C. Arnholt Smith says he doesn’t recall what he offered for Littlefield’s block and building other than “some cash, around one million dollars, and some securities [stock in his U.S. National Bank]. She seemed interested at first, then it seemed like she didn’t want to sell.”
  • C. Arnholt Smith says he doesn’t recall what he offered for Littlefield’s block and building other than “some cash, around one million dollars, and some securities [stock in his U.S. National Bank]. She seemed interested at first, then it seemed like she didn’t want to sell.”
  • Image by Jim Coit
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

“You 'll never fit all this in. There’s just too much, isn’t there? It’s really a book •that would be timely, for women. And it’s going to be done. You know its title? A Town Against Itself and Me."

Jaquie Littlefield's father told her in 1946 to hold on to the Spreckels Theatre lease in particular because it was the flagship of the group that included the Cabrillo, the Tower, the Broadway, the Adams, and the La Mesa. “And kiddo, don’t let that old pirate Captain Oakley knock that building down."

Jaquie Littlefield's father told her in 1946 to hold on to the Spreckels Theatre lease in particular because it was the flagship of the group that included the Cabrillo, the Tower, the Broadway, the Adams, and the La Mesa. “And kiddo, don’t let that old pirate Captain Oakley knock that building down."

It might make a good book, this story about the daughter of a Hollywood studio executive, the major part of whose life was a dizzying series of location changes. First she and her mother follow her father to New York, then to London, back to New York, and wherever else the business takes him. Later she travels European and Asian cities in search of art and excitement and diversion from the chores of running a chain of San Diego movie houses. It probably would require a book to tell why Jacquelyn Littlefield has come to view herself as an alien here in San Diego, how she has managed to become known as “the difficult woman’’ who owns the Spreckels Building with its magnificent but often empty Spreckels Theatre, how she fits or maybe doesn't fit into this still obscure picture of giant corporations and a big municipal government struggling to remake downtown, this woman whose name touches seemingly all the local institutions and angers not a few important people.

Hallway on an office floor of the Spreckels. Most of the offices have solid-concrete closet safes, with combination-lock steel doors.

Hallway on an office floor of the Spreckels. Most of the offices have solid-concrete closet safes, with combination-lock steel doors.

It would make a better movie, probably. After all, Jacquelyn Littlefield’s life is tied to the movies; she was practically born in a screening room. The movie could open in New York City in 1930 with her father closing a deal to book some talkie into a chain of movie houses somewhere in the Midwest, the phone ringing again just as he's slammed it on the hook and started to grab his fedora on his way out the door. It’s his only kid, a precocious Jacquie, on the line, telling him what she wants for her fifth birthday. But he’s in a rush and can’t talk. “Sure, sure, kiddo, it’s yours. And by the way, tell your mother we’re moving again. We’re going to San Diego.”

The outer lobby of the theater is about two stories high and is almost completely finished in Spanish onyx, the largest collection of applied onyx in the United States.

The outer lobby of the theater is about two stories high and is almost completely finished in Spanish onyx, the largest collection of applied onyx in the United States.

Well, that scene wouldn't quite be true to life. Littlefield won’t say when she was born. “Some things a woman does keep secret.,” she purrs, her voice all butterscotch, her eyebrow arching, dramatically. So for the sake of the movie, let's just say Littlefield was five years old when her father, in his Columbia Pictures office in Manhattan, slammed that phone down for the second time in a few seconds, even though Llttlefteld’s memories of early childhood make it impossible for her to have been that young in this opening scene.

The stage was large enough to have allowed chariots to be driven along the rear of the stage during performances in 1920 of the operatic version of Ben Hur, which starred Enrico Caruso.

The stage was large enough to have allowed chariots to be driven along the rear of the stage during performances in 1920 of the operatic version of Ben Hur, which starred Enrico Caruso.

Little Jacquie's pretty mouth puckers in a pout as she listens to the dial tone. It's probably the sixth or seventh move in her very young life. She has attended Public School b in Manhattan only briefly, made one good friend, and now has to say good-bye to that friend — just as she did the year before in Kensington Gardens, England, where the phones worked differently and the other children laughed at her American accent. She rings her new friend's home. Nobody answers.

“It's very difficult to be thrown into new situations,” Littlefield says today, “just about the time you're comfortable, you're yanked away. You're always the outsider. And you go to school in London in those days and say can* I or bath and they made fun of you. When you said cute over there it meant knock-kneed, and they'd laugh. So pretty soon you're saying bawth and cawn’t, as they do. Then you come home and friends of the family say, 'Darling, speak English for us.’ And so then very quickly you go back to can’t and bath. Some people probably could adjust to that and think of it as just an adventure, but I think it takes its toll.”

