Culture Spotlight: Balboa Theater
Posted on November 10, 2017
Built in the golden age of movie palaces, the Balboa Theatre opened in 1924 as a vaudeville and film emporium. Named after Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa, it originally boasted six street level stores and offices on the upper floors. A brief remodel rebranded it as El Teatro Balboa, which focused on Spanish language and Mexican films. Next, it served a stint as Navy housing during World War II. The theater was ultimately left to decay and was eventually scheduled for demolition.
Thankfully, it was purchased in 1959 and operated as an action movie house for most of the next decade. The City of San Diego bought it in 1986, and got it listed, with the help of the Balboa Theatre Foundation, as a historic landmark, thus preserving the building’s unique Spanish- and Moorish-influenced architectural design. Sadly, however, it would remain empty and abandoned yet again for decades.
Finally, it reopened in 2008 following a $26.5 million restoration as a community arts landmark used by several of San Diego’s arts organizations including Mainly Mozart, Kids 4 Kids, California Ballet, Broadway San Diego, and the San Diego Men’s Chorus. Patrons can see the original decorative designs as they originally appeared, like the 1924 mosaic tile work featuring Balboa’s ships, and even the original colors, which had been covered under layers of subsequent paint jobs. Likewise, numerous stencils and murals that had been painted over were restored to their original glory.
“With its fully restored 1924 décor, it’s the only theatre in the U.S. to have working waterfall design features inside a performance space,” says managing director Teri McPherson. “It was named one of the 15 ‘World’s Most Spectacular Theatres’ by CNN Travel.”
As the theatre became a work of art itself, top talent and productions have since graced the award-winning building, including the Vienna Boys Choir, Mark Twain Tonight! starring Hal Holbrook, Canadian Brass, Assad Brothers Brazilian Guitar Festival, St. Petersburg Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet, Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Lily Tomlin, Elvis Costello, Josh Groban, Steve Martin, Louis C.K., Yo-Yo Ma, USO concerts, and so many more.
With a 1,335-seat capacity, the theatre is now one of the most sought-after venues in Southern California. “The Balboa hosts a wide variety of shows including concerts, cinemas, ballets, dance, circus performances, chef/cooking shows, author talks, podcasts, and operas,” says McPherson. “Currently, the Balboa stage hosts 150 to 200 performances each year.” Additionally, the Balboa is rented to various local community, nonprofit and for-profit groups, presenters, and clients for private events.
This season’s impressive lineup includes comedian Brian Regan, author David Sedaris, Tori Amos, Peter Pan and Tinker Bell: A Pirate’s Christmas, Peppa Pig Live, and more. 619.615.4000, sandiegotheatres.org Ryan Thomas