Photo by Robert Burroughs
“The beautiful and unique dome is seen from all over downtown and provides the central area with a rare landmark."
THIS IS A STORY ABOUT THE collision of dreams in the arena of redevelopment politics. One dream was that of Danah Fayman, a wealthy and influential arts patron with powerful political allies. She wanted to convert San Diego's landmark Balboa Theater into an art museum, thereby ensuring employment for her talented friend, Sebastian “Lefty” Adler. The other dream was that of a group of much less influential and sometimes politically naive preservationists, who wanted to prevent the Balboa from being reduced to a shell into which the museum would be inserted. The intriguing political battle that resulted would produce no winners but many losers. Among them were the Russo family, from whom the city seized the Balboa, and the taxpayers of San Diego, who now own a once profit-making private theater that has drained millions of dollars from the coffers of redevelopment and the pockets of private citizens but that today stands idle, boarded up, and decaying.
Entrance. “They were going to tear the Balboa down and put in a parking garage.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
One day back in 1958, Celia Russo Wetherbee stood downtown near the intersection of Fifth Avenue and B Street and watched a wrecking ball slam into the walls of the Orpheum Theater, once the most ornate and beautiful theater in San Diego. Her memory of the event remains vivid nearly thirty years later. “To see the Orpheum come down was devastating,” she says.
Etched glass in door. Although Walnut operated several other X-rated houses in the area, the Russos were adamant.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
“It was so beautiful, it really was. It was a crime to tear it down. I stood there with tears in my eyes.” Especially painful to Wetherbee. whose family has been involved in the entertainment business since 1910, was the Orpheum’s sturdy resistance to its own destruction. “I remember thinking, ‘What a horrible thing to do,' ” she recalls. “It went down real hard. My husband says a wrecking ball wouldn’t do the job — that they had to cut through it or something first.”
What films did play at the Balboa were gruesome action movies.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Within a year of the Orpheum’s demise, another San Diego movie palace of the same era faced the wrecking ball. The owners of the Balboa Theater at the corner of Fourth and E streets planned to demolish the tile-domed Spanish Renaissance-Revival structure and replace it with parking spaces — a fate that, thirteen years later, in 1972, as the city began acquiring property for the 300-acre Horton Plaza Redevelopment Project, once again would threaten the embattled Balboa.
The Balboa was designed to accommodate elaborate stage productions, with an orchestra pit, extensive dressing rooms, a fly loft, and a large proscenium stage, with a lift in the center that could be lowered to dressing, prop, and chorus rooms below.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
On both occasions, however, Celia Russo Wetherbee — and the Russo family — were there to rescue the theater from demolition. In 1959, the horror of seeing the Orpheum destroyed still fresh in her mind, Wetherbee persuaded her family to purchase the Balboa and remove it from harm’s way. “They were going to tear the Balboa down and put in a parking garage,” Wetherbee says. “So we pooled our resources and we bought it.” But like her brother William Russo, who today serves as president of the family business, Wetherbee recalls that the 1959 purchase of the Balboa was no philanthropic gift, but rather a business decision. Russo considers the transaction the result of a felicitous coincidence. The family was in the market for another theater — at one time the family business owned nine San Diego movie houses — and its members felt a strong affection for the Balboa.
What the Russo family purchased for around $100,000 in the serendipitous 1959 real-estate deal was a structure once described as “San Diego’s most palatial theater.” The building had been designed by a San Diego architect, originally owned by a San Diego journalist, and constructed by San Diego contractors with materials provided by San Diego subcontractors. Site excavation began in 1923, and the spectacular new movie palace opened a year later. The five-story building also included space for thirty-four offices and six retail stores on the Fourth Avenue side. In addition to providing a magnificent setting for motion pictures, the theater, like many of its era, was designed to accommodate elaborate stage productions, with an orchestra pit, extensive dressing rooms, a fly loft, and a large proscenium stage, with a lift in the center that could be lowered to dressing, prop, and chorus rooms below.