Back to the movie. It’s 1944 and the young woman, a very beautiful young woman somewhere in her late teens or early twenties, with a perfect chin and china-doll skin, is at her father's bedside in Beverly Hills as he lies stricken by a succession of heart attacks to which he is about to succumb altogether at the age of forty-six. Her mother two years earlier had already died at the age of forty-two. The father, Louis B. Metzger, is the only family member she has left and he is telling her what he is bequeathing her — some stocks that she must try not to sell and a chain of theater leases in San Diego. She must continue to book films, to hold together the house of Metzger, to hold on to the Spreckels Theatre lease in particular because it is the flagship of the group that includes the Cabrillo, the Tower, the Broadway, the Adams, and the La Mesa. “And kiddo,” he says in a whisper as she leans near, “don’t let that old pirate Captain Oakley knock that building down. I almost bought it, Jacquie. It was almost ours. These people in San Diego, they don't know what it's worth. Hang on to those leases, but especially the Spreckels lease, kiddo. One day, you’ll buy it, kiddo. I know it.”

So much for the movie, and the dim, undocumented past. The fact is, Louis B. Metzger did take his family west to California in 1931 and did, with his brother, corner the market on the movie theater business in San Diego. Very briefly, the family lived in Mission Beach, young Jacquie attending Mission Beach Elementary School, before they picked up to live in Beverly Hills, where the family could be closer to the studios and the source of its livelihood. Jacquie’s transient upbringing continued with schools in Beverly Hills, and then in the Bay Area at Notre Dame, a Catholic girls’ school in Belmont, just south of San Mateo, where, she says, she was first exposed to a continuing passion, art. She was also exposed to another bit of alienation — a Jewish kid in a Catholic school. She enrolled early in UC Berkeley and took art classes, at the age of fifteen, she says, because ’’back then they didn’t have the rules they do now about when you start high school and college.” Always precocious, she was married when she was seventeen, the year her mother died. (It would be the first of four marriages.) When she wasn’t in school, she counted box office receipts in her father’s Beverly Hills office, or worked behind a sales counter at the Saks Fifth Avenue in Los Angeles. Her father commuted back and forth between L.A. and San Diego, and she remembers he used to say he lived and died according to when the fleet was in, his box office receipts rising and falling in the same pattern.

By the mid-Thirties he was making enough money to build a theater at India and Broadway, the Tower, which has since fallen to make way for some unspecified redevelopment project. Across the street on Broadway, he also built the Tower Bowl, a small set of bowling alleys done, like the theater, in art deco style. When in 1944 his chance came to buy the Spreckels Building, whose theater he’d been leasing, and thereby add income from office leases to those of the films he’d been showing, Metzger offered a bit more than $200,000. He was outbid by “Captain” Oakley Hall, the owner of the Star and Crescent ferryboat service that linked San Diego to Coronado. The building was sold to Hall and one of his partners for about $250,000, according to Littlefield, and her father died the same day.

“I didn’t inherit a lot of money, you know. I had three theater leases outright, less than $400,000 appraised assets tied up in all the leaseholds [some of which she shared with her uncle, whom she later bought out] and I think $150,000 worth of stock. I didn’t know the theater business;! only worked in the office in Beverly Hills, and besides. I'd been an art major. I didn’t like (popular] exhibitions."

Metzger had been a principal designer in the 1920s of the "block booking” formula of the major studios for first Universal Pictures and then Columbia (the company, thai had sent him to London for a year to open its foreign office). Block booking was another word for monopoly, whereby the studios either owned or controlled theaters and could ensure that their less successful films would be shown along with their big box office attractions. By the time LittlefieJd assumed the family business, the federal government was looking into antitrust statutes as a way of breaking up the ownerships. In 1946 it found a way and Littlefield, along with the rest of the industry, entered a period of uncertainty. "During the transition (to independent ownerships] there was a $250 million loss in the movie business,” she recalls. "We almost went bankrupt. It wasn't easy, you know.” By now motherless, fatherless, temporarily husbandless, and with a young child herself, she was in a suddenly competitive business that she didn’t feel competent to manage. "I thought I was having a nervous breakdown.” So she began psychoanalysis.

She stretched out on the couch of a woman named Mae Romm, one of the analysts early to set up practice in Beverly Hills, at a time in the late Forties when the Freudian adventure was not so commonplace among the wealthy and the nearly wealthy. "I went for about a year and got that false cure that everyone thinks they have at the end of a year, and I started to cope. A few years later (the mid-Fifties] 1 decided to go back and really dig into it. You had to start with the premise that you didn’t have any security, and anything you gained from there was up. Therapy is like being in a very dark pit and climbing out and seeing a little light, and then it’s darker. It’s a series of ups and downs until finally one day you crawl out and it’s light.”

With some individuals, it’s tempting to ask whether life’s ups and downs are a cause or a result of their personalities, whether they are the products of their lives or the producers of them. Such speculation is tough enough in the abstract, when nothing but conversation is the goal, but Jacquelyn Littlefield doesn't talk just for talk’s sake; she seeks personal vindication. She believes she’s a woman wronged, if not by life generally, then by San Diego particularly, and by some very well-known San Diegans specifically. There’s no telling what her life might have been like if she hadn’t succeeded in buying the Spreckels Building and the downtown block it occupies, but there’s no question that her ownership of it is the secret to this story, whether you give it status as one of her life’s ups or its downs, as a cause or a result.

