Mere blocks from the Sofia Hotel over on Fourth Avenue stands one of the handsomest and most venerable of the Gaslamp Quarter’s entertainment venues: the Balboa Theatre. Spectacular inside and out, host to everything from dance troupes to classic films, the lovingly rehabbed Balboa has returned to its original glory as an anchor of downtown San Diego’s architecture and nightlife.
An Up-&-Down History
Named (like Balboa Park) for the Spanish explorer Vasco Balboa—the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean via the New World—the Balboa Theatre has been around since 1924, when it opened as one of those opulent movie palaces and vaudeville venues popular in that era. The Spanish Colonial Revival design, embellished with Moorish Revival elements, immediately made the building one of downtown’s most eye-catching landmarks.
It’s had a few different incarnations as a movie house—including a stint, beginning in 1934, as El Teatro Balboa, which screened the latest in Mexican cinema. It’s also come perilously close to demolition more than once, and spent the latter years of the 20th century shuttered.
In the 1980s, dedicated efforts by the City of San Diego’s Centre City Development Corporation, the Balboa Theatre Foundation—which helped get the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places—and other concerned parties secured the theater’s future and set the stage (if you will) for its rebirth.
A New Lease on Life
The city invested north of $26 million to restore the theater, which reopened in 2008 after more than two decades closed for business. The renovation work was painstaking, with some features such as the second-floor murals and the striking marquee sign (topped by a depiction of Balboa’s ship) recreated based on historical photographs. Other remarkable architectural elements in the Balboa include the mosaic tile lobby floor—which, like the marquee and the regal curtains, includes an illustration of the conquistador’s vessel—as well as the pair of recirculating waterfalls that shoulder the stage.
A Wonder-Full Fixture
Another fantastic Balboa feature isn’t original to the theater, but still boasts some major history. We’re talking about the 4-manual Wonder Morton Organ, one of only a relative handful of pipe organs produced by California’s Robert Morton Organ Company that’s still in action. The organ, equipped with 23 ranks (or voices), debuted in 2009, a worthy replacement for the Balboa’s first Robert Morton Organ that entertained audiences when the movie palace initially opened.
Ballet to Blockbusters
These days, the Balboa showcases a really fabulous range of live performances—music, dance, comedy, and more—as well as some state-of-the-art silver-screen magic through the Cinema @ The Balboa experience. The theater also serves as home to the Mainly Mozart Festival and the Classics 4 Kids benefit concerts.
Want to get a taste for the Balboa’s reborn splendor? Well, you’ve got plenty of great opportunities in the coming weeks, given the theater’s well-populated calendar. On March 4, the singing quartet of Under the Streetlamp will nimbly work their way through some ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s classics the following day, while the San Diego Opera will bring The Tragedy of Carmen, Peter Brook’s well-known adaptation of Bizet’s sultry Carmen opera, to the theater March 10 through 12.
Movie buffs, meanwhile, will definitely want to key in to the weekend of March 25-26: On Saturday, there’ll be a spectacular Spielbergian overload at Cinema @ The Balboa with the one-two punch of Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark, while Sunday sees a double feature of the Hitchcock thrillers Rear Window and Vertigo.
A Gaslamp Getaway
Like any great theater, a show at the Balboa wows not just on account of the onstage or onscreen action: The ambience conjured up by the spectacularly restored architecture and furnishings is worth a visit in and of itself. Come enjoy a room at the historic Sofia, a feast at Currant American Brasserie, and a performance or screening at the Balboa—a triple whammy of an evening on the town in the Gaslamp, all within a short stroll!