Dr. Art Kamangar stands in the balcony of the restored Merced Theatre. His $1 million donation helped get the matching funds to finish the 14-year, $14 million renovation of the classic 1931 theater.
Its grand reopening will be April 21. He'll be in the front row. His daughter Tara will play the piano and perform with the Merced Symphony on stage.
The 74-year-old retired orthopedic surgeon gazes at the 1,100 new seats, the Spanish courtyard decor of the elevated box seats on each side, the ruby curtain across the stage.
Does he have a feeling of fatherhood about the project that marks one of the most important milestones in Merced's cultural history?
"More a sense of relief," the trim, Iranian-born philanthropist says softly. "Now all the people of Merced can enjoy this."
His legacy was already assured before he ever became a benefactor and board member of the Merced Theatre Foundation. In medical circles he became well-known for an innovation that helped make the transplant of artificial hips safer and more durable.
His $500,000 donation endowed a chair at UC Merced. For 25 years, since he moved to Merced from the Bay Area, Kamangar Ranches, which specializes in fruit orchards, kept his "retirement" busy.
And the achievements of his two sons and daughter have made him more proud of them than any of his own accomplishments. Salar, 35, is CEO of YouTube and a senior vice president of Google. ("Do you realize YouTube collects more than 2 billion items every 24 hours?" Art marvels.) His other son, Arya, 28, holds a Ph.D. in modern languages and has studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, the University of Mainz in Germany and in Japan. And daughter Tara, an honors graduate from Harvard and London's Royal Academy of Music, has been called "a huge talent" at the piano by the London Evening Standard.
Now, like the keystone of one of the theater's arches, that legacy will include what some believe will be a cultural tipping point that will not only revitalize downtown Merced. Many think the theater will become an entertainment hub for the whole Valley -- music, drama, ballet, cinema, opera, graduations, weddings -- all manner of special events whose economic tides will lift all local boats.
Not bad for the
second-youngest of eight children born to his parents in Tehran. His family were investors before and during the days of the Shah's rule in Iran.
Art had left his native soil after getting a medical degree, years before the 1979 revolution that brought the mullahs to power. He did his internship and residency in Pittsburgh, Pa., in the '60s. "I was always interested in total hip arthroplasty," he says over lunch at Fernando's Bistro.
He contributed to the research done by Sir John Charnley, the British surgeon who pioneered the artificial hip. The Briton's main breakthrough was an artificial hip that placed metal against high-density polyurethane, a plastic. Earlier metal-on-metal devices had proved painful and vulnerable to metal fatigue.
Art's contribution was to determine the right size of the femoral head in an artificial hip. He and Sir John published a scientific paper in the '60s with Art's calculation that 22 millimeters (he holds his hand up and makes a circle the size of a quarter with four fingers pressed against his thumb to show the dimension) was the ideal width to make an artificial hip work well.
"Normally, it was much bigger," he recalls. "If the femoral head had been as big as normal, there would be no space for the socket (from the pelvis). If it were smaller (than 22 millimeters), it would have bored into the high-density polyurethane and there would have been much quicker wear."