"Captain” Oakley Hall is one San Diegan she speaks well of. Hall, she says, was a tough landlord, driving hard bargains on the leases she negotiated with him from the time of her father’s death to the early Sixties, "but he was a sweet old character and he liked me. We got along well,” she says. "I wooed him for years trying to buy the building. I'd call him and we’d get together. He’d take me to the Cuyamaca Club and he just wouldn’t sell. ” But one day in 1962 she was back in New York, buying films to show, when Hall rang up. "For whatever reason, maybe it was taxes, he’d decided to sell. I got on the line and he said, 'Hiya, hot stuff, what are you doing in New York?’ And I said, ‘What’s it to you?’ He said, ‘I’m going to sell you the building. You have a month.’ So I told him I’d be out on the first plane.

"He was asking $2.2 million. I wanted to know if I could buy the building and lease the land but he didn't want that. He wanted to sell it all.” Her San Diego bank. First National (now California First Bank), said they’d finance $1.25 million, which meant, of course, that Littlefield and the family trust she’d set up would have to come up with just under one million dollars cash to meet the Captain's price. "I figured the most cash we could come up with was $400,000, and I told my bank that and the next thing I knew, they (the Captain's negotiators) called back and were offering it to us for $1,650,000, and it was clear that they’d dropped the price to the $400,000 down payment we could make, so somebody talked to somebody. ”

Through the Fifties and just after the purchase, she had continued to show first-run movies, but the drive-ins and suburban theaters began eating into attendance in the Sixties. She leased out the Tower operation and it began running pornography. At the Spreckels there began a change to action and adventure films of the kung-fu variety. By the time downtown San Diego was changing character — tilting toward the sleazy in the mid- and late-Sixties — the tendency to play to the tastes of whomever remained along the sidewalks of Broadway was irresistible. Littlefield’s story turns sour here.

At one time or another, starting in 1967 or so, it seems anyone who was ever involved in downtown property made a pass at buying the Spreckels. Redevelopment was in the air at city hall, but it was C. Arnholt Smith who was on the move. He had already bought the block between Second and Third streets and Broadway and C, tearing down the old Elks Building and locker clubs there to erect his bank building and the Westgatc Hotel. He also bought the next block west, where he built the skyscraper that now houses the Wickes headquarters as well as the Executive Hotel. But he wasn’t stopping there. “We were very serious about the Spreckels.” Smith recalls. “We wanted to renovate it and bring it back to its former glory.” He was going to restore the high-ceilinged, fin de siecle auditorium to its original purpose — live theater — and modernize the ground floor for shop leases while refurnishing the upper five floors to attract more well-heeled tenants.

While he talked to Littlefield, Smith was also talking to the Greyhound Bus Corporation about buying their block between Front and First and Broadway and C. And he was talking to the owner of the U.S. Grant Hotel to buy that building as well. “We were trying to buy everything.” says Bob Harmon, Smith’s brother-in-law, who actually did the negotiating with Littlefield.

“It was going to be a mini-redevelopment,” Smith says. “The Grant would have provided more rooms for convention use. We were interested in [taking over] the Greyhound block because it was noisy and congested and right across from the (Executive] hotel, where we could have used more office space, and time has certainly proved that need if you’ll just check the skyline of downtown. But we were particularly interested in the Spreckels.”

Smith says he doesn’t recall what he offered for Littlefield’s block and building other than “some cash, around one million dollars, and some securities [stock in his U.S. National Bank]. We met quite a few times. [Littlefield says the meetings were with Harmon ] She seemed interested at first, then it seemed like she didn’t want to sell.” Littlefield says that Smith offered her two million dollars in negotiable and one million dollars in nonnegotiable U.S. National Bank shares. But she turned the offer down, she says, because her most recent husband (from whom she was separated), Los Angeles stockbroker Bob Littlefield, thought the stock was dangerous. He remembers that it was a stock deal for something between three million and five million dollars but that at the time he did not regard the stock as suspect. Bob Littlefield says he advised her against the deal because she needed cash, not more stock, at the time. At any rate, something must have gone wrong during the negotiations because they did not end well. Littlefield says that when she rejected Harmon’s final offer, he shrugged his shoulders and told her, “We’ll get it in condemnation anyway.”'

“He was wielding the power of his brother-in-law,” she recalls, “and I told him, ‘Fine, I’ll remember you said that if it [condemnation] should eventuate.’ “That began a series of efforts by big names to purchase or lease the building, a curious tango in which Littlefield appeared willing to discuss a sale, but not willing to sell.