The theater had superb acoustic features. Leaders in the entertainment industry were uncertain at the time whether the popularity of motion pictures would endure, and some, including the legendary Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, known as “the master of the movie palace,” believed that “classy vaudeville acts” would eventually replace motion pictures. In fact, on opening night, theatergoers at the Balboa were treated to both forms of entertainment. They first were entertained by the Franchon and Marco revue, a show that combined popular songs with dancing chorus girls. A concert band provided live music from the orchestra pit. Following Franchon and Marco was the night’s film, Lilies of the Field, starring Corrine Griffith and Conway Tearle. Both Griffith — who would later become newsworthy for her tax protests — and Tearle attended the opening festivities.
Audience members were cooled by two large waterfalls mounted into the walls on either side of the stage. The theater above them rose a full five stories and featured a large balcony, with seating that extended the theater’s capacity to nearly 1500. The balcony lobby was furnished with large sofas and comfortable chairs; the ceiling revealed elaborate, hand-painted designs, while walls and foyers displayed intricate plaster work. The same artisans who were responsible for the grand decorations of Mexico City’s Teatro Internacional had worked their craft on the ceilings, walls, and hallways of the Balboa. Downstairs at the theater entrance, a colored tile panel in the sidewalk depicted the discovery in 1513 of the Pacific Ocean by the theater’s namesake, Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa.
When it opened, the Balboa also housed a backstage pipe organ, with air registers located throughout the theater to which music was carried via wooden ducts. It was, in every sense, a vaudeville movie palace typical of the era of American entertainment history in which it was built.
The truth, however, is that the Balboa was built toward the end of that era and was never truly successful as anything but a movie house. Its stage would host vaudeville acts and other live performances for fewer than a half-dozen years. During one such act, according to anecdotal history that does not pinpoint a date, live elephants were featured onstage as part of a circus theme. One of the elephants, so the story goes, became incontinent during the show, soaking the orchestra pit and the first three rows of spectators with a spray of urine that cooked onto stage lighting and created a lingering reminder of the unfortunate surprise.
But by 1930, such mishaps were impossible. The Balboa, following a substantial renovation that included erection of a new neon marquee and replacement of outdated projection equipment, reopened under the management of Fox West Coast Theatres. The new owners showed only motion pictures, and only Spanish-language motion pictures. The San Diego Union reported in November of 1930 that Fox West Coast intended to make the Balboa “the equal of the big motion picture theatres of Mexico City,” and Mexican movie stars were, according to the article, scheduled to travel to San Diego for the Balboa’s “lavish” reopening. But Fox’s Spanish-language theater survived for only two years. Local historians blame the economic calamities of the Great Depression for bringing an untimely end to Fox’s Spanish-only experiment. By 1932 Fox West Coast had put the Balboa back into operation as a movie house, abandoning Spanish films in favor of the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers, for fifteen cents’ admission, with continuous showings from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. For the next twenty-seven years, the Balboa rarely offered live performances, and by 1959, Fox West Coast decided it was time for progress to take its toll. The company closed the Balboa and scheduled it for demolition. Enter Celia Russo Wetherbee and the Russo family.
FOR THE NEXT twelve years, as the city around them continued its decline into a blighted pit of X-rated theaters, porn shops, and other such uses, the Russos maintained the countenance of the Balboa as best they could, refusing to show X-rated films and complaining at one point to the city that exhaust from municipal buses was marring the building’s exterior. The Russos maintained a relatively uneventful ownership of the Balboa, with the possible exception of a 1965 fire in the four-story office section of the building, which had earlier been converted into a hotel. The fire affected only one room but led to the discovery of inadequate exits, which forced the hotel to close. In 1966 the family paid to have the theater redecorated but left the building’s character undisturbed. They added heavy Spanish furniture in the lobby and put up some wall maps. Soon, however, progress again threatened the Balboa, and it required the intervention of Wetherbee and her family to thwart another demolition proposal.
