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The stage is reset

After a $26.5-million restoration push, live performances return to San Diego's landmark Balboa Theatre.

January 29, 2008|Anne Marie Welsh | Special to The Times

SAN DIEGO -- During the summer of 1985, musicians Steve and Mary Karo played David to the well-heeled Goliath of this city's downtown redevelopment agency.

While Mary stood onstage floating the opening notes of a Bach air from her violin, husband Steve guided anyone who would listen past debris in the lobby, over gum-spackled floors and down a littered side aisle of the Balboa Theatre.

The once-thriving vaudeville house at 4th and E streets was shuttered, but its bright natural acoustics remained unchanged. "No matter how much the developers tried to denigrate it as a theater," said Steve Karo, "it was obvious when people got inside and saw it and heard the acoustics that this was a theater that should stay a theater."

Over time, the sound of Mary Karo's violin became a note heard 'round the city, turning doubters into believers. This month, after a decade-long redevelopment battle, 22 years of dormancy and a five-year, $26.5-million restoration, the Spanish Revival theater again houses live performances open to the public.

Ironically, the meticulously researched restoration was funded by the Centre City Development Corp., the redevelopment arm of the San Diego City Council that two decades before hoped to demolish the Balboa as it had other downtown theaters or to gut the building to make way for a design center anchoring the northeast corner of the Horton Plaza shopping mall.

"It's rare that a public entity funds such a robust theater restoration program," said Paul Westlake of Westlake Reed Leskosky, the Cleveland-based architect selected for the project in 2003.

The Karos, theater buffs and preservationists are unanimous in praising the quality and attention to detail governing the restoration. "It's just amazing that the very people we were fighting did a complete reversal and did everything absolutely right," said an ebullient, if exhausted, Steve Karo.

Civic leaders, the curious and the skeptical came to find out why the city agency would invest so much tax increment money bankrolled from the shopping center that had revitalized an ailing downtown into a rundown theater.

"We weren't just doing an expensive paint job. We had stripped the place down to its good bones, keeping the best of what was old and reworking the theater to modern expectations," said Gary Bosse, senior project manager for the Balboa, admitting to separation anxiety now that artists, audiences and patrons are arriving inside. Inaugural presentations culminate Thursday with a gala fundraiser to support subsidized performances by nonprofit arts groups in the Balboa.

Fabled history

Designed by San Diego architect William Wheeler and built in 1924 as a combination movie palace and vaudeville house, the Balboa Theatre served those functions and others. It was a Spanish-language cinema in the 1930s and later housed circuses and ice shows. With storefronts and a narrow bank of hotel rooms along its 4th Avenue side, the building became a flophouse for sailors during World War II and had a stint as a rent-by-the-hour bordello.

Though not built as a legit house for plays and musicals, the building has a fly loft for hanging scenery and feels to theater connoisseurs like a historic Broadway house, such as the St. James in New York.

Slightly reconfigured to meet disabled-access requirements, the Balboa now seats 1,300. A movable orchestra pit for 40 players makes the relatively shallow stage amenable to off-Broadway shows and smaller musicals.

Acoustical consultants McKay Conant Hoover deemed the reverberant acoustics excellent for instrumental and vocal music, but recommended dampening the resonance for amplified presentations. Acoustical banners, made of three layers of theatrical velour, can be electronically lowered over the sidewalls of the theater, Bosse said.

A pierced screen above the orchestra pit hides the theater organ. Ornate plaster grillwork in the ceiling accounts for the acoustical effects. And unique in Westlake's experience of 75 historic American theaters, a pair of 28-foot-high grottos flanks the proscenium. Within each is a sculpted mountain scene with a working waterfall -- painted plaster kitsch from one perspective or, perhaps, a knowing nod to the theater's namesake, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, credited as the first European to see the Pacific.

Acquired by the city in 1985 through eminent domain negotiations with the Russo family, which had operated it as a B-movie house, the then-1,530-seat Balboa was as derelict as the streets surrounding it. Its Mediterranean-themed architecture with towers, cupolas and a brightly tiled dome had determined the design motifs of the Horton Plaza mall rising nearby, but when the Karos and others coalesced their small movement to save it, the San Diego City Council had scheduled a vote to condemn the building.

The Karos' shoestring Save Our Balboa organization led to the Balboa Theatre Foundation, a more visible nonprofit headed by Jan Hicks Manos, a relative of the original architect, Wheeler.

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