Col. Irving Salomon was the next to deal with her. Salomon was a retired furniture manufacturer from Chicago who, at the age of forty-five, moved to his ranch in Escondido and began a second career as a U.S. diplomat. According to Littlefield, he offered her $250,000 for the lease to the theater only. “Salomon’s only interest was in live theater, he didn’t want the offices,” says theatrical producer David Thompson. The theater, when Salomon caught the bug for the building, was still not equipped for live performances and it was Salomon’s intention, as it was Smith's before him, to renovate it and restore it to its original purpose. Thompson, during the Fifties and Sixties, was a principal producer of live entertainment here, booking touring shows such as the Broadway cast of / Do, I Do, as well as impresario Sol Hurok’s musical programs — first into City College’s Russ Auditorium, then the Fox, and the Civic Theatre when it came into being. By the late Sixties Thompson was convinced that the Spneckels held the answer to the city’s problem of not having another quality theater for shows when the Civic was unavailable. When Thompson brought singer Marian Anderson to the Civic Theatre. Salomon, who had served with the singer in a United Nations delegation. arranged a reception for her that brought the two men together on the subject of live shows and the unavailability of theater space to house them. Thompson can’t remember what terms were discussed and Salomon’s daughter, Abbe Wolfsheimer, has no knowledge of her father's interest in the Spreckels. Littlefield says Salomon’s $250,000 lease offer was a one-shot payment that would have given him the theater operation indefinitely, and that the offer was inadequate. “The theater at that point was doing one million dollars gross a year. You don't for a quarter of a million dollars buy an entity doing that kind of business.” she says.

Years after the Salomon offer, in the early Seventies, the idea of redeveloping downtown had shifted from Smith’s entrepreneurial effort to the joint schematics of mixing private money with public. But it was prior to the creation of the Centre City Development Corporation that architect Frank Hope went to Littlefield. “He offered me something like $650,000 for a lease on all the offices, and no further rent.” She says it was another one-shot deal, one that would be conditional on the ability of Ernest Hahn to get his Horton Plaza shopping center underway. “He [Hope] wanted an option for which he didn't want to pay. or he wanted to pay me $5000 for it — something ridiculous — to put a hold on the office space, buy a leasehold that would say [the option] belonged to him,” says Littlefield. “And he wasn’t going to exercise the option until Hahn started the redevelopment.”

A year and a half ago the San Diego accounting firm of Considine and Considine approached her, offering, she says, three million dollars for the entire building and the block, nothing down and payable in ten years. To sweeten what she calls an insult, she says that the Considines promised her twenty-five percent of the profit made from their sale of the building. Tim Considine confirms that his firm was interested in buying the building but won't discuss the effort further than that. "Can you imagine it?” Littlefield asks incredulously. "No money down? And I can’t even come back with what most people would — which is. What do you take me for, a fool? — because I’m the one who’s supposed to be so impossible to deal with. So, all I said to them (the Considines) was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ ”

Of these aborted transactions Littlefield says, "I abuse and abrade a lot of people unwittingly and they keep getting madder. They get madder and madder because it’s like the piece of property you could have picked up for fifty dollars down years ago and you kick yourself every time you pass it because it’s gone up to $500 down." A woman who’s been close to Littlefield says these approaches to buy or lease all or part of the building and the block were probably doomed from the beginning because "the thing is, she didn’t want to sell."

Littlefield now says that she’s "decided I want this building for my kids, not for their [prospective buyers’] kids. Because their kids are going to get more than they need anyway." David Thompson, who has remained on good terms with Littlefield, says, "I think the theater is ‘family’ to her. And she feels she has an obligation to preserve what is family. ’’ Littlefield can get even more adamant in defending herself against the oft-heard accusation that she is impossible to deal with. ‘ ‘Why is it a matter of being difficult’ if you want to hold on to what belongs to you? Don’t I have a right to hold on to what is mine?" But why, then, did she bother talking to all those people who came along with offers? “If someone had come along and we could have negotiated something that would have made sense, we’d have done it. Had anyone ever come out with a legitimate deal at a legitimate price, at the time they might have had a deal.”

By the early Seventies it was clear that redevelopment had become an official policy of the city. Ideas began taking shape in the planning department and by 1973 there was something called the redevelopment agency — the city council under another name. There were two distinct camps on the subject of older downtown buildings, one that said basically that it would be a lot easier to tear them all down and start afresh, and the other that said many of the older buildings were valuable assets that should not be destroyed but should be melded with the overall project. Among people of the latter camp, the Spreckels was obviously one of those older buildings worth salvaging, but among the former, the building enjoyed no such sanctity. "The original intent was to take the building by condemnation," says Jess Haro, a former councilman who served at the time. "And the original notion was to tear it down."

What would have been lost had the demolition advocates won the debate is a bit of the famous Chicago-style heritage of early high-rise construction — a reinforced concrete and steel office building in a U shape, the rococo theater nestled within the U, almost a building within a building. Steel beams link the office shell at the upper stories to the theater building, traveling the whole block from First Avenue to Second. From those beams, thousands of construction cables were used to suspend the dome of the theater roughly a hundred feet above the seats. Though not a very big house, w ith just 1400 seats arranged on a main floor, a mezzanine. and a balcony, the theater nevertheless has a capacious. 4000-square-foot stage, large enough to have allowed chariots to be driven along the rear of the stage, out the side door on Second Avenue, around the wall to the First Avenue entrance, and back across the stage during performances in 1920 of the operatic version of Ben Hur, which starred Enrico Caruso. Caruso, or an impostor, autographed the wall of a rehearsal hall bathroom, as did John Philip Sousa, or his impostor, ten years later. The graffiti has been covered with plastic to protect it from painters or vandals.

