By SANDEE WILHOIT | Downtown News
With pomp and circumstance, the magnificent Balboa Theatre opened on Friday, March 28, 1924. All of San Diego was excited to welcome screen stars Corrinne Griffith, Conway Tearle, Adele Rowland and “the funniest man in the world,” comedian Charles Murray. After guests entered the spacious lobby and passed into an auditorium featuring multi-colored reflective lighting, they settled in to watch “Lillies of the Field,” starring Griffith and Tearle. Also featured was Fanchon and Marco, a popular brother and sister vaudeville duo and their revue, the “Musical Melange.” The theater could accommodate films and live acts, both human and animal. Opening night was a huge success!
Perhaps more noteworthy was that this elaborate and visually stunning building was produced by an all San Diego team. San Diego architect William Wheeler designed the building for the owner, Robert E. Hicks, a former newspaperman from Colorado, who moved to San Diego in 1913. Wheeler was especially pleased to work on this project, as he was a former actor and vaudeville performer, and would ultimately perform at the Balboa on occasion.
The general contractor was the Wurster Construction Company and Mr. J. Campbell did the sculpturing and modeling. Other San Diego sub-contractors were: the Pioneer Truck Company, excavating; Spreckels Brothers, portland cement; John Hanson, rock and sand; W.C. Merritt, plumbing; J. O’Neil, brick contractor; Benton Roof and Paint, roofing and paint; Ed Thayer, plastering contractor; and W.J. Baily, plasterer. Additionally, other San Diegans involved were National Iron Works, San Diego Tile and Woodstone Company, Southern Electrical Company and the Austin Safe and Desk Company, which provided the theater seating.
The building combined the theater with 34 offices and six stores. It was primarily designed as a movie house, but it also had complete facilities for live stage performances. When the venue opened, it had a Robert Morton 4-32 pipe organ. In 1928, the organ was moved to the Fox Theatre. The cost of the building was $800,000 and was dubbed by the press as “a gem of a theater.”
Beginning with the entrance, this steel reinforced concrete gem was a marvel of exquisite detail. Originally, there were two box offices, one on either side of the doorway. The entrance floor featured a tile mosaic commemorating Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific Ocean, and the walls were covered with elaborate maps of the Americas. The acoustics were unusual and seemed to anticipate modern stereophonic sound, as there were air registers to carry the backstage organ sound to various points all over the theater. On the side walls close to the stage were ornamental waterfalls cascading over artificial rocks, which provided a cooling effect as well as an interesting sight and sound display.
Up a ramp from the foyer, patrons could retreat to a “pleasance.” This was a special feature of the theater, which provided comfortable davenports and chairs and soft music from the wall grills.
Led into the auditorium by usherettes in Spanish-themed toreador costumes, guests could be seated in one of 904 leather cushioned opera seats, placed 36 inches apart. The ambience was further enhanced by reflective upward lighting, used both internally and externally, in four colors or any blend of the four. Rich tapestries covered the walls, and a large orchestra pit accommodating musicians associated with vaudeville and silent films was at the front of the stage.
The 42-foot-wide and 28-foot-deep stage included a special opening for a 1,200-pound elevator used to transport equipment from the basement or for special effects. Underneath the stage were lounges for musicians, which could be entered from the orchestra pit, dressing rooms for the performers, as well as spaces for carpenters, electricians, and stagehands. A 72-foot fly loft towered over the beautiful maple stage and was spacious enough to accommodate 29-line sets, which could be used for curtains, screens or scenery. The stage itself was well reinforced to provide for the weight of various animal acts that played. One, in particular, gained special recognition. It was a circus act which boasted an educated horse, a singing mule, performing monkeys and a trick elephant who danced the ballet. The trick was on the audience though, as the elephant was not given time to relieve itself before the act, and did so onstage, spraying not only the entire orchestra pit, but also the first two rows of the audience. The theater had to pay a very large cleaning bill! There were no further animal acts.
The exterior was no less thematically detailed. The building is crowned by a polychrome tiled dome, which echoes the Spanish influence seen on the nearby Santa Fe depot dome tower and the fountain in Horton Plaza park. Various businesses occupied the storefronts over the years and included restaurants, confectioners, tailors, jewelers, photographers, beauty salons, and later, tattoo parlors. In 1927, the KFBC broadcasting station operated from the roof of the building. The Fox West Coast Theatres Inc. art department occupied the fifth floor from 1931-34, and in 1943, half of the office rooms were converted to hotel rooms to accommodate the influx of WWII servicemen arriving in San Diego. These lodgings of dubious integrity operated until 1965.
In 1930, the Balboa became a deluxe Spanish-language theater. The following year, local Spanish teachers made arrangements to bring in groups of Spanish students at reduced rates. Balboa Theatre advertisements included the phrase, “Learn Spanish while being entertained.” However, by 1932 the Great Depression put a stop to the reduced rates, and the Balboa returned to screening Hollywood films.
The theater continued to operate until 1985, when it was acquired by the Center City Development Corporation, who intended to incorporate it into the Horton Plaza Redevelopment Plan. In 1986, the late Toni Michetti formed the Balboa Theatre Foundation, a nonprofit, which negotiated with the city to renovate and reuse the theater for live performance once more. With a $26.5 million restoration, the Balboa reopened for its inaugural season in 2008. It once again hosts international live entertainment of the highest caliber.
648 4th Ave., southwest corner of Fourth and E
Architectural Style: Spanish Renaissance Revival
Architect: William Wheeler
— Sandee Wilhoit is the historian for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.