“I tried to rescue the Starlight Bowl because I saw the amazing potential a venue like that had,” says Chris Leyva after learning that managers of the 4000-plus seat amphitheater had recently filed bankruptcy. “I wanted to see it become like a mini Hollywood Bowl, and why not? The Starlight has alcohol permits and a huge parking lot.” Leyva is a San Diego–based musician. He also buys local talent for both House of Blues and 4th&B and he tried to do the same at the Starlight.
“I produced a mini festival [Staring at the Sun V, in March of 2007], but [Starlight management] got greedy and turned people away at the door.” Leyva had flooded high schools throughout San Diego County with free tickets but says Starlight refused to honor them on the day of the show. “She [then-manager Susan Suffecool] started charging them all.” Concertgoers who refused to pay were turned away, he says.
Last month, the Starlight Musical Theater, claiming debts well in excess of one million dollars (including payroll taxes, loans, and union pension-fund contributions) filed for Chapter 11 reorganization and canceled the remainder of the 2011 season. But this is not the first time the venue has come up short: the troubled institution was forced to shutter their 1995–’96 season as well.
Former San Diego Repertory Theatre managing director John Redman was brought in by Starlight management as a consultant in 2008. What he walked into was fiscal confusion. Redman urged the board to file bankruptcy as early as 2009. He still thinks that will save the San Diego landmark. “They’re not declaring bankruptcy and saying we’re closing our doors; that’s not what’s happening. They’re holding off the creditors.” The board, he says, is planning 2012. “They’re even looking at doing things this year.” Meanwhile, Starlight season-ticket holders are being offered ticket-for-ticket exchanges at four area theaters.
The Starlight Bowl dates back to the 1930s and the California Pacific International Exposition in Balboa Park. It sits directly under incoming Lindbergh Field air traffic. Entire Broadway musicals are known to freeze onstage during peak moments of jet noise and then resume. Although not so much in recent years, the flyovers have not deterred live rock. Buffalo Springfield, Bob Dylan, the Stones, Korn, Danzig, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Allman Brothers, the Ramones, and many more are part of the rich heritage of rockers that have shouted down the airplane noise from the Starlight stage.
For now, the message board over the Bowl entrance predicts a favorable outcome: “Stay Tuned for Our 65th Season,” it reads. But Chris Leyva is not so optimistic. In his opinion, the outdoor venue is as good as gone. “Now, I guess nobody wins and San Diego loses one more landmark that could have been. I wish Live Nation would buy it out.”