The acoustics of the theater are such that a person sitting in the balcony, high up in the rear of the dome, can speak at normal conversational levels with another located on the stage some 150 feet away, and without the hint of an echo. Up there in the back portion of the dome stretches an Oval ceiling painting with a massive plaster frame flanked by three smaller scenes. An equally massive plaster arch in the forward part of the dome frames the stage. The outer lobby, or vestibule, of the theater is about two stories high and one hundred feet long and is almost completely finished in Spanish onyx, the largest collection of applied onyx in the United States, according to the building’s superintendent.

The office shell surrounding the theater is far less ornate, and the vacancy of most of its five floors of office space is testimony to the flight to Mission Valley and to newer high-rises downtown of most of the building’s former tenants. The second-floor glass office doors still bear the names of firms and agencies long since departed, such as the Union-Tribune Federal Credit Union, which left six years ago. Hidden underneath the institutional bronze linoleum of the hallways are white decorative tiles, and four feet up the walls, larger ceramic tiles were covered years ago with a layer of paint. The entire building is floored with concrete and the load-bearing walls are also of concrete, covered with plaster, and trimmed with Mexican iron-wood, the same material that frames the clouded-glass office doors. Most of the offices have solid-concrete closet safes, with combination-lock steel doors.

While bureaucrats and council representatives of the tear-it-down school were beginning to examine housing and building codes for the needed clauses justifying demolitions, bureaucrats and civic types of the preservation camp began to formulate the idea of providing through tax breaks or mutual public/private funding the money needed to refurbish the older buildings. And an idea for the Spreckels grew up. Why not incorporate the 1400-seat Spreckels Theatre into redevelopment as the city’s second live-performance theater behind the Civic, as David Thompson and Col. Salomon thought might be done earlier with Salomon’s money alone. According to David Allsbrook, then a planner in the redevelopment section of the city’s planning department and now number-two executive at Centre City Development Corporation, the city did not have money to buy the Spreckels. Even if it had had the money, it was not known how much rehabilitation would have had to be doneta the theater and office space to prepare the building for inclusion in redevelopment, money that would have to be added on top of the purchase price. So a study of the building's 1912 concrete-and-steel construction was ordered by the redevelopment agency to determine its condition. The study would also estimate how much money would have to be spent to correct any structural and decorative deficiencies. The ultimate goal, according to Allsbrook, was to arrive at cost figures that could be the subject of a joint city-Littlefield agreement. “For example, if she said she'd spend five million on rehabilitation, we might help in the financing.” Any deal, however, would be the product of lengthy negotiations over the extent of the city’s financial commitment to the building and the lengths to which the owner would go to earn them — a difficult agreement to reach under any circumstances. Another aspect to the deal was a coordinated theater-booking agreement under the administration of the city’s convention and performing arts center. That agreement with Littlefield would have been necessary because the Civic Theatre was turning back shows due to scheduling conflicts. Another theater under the city’s direction might not relieve scheduling conflicts if it were to book performances independently.

The man who was to work out the booking agreement was Mike Connolly, then the booking agent for the convention and performing arts center and now executive director of the Old Town Opera House. Littlefield and Connolly met on several occasions, but fruitlessly. “They were two theatrical people who had their own ideas and they just couldn’t see eye to eye, ’ ’ says a former city employee who was also engaged in redevelopment planning in the early and middle Seventies. “There were problems over who should produce shows and what type of shows. I think she felt she

LITTLEFIELD

(continued jrom page t // could get it done more quickly and effectively if she dealt with the producers herself rather than let the city middleman it. It was very difficult to deal with her," he says, echoing almost verbatim what so many people say about Littlefield. "But people didn’t listen to her, not really. Frankly, I think some male chauvinism was at work. ” And those arc remarks that echo far less frequently.

The structural report on the Sprockets Building was also to become a sticking point. The local architectural firm of Mun-roe & Reeves was retained by the redevelopment agency (city council) and subcontracted to structural engineers the job of drilling into the concrete to check its strength, particularly as it related to earthquakes. The firm would then take those findings and, combining them with assessments of the cosmetic work needed-on the theater and the office space above and surrounding it, arrive at several alternative plans for rehabilitation and its costs. Drillings into the core in 1974 produced highly varied ratings of concrete strength, but they were values high enough to justify a program of structural strengthening. Seats were missing in the theater balcony, and ornamentation was stained and dirty. Office remodeling over the years had left a hodgepodge of styles that would need standardization if the building were to compete with newer space downtown. Perhaps most damning was the section on earthquakes, in which the report stated that the building might not withstand "twenty-five percent of the wind or earthquake forces specified in the Uniform Building Code." The report concluded that "a complete renovation and structural strengthening program should be undertaken for this historically significant building." Simply to clean up the building and its theater, to redo the plumbing, lighting, and air conditioning, and to undertake extensive office remodeling would cost $3.5 million. To do essentially the same and add structural strengthening would cost $7.1 million. More extensive plans to make the building a full arts center, with rehearsal and storage rooms and modernized office space, under various plans could cost up to $11.5 million.

