SAN DIEGO — The boarded-up Balboa Theater could become "the best little concert hall in the country," a theater architect has told a special committee of the Centre City Development Corp.
Peter van Dijk called the 1,500-seat theater "one of the most terrific theaters I've ever seen in terms of its . . . shape."
A representative of an architectural decoration studio also praised the 63-year-old theater's Baroque interior design, saying it is the Balboa's "heart and soul."
Those comments--and others that stressed the theater's limitations--were made Friday during the second meeting of a committee commissioned by CCDC to study what would be required to restore and operate the Balboa as a legitimate theater.
The Balboa, at 4th Avenue and E Street adjacent to Horton Plaza, was a movie house when it was closed in April, 1986, because it does not meet earthquake safety standards.
Board member David Thompson compared the task of the consultants and their advisory board, including several local theater professionals, to that of making a glove: "At this point we don't know what size to make the glove to fit the hand (or the size of) the hand that will be put into it."
He was referring to the Balboa's chief handicap, the stage's relatively shallow 27.5-foot depth. Paul Jenkins of Theatre Projects Consultants Inc. of New York noted that the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts, used by the La Jolla Playhouse, has a stage depth of 40 feet.
One alternative proposed by Jenkins would be to extend the stage by moving the theater's proscenium arch into the seating area, a process he described as costly and detrimental to the theater's decor.
Committee member Leon Drew, general manager of Starlight, warned that extending the stage into the auditorium or enlarging the lobby would reduce seating, which could cut profits. The Balboa's capacity is 1,400.
Panelist Alan Levey, managing director of the La Jolla Playhouse, thought it might be best to work with the theater as it exists.
"There are built-in limitations," Levey said. "Come hell or high water, we're going to have to live with those limitations. The key thing is (the quality of) what's going into the theater. The space is going to determine what's done in it."
Levey said that, despite the building's limitations, it could take plays specifically designed for it and some productions designed for other theaters.
Geoffrey Brooks, executive director of the La Jolla Chamber Music Society, said members of his board of directors were impressed with the Balboa's acoustics as they listened to a string quartet perform on stage without an orchestral shell. Brooks said his group might book a restored theater 20 to 25 nights a year.
Andrew Friedenberg of the Cinema Society and the Visual Arts Foundation Inc. thought the theater would be "very effective" as a large-screen movie palace, which it was.
The Balboa, which the City of San Diego acquired through condemnation proceedings, has been at the center of a controversy since 1984 over whether to use it as a modern art museum or as a stage. Earlier this year a group that had sought to transform the theater into an art center bowed out of the picture.
The Balboa has also been the subject of several previous studies. The building has been examined to determine the cost of reinforcing it to meet seismic safety code requirements.
A separate CCDC study compared the costs of an "ideal" renovation of the Balboa, Spreckels and the California theaters. A private foundation studied the cost of restoring and operating the theater.
The theater committee will hold its next meeting Sept. 10 at the CCDC offices.