Bruce Corwin: Where the Heart Is
The man behind L.A.’s new Children’s Museum on funding, family, and the joy of giving back
For Bruce Corwin, it has taken years to get here.
Years of scouting locations, hiring designers, and chasing down funds for a new museum, and it’s come to this moment—an unexpected phone call on a bright Wednesday afternoon in Beverly Hills.
“Congratulations!” Corwin says. “That is great. That is fantastic. Finally, it went through!”
What’s come through is the state and city funding Corwin and his team have been counting on—$21 million of government support for a dream.
The 60,000 square-foot Children’s Museum of Los Angeles broke ground on November 18, 2005, in the San Fernando Valley’s Hansen Dam Recreation Park, with a building designed by Sarah Graham and exhibits by Edwin Schlossberg. Corwin has also won the support of his favorite local artist; vibrant pop artist Ed Massey will donate a personalized art work to each of the museum’s major contributors.
Back in 1979, Corwin and his wife, Toni, spearheaded the effort to create the city’s original Children’s Museum in Downtown L.A. Money was tight, but the group found a way: a young architect agreed to do the job pro bono. His name was Frank Gehry.
It has been over twenty-five years and the first museum has closed, but Corwin is back on the job, finding funds and making plans for the kids of L.A.
“Now we just have to raise another $10 million for the exhibits,” Corwin says—and, once you meet him, you have to believe he can do it.
When he’s not busy with the Children’s Museum, Corwin is all over town, helping out at Los Angeles High School, the UCSB Foundation, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Variety Club Children’s Charities, Will Rogers Hospital, California Conservation Project, Direct Relief International, Bet Tzedek Legal Services, The Beverly Hills Education Foundation, Students Run L.A., the Coro Foundation, the California Community Foundation–and anywhere else he can. “I have a lot of trouble saying no,” Corwin admits. “They’re all good. Today I
had to say no to [an organization], but I didn’t want to. There’s only so much money, only so much you can do.” He stops and seems unhappy with that. “I may call them back and tell them to put me back on.”
He has no interest in retiring. Though he’s had multiple sclerosis for the past 37 years, the only thing it’s stopped him from accomplishing is a tennis match. He says, “I just figure you have to stay busy.”
Along with this energy, what makes him a great philanthropist is his unique ability to listen. He’s even written a reminder for himself, something a friend quoted to him: “Practice deep listening and loving speech.”
He collects expressions like this, lines that make him consider how he acts, thinks, and feels. It seems odd, because Corwin already spends his days listening to other people’s needs and doesn’t mind it at all.
“What was the biggest problem you had a week ago Tuesday?” he asks. “You can’t remember.” And it’s true—when you’re in the office with Bruce, you can’t.
other people’s happiness
Corwin’s office is filled with photographs.
On one table alone there are nine framed pictures of Toni, his wife of 37 years; his sons, David and Danny; and his granddaughters, Dorrit, Teva, and Hannah. His wallet holds more edge-worn family photos.
Much of Corwin’s love for philanthropy comes from his family—particularly, he says, from his mother, Dorothy, who was deep into the art of giving.
Corwin also has a photo of a minor league baseball team just after a win, the players piled on the field. The way he talks about the photo, you find yourself searching for his face among the jerseys. People are just not this enthusiastic about other people’s happiness.
“Look at his face,” Corwin says, pointing to a young man with red cheeks and a wide grin. Corwin smiles. “Look at that joy. These guys don’t make much, but look how they love the game.”
the bottom line
Coexisting with Corwin’s love for philanthropy is his love for Metropolitan Theatres, founded by his grandfather 80 years ago in the vaudeville days. Now his son runs the day-to-day operations, but Corwin is still deeply tied to the company. The theater business, after all, is in his blood.
He had his first job at Metropolitan—though, back then, it involved, among other things, scrubbing toilets and hanging around in the projection room. He remembers watching a prize fight with his father in one of their theaters, a riot breaking out when the screen went black, and he and his father yelling for the manager along with everyone else.
The movie is a particular favorite of his.
“I could see it ten times,” he says. “It’s so human. The guy screwed up with the egg, and he’s history.”
He laughs, but you suspect it’s what’s behind the movie that gets his attention. He knows the whole story, how the filmmakers shot on a tiny budget and the studios didn’t know what to do with it. Now, here it is—a genuine hit.
“It’s grossed millions, and everyone loves it,” Corwin says. “Nobody thought it would do anything.”
That’s just the kind of thing Corwin loves: a serendipitous turn of events that leads to success all around, a happy ending, and a night with his family.
“There are two bottom lines,” he says. “There’s the business line, where you try to make a profit, and then there’s the bottom line that takes into consideration the heart. That’s the one that gives me the greatest joy.”
Now, every Wednesday night, the whole Corwin family gathers for a movie in the office screening room. Tonight, it’s March of the Penguins.