Littlefield blew up. She commissioned Los Angeles structural engineer Steven Barnes, a recognized and highly respected authority on earthquake safety, to do his own study of the Spreckels. Barnes’s nine-page report sharply differed from the Munroe-Reeves report on the matter of the concrete drillings, arguing that the thickness of the structural columns made up for any deficiency in the quality of the concrete used. He said the building actually exceeds building-code requirements in its ability to support weight. More important to Littlefield. Barnes concluded that the Spreckels met the earthquake codes that are applied to the newest government buildings.

If the Munroe-Reeves report provoked Jacquelyn Littlefield’s hostility on the one hand, for entirely different reasons it angered the "tear-it-down" segment of city planners inside the redevelopment division. Says architect Don Reeves, "Staff wanted me to make ‘revisions’ in the report. and we refused. It wasn’t to their liking because it didn't go as far toward advocating tearing it down as they had wanted. They sent back a marked-up copy of the report. Where 1 said rehabilitation should be undertaken, they wanted could be." The instructions for rewriting the report came from a high city planner (who shortly after the conflict retired from the city) who Reeves said characteristically "thought old buildings were things to be bulldozed."

By now Littlefield was beginning to think the city was purposefully painting the Spreckels Building in the worst possible light, perhaps in order to drive her into a deal with the redevelopment agency and the convention and performing arts center. Her suspicions weren’t lessened when city planner Jim Spotts called on her to deliver a copy of the Munroe-Reeves report. Mike Connolly had come with Spotts. “What the heck did Connolly have to do, coming to my meeting about my private business, about a report on my building?” she now asks rhetorically. Any deals between the city and Littlefield probably went out the window that day. “Connolly really was one of the flies in the ointment,” says the ex-city planner who knew them to be theatrically incompatible.

Littlefield herself decided to convert the theater from film to live performances and closed it down early in 1976 to do so. The ill-fated chamber orchestra, the San Diego Sinfonia, perennially short of money, had been playing the Spreckels since 1975; the San Diego Ballet had been performing there as well. Littlefield in 1976 then announced that she and New York producer and theater owner James Nederlander would be offering a six-play series they would co-produce and which would start in the fall of that year. The Spreckels suddenly looked very successful and, in fact, it was. By November, 1976, Variety magazine was reporting that Equus, with actor Brian Bedford, had grossed $100,000 in one week at the Spreckels, figures closely comparable to Nederlander’s own grosses on New York’s Broadway with Richard Burton in the lead role. The San Diego Union’s theater critic, Welton Jones, had been negative about the theater’s potential for live performance earlier in the year, writing, “It has been said that the Spreckels, for all its undeniable charm, perfect acoustics, and convenient size and location, must have up to two million dollars spent in renovation before it would be an acceptable house for any other than grind films.” But after the Nederlander deal was announced, Jones concentrated his stories on the upbeat, quoting Nederlander as saying, “This is the perfect playhouse for drama, ideal in capacity, physical layout, stage space . . . and she [Littlefield] has kept it in excellent repair.”

But even as the Nedcrlander-Littlefield 1976-77 San Diego Playgoer Series (besides Equus, there was Bubblin' Brown Sugar and The Belle of Amherst, with Julie Harris, among others) was evidently sailing along, there was trouble behind the scenery. Early in 1977, Nederlander had begun quiet negotiations with George and Phillip Gildred, owners of the Fox Theater, with the intention of pulling out of the Spreckels. In April the Union's Welton Jones announced that the Fox would be the site for Nederlander’s second six-play cycle. The Gildreds had signed the booking arrangement with Connolly and the convention and performing arts center that Littlefield had been offered, and Nederlander was the first big booking under that agreement.

Nederlander’s stated reason for. leaving the Spreckels was that Littlefield had booked too many performances by the San Diego Ballet into the theater and that his second season could not be assured of play dates. But to Jacquelyn Littlefield the Nederlander switchover to the Fox was the product of a vendetta against her among the people she had managed to offend, either by refusing to sell the building or by refusing the city’s offer to book and produce shows. “You see Jacquie Littlefield on one side and the Gildreds and their business associates on the other, and that would be a fair conclusion to draw,” says a local entrepreneur active in the theater here. “It seemed to her more than just a coincidence that her problem with Nederlander should have erupted at the same time that others, meaning Connolly, were working out the availability of the Fox.”

With Nederlander gone, Littlefield still had the ballet and the Sinfonia. Arson at the Old Globe in 1978 had made the Spreckels the natural temporary answer to that company’s crisis in light of Nederlander’s move to the Fox, and the 1978 Old Globe season continued in the Spreckels — less profitably for Littlefield, she claims, than Nederlander’s plays had been — but people were still flocking downtown to her theater. Perhaps ambitiously, she also began planning for a six-play cycle of her own that would continue in the Spreckels what Nederlander had removed to the Fox. But 1978 was to be the second and last good season at the Spreckels.

