When Elaine Redfield arrived in Fullerton in 1950, it was a culture shock. Mainly because, in her view, there wasn't much culture at all in Orange County.
"When I came here, the county was a great wasteland, really, culturally and intellectually," she said in a 1979 Los Angeles Times interview.
Redfield, who had visited Carnegie Hall and other famed concert venues while growing up in New York, was an arts lover who became an indefatigable arts activist for her new home region. She was a founding member of the Orange County Philharmonic Society that brought world-famous performers to the area. But without a major concert hall, they mostly performed in far-less-than-ideal high school auditoriums.
As the area grew, it was "ridiculous, in my opinion," she said, for Orange County "not to have a single public proscenium stage."
Redfield played a major role in changing that. In 1979, as board president of a fundraising effort to build a major concert hall, she wrote a letter to developer Henry Segerstrom, whose family company had built the upscale South Coast Plaza mall. It led to his donating a valuable five-acre parcel in Costa Mesa that became the site of the 3,000-seat Orange County Performing Arts Center. The new hall opened in 1986.
"Elaine Redfield was one of the key people," Segerstrom said in a 2011 interview with the Orange County Register about the venue, now called the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. "That [letter] is really what started it."
Redfield, 96, died Jan. 5 at her home in Fullerton of natural causes, said her longtime secretary, Suzanne Bower. Redfield was a regular audience member at the performing arts center from the beginning, attending her last concert in May, Bower said.
She was born Elaine Graf on Dec. 9, 1917, in New York. "When I was a little girl, my mother played piano for me," Redfield said at a 1990 Orange County Philharmonic Society event that honored her. "We lived in New York at 54th and 7th, three blocks from Carnegie Hall. My need for music was built in at an early age." She was taken to opera as a child and to concerts conducted by Arturo Toscanini.
Redfield enrolled at Wellesley College in 1934, but about a year before graduation she contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanitarium in Colorado for four years. A lung was removed, and she finally got better, leading her to seek out volunteer work for much of her life. "I never quite gave up on the feeling that I needed to give to the community," Redfield said in a 1990 Times interview.
Advised by her doctors not to return to the cold weather of the northeast U.S., she moved to Los Angeles and finished her undergraduate degree in 1943 at UCLA.
That same year she married Edward Mittelman, who worked for Hunt Foods, and they settled in Orange County. Unhappy with the lack of live classical music in her life, she helped found the Orange County Philharmonic Society that brought in groups, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for concerts and for a while sponsored its own orchestra, led by the pioneering Dutch conductor Frieda Belinfante. But booking time in local school auditoriums was difficult.
"They were at the mercy of the football schedule," Bower said, having to work around rallies and other events.
Mittelman died in 1960, after which his widow took courses in interior design and started her own firm. In 1967 she married Bill Redfield, a research scientist with Chevron Oil Field Research, whom she met through the Orange County Philharmonic Society.
As the area became wealthier, she joined the founding board of the Orange County Music Center group that aimed to build a major concert hall. She was board president in 1979 when she wrote to Segerstrom, requesting a meeting. At that point, the group had raised $600,000. Without "a bank account to back up my statements," she told the Times in 1996, "I don't think Henry would have given me 10 minutes."
Impressed with the fundraising effort and goal, he gave land near the sprawling, upscale South Coast Plaza mall that his family company had developed. Redfield put her interior design business on hold and worked steadily at fundraising. The Orange County Performing Arts Center, which cost about $73 million, opened in 1986. It's home to resident companies the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale, and over the years it has hosted world-class orchestras, theater, dance, pop music and jazz performances.
"It's a beautiful venue that could be standing where Carnegie Hall is," Redfield said in 1996. "It just happens that it's in Costa Mesa."
Bill Redfield died in 1993. Surviving Elaine Redfield are two stepchildren, Nancy Tracy of Yorba Linda and David Redfield of Del Mar, and three grandchildren.