• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Sometime after Walnut leased the building, a pipe in the second basement burst. "Nobody thought it fed anything that the theater used any longer, so the plumbers just cut it off. A couple weeks later, we realized that the waterfalls weren't working and the supply line had been cut. There was no way the company would spend the money to fix it. From that time until the theater closed, I used a ladder and hose to fill up the waterfalls myself, about once every week in the winter and twice a week in the summer."

As with many theater stages, the Balboa's had a "doghouse" on top, with windows that opened up in the event of fire, to suck out heat and smoke. "It was an 80-foot drop from the catwalk grid under that doghouse to the stage floor," says Whitehead. "On top of the doghouse was a huge water tower. One day, a work crew came in to take that tower off from the roof. They were your usual bunch of know-it-all asshole construction types. I told them the water supply to that tank was still live and that they'd better turn it off before they started cutting. They didn't listen. A little while later, the water started shooting up in the air and drenched everything. It looked like a tugboat coming into a harbor. I was laughing so hard that I couldn't get my breath."

Whitehead says one of the best things about working the Balboa was access to the balcony, closed to the public for years (mainly because the exits led to the closed-off hotel hall). "I dragged an overstuffed chair and a couch up to the front row of the balcony. My brother David, who later managed the Balboa, helped me lug them up there. It was, literally, the best seat in town, centered to the screen horizontally and vertically. Just a wonderful place to watch a movie."

The all-but-abandoned balcony was just one of the Balboa's backstage remnants of a vanishing era. "There was an old sign behind where the stage was, instructing silence on account of radio broadcasts," says Whitehead. "I've always wondered which local radio station it was. I'm betting it was KOGO, but no one in management knew. I think the broadcasting was probably done from a room up on the top floor of the hotel, which has a ceiling window and looks like a classic studio."

Out in the seats, the Balboa was at that point so infested with rats that, in quiet movie moments, you could hear them scurrying amongst the treasure trove of discarded snack bar confections. "There was a time when a lady jumped to her feet screaming because a rat had run across her foot," recalls Whitehead. Some other patrons were more scary than scared. "I recall a creep who had secreted himself in the janitor's closet in the women's restroom and was peeking out to see what he could see," he says. "There was another guy who used to rattle the plastic from his candy, just to irritate those around him. There was a huge, fat Mexican guy who sold newspapers on the street that we had to ask to leave more than once, because he smelled so bad."

Despite the descent into skid-row schlock, which mirrored Hollywood's own, the Balboa still frequently screened to packed houses, as when Star Trek: The Motion Picture debuted in late 1979. "Walnut had just bought a Dolby stereo sound system, and they rushed installation just for that movie," says Whitehead. "I put a strobe light up in the pinnacle on top of the Balboa's roof dome, and you could see it all the way up Fourth Avenue. Getting that tiny light on top of the dome wasn't easy. I had to climb up it from the outside. Had I fallen, I'd have gone straight down into the huge fan that exhausted air out of the house."

Miranda's legitimate stage venue, the Off Broadway Theatre, at Third and F, earned him civic accolades and social recognition for bringing heavyweight Hollywood talent downtown in a series of high-caliber productions. The Off Broadway opened in March 1971 with a production of Anything Goes, attended by Miranda's parents, flown in from Palo Alto. From there, he hired various producers to stage ambitious musicals like Guys and Dolls, as well as hosting touring productions of shows like You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Around 1972, Miranda began turning up around town -- and in L.A. and NYC -- arm in arm with actress Rose Marie, best known from The Dick Van Dyke Show. They'd met through her publicity girl, who was also working for Miranda when he offered to fly Marie and several others to San Diego to attend an Off Broadway production of Cactus Flower.

In her book Hold the Roses, Rose Marie describes their first encounter. "This man met me at the parking lot of the airport and hurried me to the gate," she says. "He was about five foot four, dark hair, kind of wiry, about 45 years old, kind of Italian looking. It turned out he wasn't Italian. Martha Raye was at the gate, Audrey Christy, Harry Guardino, and lots of actors. There were about 30 of us...He was very pleasant, charming, had a good sense of humor, and he was short! But I liked him."

She describes their growing relationship with mild allusions to her frequent date's homosexuality. "He was a great sport and, as I always said, the last of the big spenders," she says. "He was great to talk to, and he loved the idea that we were going out together. He took me home and we said good night. No kiss, no nothing. I relaxed. We became very good friends. No romance, and I was grateful for that. We liked being together, and he loved the idea that everybody knew me and came over for autographs. He was out with a celebrity. Best of all, we went to all of the big affairs, the $1000-ticket dinners, like the annual Thalians Ball affair and the St. Jude Hospital affair that Danny Thomas always did."

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader

More from the web

Comments

wrj001 May 27, 2008 @ 1:57 p.m.

Well researched article and pretty close to factual concerning Vince and G.(George) Tate. I was the v/p of Walnut international productions inc. in the early 70's and there never was a Frank Clancy who put together the Backstage Restaurant, which was a pawn shop on 3rd& F before we built the Restaurant next to the Off Broadway. The story is true that there was a following out between myself and Vince, but it had nothing to do with Don Wortman who had his hands full, no pun intented, with the production of "Take It Off". This narrative caught the flavor of that period of history in downtown San Diego so many years ago.

0

Jay Allen Sanford July 9, 2008 @ 5:53 p.m.

If anyone wants to see a greatly expanded version of this article - with over 100 rare photos and my own essay about working for Walnut in the late 70s/early 80s, it can be found elsewhere on the Reader website:

http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/bands/ 2008/jun/11/balboas-last-stand-balboa-theater-circa-70s80s/

0

danwhitehead1 July 9, 2008 @ 10:53 p.m.

To wjoo1

You are very much mistaken. There most certainly was a Frank Clancy and he most certainly is the person who was responsible for the opening of the Backstage. I'll tell you what though; it's you that I never heard of nor Walnut "International" for that matter. The only vice presidents at Walnut were Jimmy Johnson (who was head of the advertising department) and Dick Wittie (sp?) (who did the film booking for all the Pussycat houses). What's more, most, if not all, the payroll and employee records were shredded around 1988 or 1989 in the basement of the Hollywood Center Building, so your "research" couldn't have been very thorough. I'm also very much aware that there was a pawn shop at that corner before it became the Backstage; Western Pawn and Loan to be precise. I bought a lot of tools from them. It's too bad that the people who were really in the know are, for the most part, all dead and gone. The treacherous Don Wortman got Mr. Miranda to fire Frank just shortly after the Backstage opened so the he could take it over himself. You are very much in error, whoever you are. I stand by what I said. I was there; I hear, I saw I know.

0

danwhitehead1 July 11, 2008 @ 9:05 a.m.

I just received this from Frank Clancy. Looks like there has been some confusion all around. This Should clear things up a bit:

I think that guy was talking about the original opening of the restaurant. I opened the second incarnation of the restaurant I seem to remember that Tate told me that it had opened when the theatre was legit- there were problems and Walnut closed it. When I opened it the theatre was Deep Throat- was I believe 75 or 76. They needed to get the restaurant re-opened so that they wouldn't lose their liquor license. If you recall I opened one day a month during the setup period to keep the license active- I'd do all of the cooking, waiting, everything that day.

0

Sign in to comment

Join our
newsletter list

Enter to win $25 at Broken Yolk Cafe

Each newsletter subscription
means another chance to win!

Close