute Chinese man named Cheong Wong had ordered the flowers, but he refused to explain why. When asked he simply pointed to a piece of paper that read, "Duty, honor, country."
Things got even stranger in 1966, when students from L.A. universities held a rally at the statue celebrating Beethoven's 196th birthday. Spurred by the popularity of the Peanuts cartoons and his affinity with the Beethoven playing character of Schroeder, Loyola sophomore James Shadduck organized the event. Zubin Mehta, the Phil's musical director, spoke and students held protest style signs with drawings of Snoopy and chanted "Beethoven's alive!" as co-ed Suzanne McKay played the kazoo. In 1971, a folk singer performed under the statue at lunchtime for a crowd that included "derelicts and pensioners, evangelists and hustlers, and a few neat and fresh office girls" -- a pretty good summation of the parks makeup, then and now.
By the 1980s, despite a superficial uplift for the '84 Olympic games, Pershing Square was by all appearances a rundown cultural wasteland. In 1985 it was reported that no one, not even the Beethoven society led by the indomitable Joy Milane, came anymore to lay wreaths or sponsor ballets at Beethoven's feet to celebrate his birth and death. It appeared that the grand mission of those cultural elites of 1932, to make Los Angeles a city that even Chicago and Vienna would envy, had failed miserably.
After the complete redesign of the park in 1992, Beethoven was moved to his present cramped location. One more redesign and perhaps he would be placed in storage forever -- an irrelevant statue in a city with little interest in a past that doesn't involve celluloid. Among the disenfranchised men and women who spent their days in this quiet patch of park was a man with a two string violin, whom L.A. Times reporter Steve Lopez discovered playing sonatas under Beethoven's watchful eyes. His name was Nathaniel Ayers.
Nathaniel was a musical prodigy from Ohio who had studied at Julliard before his crippling schizophrenia took hold. He ended up homeless in Los Angeles in 2000, where he spent his days playing music, until a friendship with reporter Steve Lopez enhanced and improved both their lives. Nathaniel worships the Beethoven statue, speaking about it constantly and looking to it as something more than a sculpture, as some kind of god that moves him and keeps him going. Lopez wrote a series of articles about Nathaniel that inspired thousands of people. These articles were eventually adapted into the movie, "The Soloist."
So in Los Angeles' funny, often gritty, and round-about way, the Beethoven statue has served its purpose. Man does not live by bread alone, music is alive and well in Southern California, and Los Angeles keeps producing artists -- not staid and sophisticated as one suspects the old guard intended -- but unique personalities like Arnold Foerster and Nathaniel Ayers, who had to travel many thousands of miles before they found the place where they belonged.
Top: Beethoven in Pershing Square. Photo by Maggie Mbroh, joeyjorie used under a Creative Commons license