It's difficult to imagine today, with the towers of Newport Center looming up over the roofs of Balboa, but there was a day when the Balboa Pavilion was considered the neighborhood's monolith.
During the first decade of this century, it dwarfed everything else in sight. It was a Victorian behemoth set against the flimsy cottages that were used by day vacationers who trundled down from Los Angeles on the old Pacific Electric Red Cars.
Today, even though it has been reduced in status from grandiose landmark to merely beloved landmark, the Pavilion remains a kind of hub around which all Newport Harbor activity turns. It has been in continuous operation as a bay-side recreational palace since it opened on July 1, 1906, three days before the first Red Car trolley rumbled up to the Pavilion terminus.
Originally, it was quite literally the only game in town. Balboa Island was a nearly empty sand spit in those days, and Southern Californians considered the entire area good enough for quick beach getaways but certainly not for development. And the Pavilion was their focal point.
Built by contractor Chris McNeill, who 5 years before had built the red sandstone courthouse in Santa Ana, the Pavilion was, and is, recognized principally for its long sloping roof line and the ornate Victorian cupola at its crown. Today both the roof and the cupola are lined with white lights that turn the entire building into a beacon at night.
Over the years, and through a handful of ownerships, the Pavilion appeared in several incarnations. At various times it housed a dance hall, ballroom, marine science center, casino, art gallery, mail station, bowling alley, bingo and poker parlor, amusement arcade, and served as a showcase for the best big bands of the 1930s and '40s, among them Stan Kenton, Count Basie and Benny Goodman. It has been claimed that the Balboa Shuffle dance was born there.
The rambling Pavilion--which was declared a registered California Historical Landmark in 1968--was bought by Phil Tozer in 1969, and Tozer gave the place an extensive Victorian-style face lift. Today the building houses Davey's Locker Sportfishing, which operates regularly scheduled sportfishing boats as well as whale watching trips in season; a tackle shop; Newport Harbor Skiff Rentals, which offers small fishing craft for use within the bay; Catalina Passenger Service, which operates a high-speed catamaran shuttle to Avalon as well as two bay excursion boats; the Tale of the Whale restaurant and Spouter Saloon (which also runs a banquet facility upstairs), and the Country Store, a gift shop that offers local souvenirs and food products packaged with the Pavilion label.
There were no records indicating the original interior architecture or decoration that Tozer could use as a guide to return the Pavilion to its exact turn-of-the-century elegance. However, the remodeling made liberal use of ornate woodwork, antique doors, oak furniture, hardwood floors, old nautical instruments and antique mirrors.
The exterior, however, remains almost exactly as it was more than 80 years ago: graceful, elegant, sweeping, enduring and, particularly in the days of the huge glass boxes on the hill to the north, familiarly palatial.
THE BALBOA PAVILION AT A GLANCE
Where: 400 Main St., Newport Beach.
Operator: The Pavilion Co.
Tenants and information: Davey's Locker Sportfishing, Newport Harbor Skiff Rentals, Tackle Shop--(714) 673-1434.
Catalina Passenger Service (includes bay excursion boats)--(714) 673-5245.
Tale of the Whale Restaurant--(714) 673-4633.
The Country Store--(714) 673-8160.
Hours: Vary by tenant.