This time it was the City of San Diego, acquiring property for what ultimately would be the site of the Horton Plaza shopping center redevelopment project, that proposed leveling the Balboa. The Russos, joined by some staff members of the planning department and the city’s Historic Site Board, pleaded for the theater’s preservation, along with the preservation of several other historic buildings that sat in the shadow of looming bulldozers. “They were starting to take property for the Horton Plaza, and we went before the city council and were able to save it again,” says Wetherbee. In 1972, with plans for the area still uncertain, Wetherbee penned a letter to the planning commission, indicating the willingness of Russo Suburban Enterprises to join with the city in the budding redevelopment effort but emphasizing that the family wanted to retain ownership of its property. “We feel that the building’s basic architectural character is an asset to our downtown area,” she wrote. “The beautiful and unique dome is seen from all over downtown and provides the central area with a rare landmark. The dome is also compatible with the Horton Plaza Fountain. Surely such a coordinated design is not the result of chance, but it was a relationship which was carefully designed by the architect at the time the building was constructed. We would like to reiterate once again that we would like to keep and refurbish our building, and we are happy having our building included as one of the three major historical sites on the project area.”
Four months later, on August 4, 1972, the Historical Site Board officially designated the Balboa a historic site. And a little more than a year later, in October of 1973, the city redevelopment agency adopted the Urban Design and Development Plan for the Horton Plaza Redevelopment Project, which was supposed to serve as a guide for future redevelopment in the area. It included as one of its objectives the preservation of “artistically and architecturally worthwhile structures and sites.” Spared by the plan were the Balboa, the Golden West Hotel, and the Spreckels Building “because of their uniqueness, flavor, quality of workmanship and/or historical significance.” The plan recommended the following measures for the Balboa: “The cupola should be preserved. The lobby levels should be restored to their original polychrome treatment. The orchestra should be remodeled and refurbished, the rear wall restored, and the offices remodeled. Lighting and furnishings appropriate to the building’s character should be provided.” Elsewhere in the adopted report was this recommendation: “The Spreckels and Balboa theaters be preserved as entertainment facilities, pending further feasibility analysis.” That was the plan.
The reality, however, according to the Russos, was a constant debate between the family and the city over just what was feasible for the Balboa and what financial role the city would play in that effort. The controversy led to a series of meetings with city bureaucrats, who offered the family nothing in the way of financial support toward major renovation of the structure. The family believed then — and believes today — that it should have been afforded the same treatment as any other developer in the redevelopment district, where some developers have received huge subsidies from the city in order to go forward with favored projects. Proposals for the Balboa included, among others, its use as an acting school, as a legitimate theater for live productions, as a symphony hall, and as a performing center for the Civic Light Opera Association. “There were so many that I can’t recall,” says William Russo. “We tried to do things, but the city just didn’t want to listen. There was never any project developed. We were willing to put some money in — but they never offered us a quarter.” Russo is convinced that the city ruled out continued operation of the Balboa as a movie house to avoid competition with the seven new movie theaters then under construction in Horton Plaza. If the family were to hold on to the property, he believes, it would have to come up with some other use acceptable to the Centre City Development Corporation, a quasi-public agency created by the city council in 1975 to handle the increasingly complex redevelopment effort.
CCDC’s David Allsbrook, who has been involved with the Balboa Theater as a redevelopment projects administrator for more than a decade, interprets differently the situation in which the Russos found themselves. “It was pretty much a run-down building with no capital improvements in it, and it was a grade-B movie house,” says Allsbrook. “We feel that that is not appropriate in that location — next to Horton Plaza and the Gaslamp Quarter. It doesn’t make sense to make it a movie house. No one is going to come in and operate it as a movie house and fix up the building.” The reason no plan would work, says Allsbrook, was the unwillingness of the Russos to spend enough money. “We had a number of discussions with the Russos for approximately a ten-year period about trying to develop the building,” he says. “We couldn’t work anything out that would pencil out for them. They weren’t willing to spend any money on the building to really fix it up.”
