When asked how he became interested in art, A. Jerrold Perenchio
(1930-2017) once recalled that nobody in his family had ever
taken him to a museum. ‘I was born in Fresno and we had none
— they took me to nightclubs and prize fights! I had no appreciation
or knowledge of art, or any kind of culture.’
In the latter decades of the 20th century, Perenchio rose
from the ranks of Hollywood talent agents to achieve one media industry success after another. He also became a collector of Impressionist, Modern and decorative
art, as well as a leading philanthropist in Los Angeles.
As an agent, his clients included Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis,
Henry Mancini, Glen Campbell and the Righteous Brothers,
all of whom enjoyed the greatest moments of their careers
under Perenchio’s guidance. He was also the man who
first recognised the potential of a little-known British
artist named Elton John, booking him for a career-launching
series of dates at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles in 1970.
Over the course of his professional life, Perenchio’s flair,
acumen, and contacts were employed
across the spectrum of live entertainment. He oversaw the
sale of Caesar’s Palace in La Vegas and orchestrated the
era-defining title fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier
at Madison Square Garden in 1971. In
1973, he organised the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match
between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
Eventually moving into television and film production, Perenchio was involved in a string
of hit shows such as All in the Family, Sanford and Son and Diff’rent Strokes, during the 1970s and early ‘80s with Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear, and was one of the pioneers of pay television
with ON-TV. He was involved in the production of Blade Runner and Driving Miss Daisy, and later brokered the sale of Motown and A&M Records to Polygram.
In 1992, Perenchio took on his greatest challenge when he acquired Univision, and spent 15 years transforming the company into the largest Spanish-language media conglomerate in the United States, and the first foreign-language television network to occasionally outperform English language stations in the American ratings.
Perenchio’s interest in art originated during his
early days as a junior talent agent at MCA, when he was assigned to accompany British actor Charles Laughton during a US theatrical tour. Laughton was a collector of Modern art and invited Perenchio to visit galleries and museums with him as they travelled the country together. ‘A lot of it I didn’t really understand, I didn’t get it, but other things I did,’ Perenchio recalled of being introduced to art and artists by his knowledgeable guide. ‘He gave me books, I studied and would read on the road with him.’
Perenchio soon became fascinated with the beauty and vibrancy of masterpieces from across the centuries. His close friendship with revered American singer Andy Williams — also an avid collector — sparked his passion for acquiring art.
As his industry success grew, Perenchio was able to build his own striking assemblage of masterworks, with a strong focus on painting, works on paper, and sculpture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Encompassing major works by figures including Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Edgar Degas, the collection was a source of inspiration and joy. ‘Next to my family and friends,’ Perenchio said of his treasured pieces, ‘they are the most important things to me.’
In 1986, Perenchio acquired the former Kirkeby Estate in Bel Air along with three adjacent properties to form a spectacular estate complete with sweeping views of the ocean and the Los Angeles skyline. It was the perfect backdrop for showcasing a museum-quality art collection — Henry Moore’s monumental Reclining Figure nestled in the rose garden; his salon-style living rooms were accented with furniture by Diego Giacometti; and the walls exhibited his superb collection of Impressionist and Modern Art.
Born in 1930, Perenchio inherited a can-do work ethic from his family. His grandfather, Giovanni, whom Perenchio cited as his most important influence, had arrived in the United States from Italy with just ten dollars in his pocket. He worked his way to becoming a wholesale liquor distributor in Michigan before relocating to California where he established the Fresno Grape Exchange and, later, the Crestview Winery. ‘No job too big, no job too small,’ he would say to his grandson and young Perenchio took the motto to heart.
Perenchio’s father, Andy, had a very different impact on him through his love for singing and music. In 1945, when presented with an opportunity to lease the Los Angeles Greek Theater and promote live music shows, Andy didn’t hesitate to move his wife and son from the small town of Fresno to the dynamic city of Los Angeles. At 15 years old, Perenchio was given a summer job at the Greek Theater and began to learn the ins and outs of the music business, setting the course for his eventual career in entertainment.
Upon enrolling at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA),
Perenchio, however, was forced to apply the work ethic inspired by his grandfather’s motto. On the day classes were to begin, he learned that his father’s fortunes had taken a downturn and there would be no help with tuition and expenses. On his own, Perenchio paid his way through UCLA, through a series of part time jobs — the first, washing cars in Bel Air — before establishing his own business booking bands and catering parties at UCLA and other colleges in the area.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and soon after entered the Air Force, serving for three years as a first lieutenant and earning his wings as a single-engine jet fighter pilot. Perenchio was given an honourable discharge and returned to Los Angeles to focus on becoming a talent agent. He spent a year as a literary agent before being invited to join MCA, the booking agency with tentacles in every branch of the entertainment industry. Perenchio quickly rose through the ranks and became the youngest vice president in the agency’s history.
For years, Perenchio was one of California’s leading charitable benefactors. ‘He was very influential in the philanthropic world, as people know, but most of his philanthropy was anonymous. I don’t know if we’ll ever know the extent of it,’ noted Michael Govan, Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). ‘But I can say in my own experience, he was perhaps the most philanthropic person I’ve ever worked with... He combined this hard-driving success and goal orientation in philanthropy with extreme generosity and encouragement.’
‘He combined this hard-driving success and goal orientation in philanthropy with extreme generosity and encouragement’ — Michael Govan, Director of LACMA
Among the many beneficiaries of Perenchio’s charitable giving were the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, the
Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles Opera, and environmental organisations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council. Perenchio was forever mindful of the many opportunities he found in Los Angeles, and stood as one of the city’s most ardent champions.
In a rare press appearance in 2014, Perenchio announced a promised gift of nearly 50 European masterworks
to the LACMA. ‘I have lived in
Los Angeles for over seventy years,’ he wrote in the foreword
to a book on the bequest. ‘It is where I was educated and
raised my family, and it is a city that helped make my career
possible. It gives me great pleasure to give something back.’
The bequest, which included some of the most significant works
from his collection, will anchor LACMA’s new permanent building,
slated for completion in 2023. ‘I never put my name on anything,’
the collector said at the time. ‘In this case, I’ve decided
that it’s worth a temporary step into the spotlight and to
encourage other collectors to give to LACMA and support the
Two years after his historic pledge, Perenchio furthered his generosity to LACMA with a $25 million gift that, together with another substantial donation by benefactor Elaine Wynn, became the largest gift in the museum’s history.
For all his many successes, Perenchio shunned publicity and refused to give interviews. In his Rules of the Road, a typed list of 20 dictums distributed to his employees, rule number one set the tone: ‘Stay clear of the press. Stay out of the spotlight. It fades your suit.’ It was integrity, hard work, and accomplishment — rather than any quest for fame — that drove Perenchio throughout his prodigious career. ‘Hire people smarter and better than you,’ he urged in Rules of the Road, and ‘rely on your instincts and common sense.’
It was rule number 20 — the final entry on the list — that most aptly summarised Perenchio’s approach to business and life: ‘Always, always take the high road. Be tough but fair and never lose your sense of humor.’