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RIP Leon Lyon, who knew how to live life, and who helped bring us MOCA, OCMA ... and Kahlua

Left to right, KPCC's Larry Mantle, the late Leon Lyon, Barbara Baker Burnham, Chip Reveal, KPCC's Tracy Moore, and KPCC's John Rabe, at SCPR's Leadership Circle Brunch at South Coast Repertory.
Left to right, KPCC's Larry Mantle, the late Leon Lyon, Barbara Baker Burnham, Chip Reveal, KPCC's Tracy Moore, and KPCC's John Rabe, at SCPR's Leadership Circle Brunch at South Coast Repertory.
Vince Gonzales for KPCC

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Off-Ramp host John Rabe remembers Leon Lyon, an Orange County mainstay of the arts ... and just life in general ... who more than likely touched your life. Come inside to learn about Leon's record album, which you can download here.

This May, Lee Lyon recorded an album of jazz piano for his wife Barbara's birthday. The second and third pieces of audio above are the album, which the Lyon family was pleased to allow Off-Ramp to post for your downoading and listening pleasure. If you like it, please leave a note in the comments section below, and raise a glass to Lee the next time you're enjoying life.


When I die, I can only hope that my memorial service will be standing room only … like last Friday, when hundreds of people showed up to pay tribute to Leon Lyon at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club. They fired off their cannon in Lee’s honor.

Lee died in December at the age of 89 and I bet he touched your life even if you didn’t know his name. It says a lot about him that he’d had congestive heart failure for years, but didn’t tell his daughter this until the week he died. She’d have tried to get him to slow down – and as everyone said in their eulogies – Lee was in too much of a hurry. He still had too much to do.

Lee’s daughter is Linda Othenin-Girard, the senior producer of Airtalk, and that’s how I came to know her dad. Lee made very good money in homebuilding and running a thrift, and when he was 48, he retired. Boom, like that. As his brother Bill – the Orange County billionaire - described it at the service, Lee went from one day wearing suits to the next, wearing Hawaiian shirts. It was 1968 and those days, in Orange County, that was radical.

But Lee wasn’t interested in spending his life making money. He traveled. He took painting lessons. He took music lessons. We’re listening to an album he recorded last summer for his wife … on the Garage Band computer program, which he bought and learned himself.

Lee was married to Molly for 55 years. She died in 2003, and some guys would have been emotionally paralyzed afterwards. But Lee knew that life was for living. So in 2005, he married Barbara, and began a five year love affair with her. Speaking of family – as you know, his daughter is a public radio star, Stevie Wonder recorded “The Secret Life of Plants” at Curt Lyon’s studio, and Lee’s other son Bruce won a technical Oscar for an animation device. I’ve seen the photo: Bill Shatner gave Bruce the Oscar.

Lee Lyon helped the entrepreneurs who started Glacier Water and LA Eyeworks and he served on the board of Planned Parenthood IN ORANGE COUNTY! But his main focus was the arts. He helped start the Orange County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, helping to bring curator Paul Schimmel to MOCA, where he’s been for decades.

I bet Lee Lyon touched your life even if you’ve never visited OCMA or MOCA. Even if you never bought a pair of glasses at LA Eyeworks or drunk Glacier water. The one thing I haven’t told you about Lee is that before he retired, he was in business with his brother Bill and their father. They imported booze, and they discovered a Mexican liqueur they thought might be popular in the U-S, and eventually bought the label. The liquer was Kahlua. And now you know the rest of the story.

So here’s a toast to a man who knew what was important, who knew how to live life: Lee Lyon.