How much money would have been required of the Russos? In August of 1974, a study was completed for the redevelopment agency by Munroe & Reeves, a San Diego architectural firm, on the feasibility of rehabilitating the Balboa. The study concluded that rehabilitation of the building, including structural reinforcement to enable it better to withstand earthquakes; conversion of office space into a hotel; massive improvements to plumbing, electrical, and ventilation systems; and the possible addition of a restaurant in lieu of a hotel, would cost just under $2 million. Despite the substantial work and money involved in such an undertaking, the report’s authors were solidly behind restoration. “Because of the building’s unique architectural style and its potential for use as an intimate theatre in the Horton Plaza Redevelopment Area, the Balboa Theatre should be considered for complete renovation for use as a house for live productions and an exciting, round-the-clock use found for the office/hotel space,” they wrote.
FACED WITH THE prospect of $2 million in restoration costs and the reality of no financial assistance from the city, in May of 1975, the Russos offered to give the property to the city. That offer collapsed primarily, according to both the Russo family and CCDC officials, because of a Russo family trust with an interest in the property that could not be easily conveyed under the law. A reprieve of sorts was granted in 1975, when CCDC instructed Horton Plaza developer E.W. Hahn Company “to proceed with project planning on the basis that the Balboa Theatre will be retained.’’ Some preservationists argue today that the only reason the Balboa was spared in 1975 was because CCDC. at the time, had depleted its funds for acquiring land and property in the redevelopment district.
The Russos continued operating the Balboa as a movie house until 1976, when they leased it to Walnut Properties of Hollywood with the proviso that no X-rated movies be shown there. Although Walnut operated several other X-rated houses in the area, the Russos were adamant. What films did play at the Balboa were those gruesome action movies popular with a large segment of the movie-going public. Walnut did well, says William Russo. “The Balboa wasn't doing all that bad. They had lots of weeks where they were doing $10,000 a week in the box office and half that again at the snack bar.” On several occasions, says Russo, Walnut asked to buy the property, but the Russos declined. Walnut also briefly considered turning the theater into a triplex house but, frustrated by what company executives perceived to be confusing signals from CCDC about the fate of the building, dropped out. “As a matter of investing that kind of money, you need to know that you are going to be there,” says Walnut spokesman Donald Haley. “It’s something that, with the community redevelopment — the way they have changed from here to there in not deciding what they wanted to do with the theater — it’s unrealistic to expect a massive investment in triplexing a house.” So the movies continued to run at the Balboa, and its fate remained uncertain.
During Walnut's operation of the theater, CCDC thwarted an attempt by preservationists to have the Balboa registered as a national historic site. The plan had moved along the bureaucratic path relatively easily and had won approval from the city council in May of 1977 for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, along with the Gaslamp Quarter Historic District, the Horton Grand Hotel, and Horton Plaza and fountain. But the council made the nominations contingent on approval by CCDC. At a special meeting of CCDC’s board of directors on June 6, 1977, deputy general counsel Hal Valderhaug reminded the board, “It does not help to designate a building as a historic site if it is going to be demolished.” The nomination was tabled, and while the theater would remain Historical Site No. 77 in San Diego, until the building’s future was resolved, the city would not seek national recognition for the structure.
In 1981 the National Endowment for the Arts refused a city request for a $30,000 grant to pay for yet another feasibility study on the Balboa. This study would have looked into the possibility of turning the Balboa into a legitimate playhouse and appeared to have the enthusiastic backing of CCDC executive vice president Gerald Trimble, but NEA officials concluded the city “failed to explain the ultimate use of the structure.” Instead, in the spring of 1982, CCDC hired theater expert Arthur H. Ballet, professor of theater arts at the University of Minnesota and consultant to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, to advise the agency on theater needs in the Horton Plaza area. The result of Ballet’s study was not the refurbishment of the Balboa, but the construction of the new Lyceum Theater in a 30,000-square-foot shell excavated beneath the shopping center, offered by Horton Plaza developer Hahn. (The old Lyceum, which had its own colorful history that included use as a burlesque house in the 1930s and acquisition by the late Vincent Miranda in the 1960s for live productions, had been demolished to make way for the shopping center.) The decision was another blow to the Balboa’s chances of restoration. By committing itself to the Lyceum as a redevelopment project, the city had obligated itself not only to construction of the new theater but to operating subsidies as well.