The six-play cycle opened with Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in early 1979 and was supposed to have been followed by the appearances of such noted names as Jean Stapleton. Tammy Grimes, Sandy Dennis, and James Coco. The series, like Nederlander’s, was to be funded largely by advance subscription sales, but too little lead time was allowed to gather those sales and the productions, at $200,000 average cost each, couldn't be funded. One of the publicists retained to work on the sales says that he was finally given the go-ahead to mail out the solicitations only six weeks before the opening of Uncle Vanya. The publicist has other complaints. “She [Littlefield] just creates tension. It would take forever to get her to make a decision. Then she’d approve something and later say she hadn't. I had a graphics designer working two straight days under pressure and then when we were about to mail out, she took a look at the brochure and said, ’I’m a designer and I don’t like that,’ and stan to do it herself. She just couldn't let other people do anything.”

The defections continued. The Old Globe, after the 1978-79 season, left for the newly remodeled California Theatre, and the San Diego Ballet packed its bags as well. The Sinfonia ran out of money. In less than a year, the Spreckels’ lights went altogether out.

“Part of the game has been, ‘Let’s keep her short of money,’ ” Jacquelyn Littlefield says from the davenport of her La Jolla Country Club home. Out the picture window, the golf course fairways undulate down the hill. Farther on. La Jolla’s trees and rooftops march down the mountain; the blue Pacific and an open sky occupy the top half of the picture. “You can say what you want about this woman from Beverly Hills with her house on the hill here, but I wouldn't say my position has been that enviable. They’ve made it a hell on earth here.”

The reference to persons unspecified is purposefully vague. No single individual can be said to have ambushed her plans for a happy life in San Diego as a cultural benefactor; she doesn’t have a single enemy with power enough to destroy her. They together, well, that’s the story. They meaning the newspapers (this one included) that in the past have dwelled on her “controversial’’ qualities. They meaning the lawyer back in the mid-Sixties who she says sold her out when she owned the rights to a soccer franchise (the San Diego Blues, a team that never was formed), by putting a rival team in touch with the investors she had lined up, the same lawyer who was a board member of the Old Globe when the Globe left the Spreckels for the California. They meaning the bankers in town who would not return her phone calls when she was looking for a loan to finance the theater’s renovation to live performance. The potential buyers of the building, the bankers, the lawyers who work out the deals — they are the people around the brunch tables on Sunday who talk about this “impossible” woman. “It’s what I call ‘poisoning the well,’ ” says Floyd Morrow, former city councilman and now one of Littlefield's lawyers. “She’s got her own personality, and anyone (like Littlefieldj who doesn’t conform to the ‘program ’ downtown is known as a wrecker. Because she had her own ideas of what would be good for that block, she got to be known as ‘impossible to deal with,’ Morrow says.

In Littlefield’s battle with the leading lights of San Diego, Morrow is a principal soldier, the Centre City Development Corporation a principal enemy. Morrow says that when he was a councilman, the redevelopment agency’s map of downtown excluded the Spreckels Building, probably as a result of the failed negotiations between the redevelopment planners and Littlefield. A year or so after he failed to win re-election to his seat on the council, Morrow says CCDC simply drew a portion of the Spreckels block back into the project (which meant the land would be condemned under powers of eminent domain). “I could find no council/redevelopmcnt agency action that put it back in. The map was a CCDC map. ’’ The July 9, 1979, Daily Transcript carried a legal description of the back part of Littlefield’s property (now used for parking), which Morrow says proves the CCDC was acting without proper authority, independently of city council. Morrow has copies of a letter written to CCDC director Gerald Trimble by city clerk Charles Abdelnour in which Abdelnour informs CCDC that no information on the remapping had been sent to his office and that CCDC assurances in the published legal notice that copies of the map were on file with the clerk’s office were simply not true. “That was all glossed over,’’ Morrow says. “The council ratified the map.two years later, in June this year. ” The early part of this year, the empty back lot. proposed site of a new hotel that will abut the Spreckcls. was the subject of a letter to Littlefield from the CCDC, which offered her $415,000 for the parcel. Littlefield rejected the offer, and a condemnation notice is expected to be filed shortly. CCDC already told the council in May of this year that negotiations to buy the lot are at an impasse.

Littlefield complains that CCDC is still distributing the Munroe-Reeves report even though, because of the earlier dispute over its conclusions, it was never officially adopted by city council. CCDC’s David Allsbrook says that had the report been officially adopted, its recommendations would have been followed by an overture to Littlefield for a joint agreement to rehabilitate the building. “About a year ago we offered an owner-participation agreement,’’ Allsbrook says, “but she didn’t respond.’’ Littlefield says CCDC “shoved a sheath of papers four inches thick at me and told me they might give me as a trade-out some help on financing. But I’m not going to be able to get financing or joint help from a developer if they’re passing out a structural report that says the building is unsound.”

Ironically, CCDC years ago leased from Littlefield 5000 square feet for its offices in a gesture hailed at the time as evidence that the agency was in fact eager to support older downtown buildings. But the landlord-tenant relationship soured quickly over CCDC’s remodeling of its office space. The leasing contract, according to Littlefield, stated that she would pay up to $16.50 per square foot for the remod-„ eling. which she says she did. But CCDC billed her beyond that — for the architectural plans of the remodeling, plans that were drawn by Don Reeves, the same architect who had done the controversial structural report. She refused to pay for the design and CCDC has yet to pay Reeves. Reeves says Littlefield does not owe him for the design. “1 have no gripe with Jacquie. CCDC is trying to stiff me because Dean Dunphy [president of CCDC] was angry at me for advocating the downtown location (south of City College) for the naval hospital, so he wouldn’t sign the authorizations for payment. So [CCDC] staff said they’d write the design costs into the lease with Jacquie. and she refused to pay.”

The cold war with CCDC doesn’t end there. Two years ago, when Littlefield had hired the city’s ex-property manager Bill MacFarlane as a consultant to help her attract office tenants. MacFarlane signed an agreement with Marilyn Wolfram, CCDC assistant vice president, giving CCDC two rooms rent free, one of them in which the agency has displayed architectural models of redevelopment projects. Littlefield claims MacFarlane had no power to sign the agreement and that she didn’t even know it had been signed until the space had been occupied by CCDC. She says the twelve months’ worth of free rent for the total 1800 square feet is worth $10,500, and when she asked for the money, Gerald Trimble refused to pay it. “He said, ‘Well, we've got it and that’s the way it is.’ I told him, ‘You know, Jerry, good breeding would require you to at least send flowers in recognition of my generosity.’ ”

“I’m telling you all this, but I don't want another negative story," Jacquelyn Littlefield said one day after reeling off several of her complaints (no, I have not reported all of them) for the second time. “I just want you to understand what's been going on.’’ For the record, Littlefield would like it stated that she is a very skilled art collector. ‘‘The art is really what I’m all about,” *he said.

And in fact, I have seen the Calder mobiles, the De Chiricos and other Italian Impressionists she owns. Elsewhere, in storage or on loan or donated to the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, the San Diego Museum of Art, and New York’s Museum of Modem Art, are the works she’s purchased of people whose names I recognize — Henry Moore and Yves Tanguy, for example — and the works of others I don’t, such as Robert Cremean, Aldo Casanova, and Jerome Kirk, all of them California sculptors. One day recently at the San Diego Museum of Art, whose director she says has failed to place donor-identification tags besides the pieces she’s loaned, I noticed that she is listed as a “benefactor” on the brag board in the lobby. A benefactor must make an annual gift of $10,000 to see his or her name in the lobby.

Maybe another indication that the good old boys downtown have not succeeded in drying up her money (if they were in fact trying to do so) is her plans for the Spreckels Building. Several weeks ago Littlefield met with her architect to develop an agenda for improvements on the building. She figures she’s already spent more than $500,000 since 1964 on new seats, stage conversions, exterior paint, installation of air conditioning, some office remodeling on two of the building’s upper floors, and the uncovering of an old box office that had been boarded up and painted over by past owners. Now she has an ambitious plan to redo the marquee, the lobby, and two more office floors next year. In 1983 the plan calls for completion of heating and air conditioning throughout the building, the stripping and refinishing of woodwork, provision of needed fire exits, and the replacing of gargoyle cornices wounded by the passage of time. More is planned in 1984.

‘‘Do you see what I’ve been up against?” Littlefield asked. “What with paying lawyers [a suit against Nederlander for breach of their two-year contract comes up for trial next February J, the condemnation, the daughter with a new baby (she has six children, one of them a foster child), the grandchildren [six of them] who have birthdays, I sometimes don’t have a lot of time to consider the high responsibility of owning an historical monument. And I still have to wait for the plumber to show up when a water heater goes on the blink!”

So why doesn’t she hire someone to manage the shows, do the producing, and run the business? “I didn’t have the money necessary to buy my kind of talent.”

Not that it would necessarily make a good movie, but if it were a movie, this story could end with a real-life vignette. Jacquelyn Littlefield, in the early evening several weeks ago, is walking out of her office on the sixth floor of the Spreckels Building. Down the corridor, she comes upon the black husband-and-wife team who are the new janitors. “Where are you from?” she asks the shy, hesitant cleaning woman.

‘‘Loo-oosiana, miss,” comes the answer.

“Oh well, you must make some great gumbo.”

“No, miss, I don’t make gumbo.”

The camera follows Littlefield into the elevator, out the marbled lobby, and down the stairs to the underground parking lot. She gets in her immaculate twenty-year-old Mercedes convertible and drives into the street, the camera panning slowly up to penthouse heights as the white convertible drives past the marquee out in front, which reads, “Back by Popular Demand. I pi Tombi."

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Comments

Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader

Close