The construction of the new Lyceum, which cost the city around eight million dollars — twice as much as first anticipated — left a lasting impression with CCDC officials regarding nonprofit proposals, especially since redevelopment is supposed to pay for itself by generating new tax revenues based on the increased value of property in the redevelopment area. The new tax revenues are then used, not for essential city services but to finance other redevelopment projects over the life of the redevelopment plan. Longterm city subsidies, they say, defeat the purpose of redevelopment and hamper future redevelopment efforts. “Nonprofit theater always takes a subsidy,” says CCDC’s Allsbrook. “You never make any money on that. Right now our budget next year for the Lyceum subsidizing is $304,000.”
It was somewhere along this time — after the Ballet report and the subsequent recommendation that the city construct the new Lyceum — that the Russos say they were approached by some well-heeled San Diego arts patrons about the possibility of converting the Balboa into an art museum. The proposal was initially interesting to them, but they say it did not take long to conclude that despite the backing of powerful players in the San Diego arts and business communities, the museum was like the other proposals that had come before: a grand idea with no real money behind it. “The art center group started talking to us a long time before they were talking to the city,” says Paul Russo, William Russo’s son and general manager of the family business. “The city basically said, ‘Here’s the art center group. We’d like you to talk to them and see if you guys can work out a deal.’ They had a lot of big names on the board and a lot of impressive people here in town, but when you went through their documents, we felt that they were not obligating themselves. Everyone was giving lip service to the fact that, ‘Yes, we have a lot of money and a lot of backing, we’re going to do a wonderful project here,’ but nobody was willing to sign on the dotted line. We struggled with this for months and months, and we finally told the city, ‘Look, we would love to participate. We do not want to lose the building, but this group is not for real. They don't have the financing. They don’t have the backing. None of these wealthy people is willing to put themselves on the line.’ ”
The arts center idea was the singular dream of wealthy philanthropist Danah Fayman, chairwoman of the San Diego Foundation for the Performing Arts, former president of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, former board member of the Old Globe Theatre, and activist in a variety of civic endeavors ranging from Partners for Livable Places to the UCSD Board of Overseers. In 1983 Fayman's friend and colleague Sebastian “Lefty” Adler was fired from his post as director at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. Fayman, who already had given some thought to the idea of a major downtown art museum, seized the moment. “Mr. Adler was not at the La Jolla Museum anymore,” she explains. “And he is a very talented person. I had for a long time been thinking that it would be nice for the La Jolla Museum to have a presence downtown somewhere. So when he left, it just seemed like a good opportunity to go down and Find a place and start something going there.”
Fayman went directly to CCDC executive vice president Gerald Trimble to find that place. “I went to Jerry Trimble first with the idea.” she says. “He offered us several spots, and we chose the Balboa. He put us in touch with the Russos." What Fayman. Adler, and Trimble envisioned for the Balboa was a multilevel art museum with an emphasis on architecture and design, as well as some associated retail shops and restaurants whose revenues would help foot some of the bill for the museum.
But the Russos owned the building, and it was their unwillingness to sign on the dotted line themselves and enter into a private venture with the art center that instead resulted in the loss of their Balboa. Fayman recalls that the Russos “did not believe that it would work" and so refused to join the art center project. But, she said, Trimble strongly backed the effort “because nobody had been to him before with a good idea and an offer to raise money to do it." CCDC officials — and other political leaders in the city — were persuaded that Fayman’s art center proposal was the best use for the Balboa. The Russos would just have to get out. In June of 1985, the CCDC board voted unanimously to recommend condemnation of the Balboa, and the city council approved the measure the following month.
When first news of the art center proposal began to hit the newspapers in 1983, assistant planning director Michael Stepner penned a memo to Max Schmidt, CCDC’s vice president for planning and engineering, on a photocopy of one such article, making a prescient observation. “We need to discuss this project soon,” wrote Stepner. “There are some issues that need to be identified and resolved up front, or else the project will be bogged down in the financing and approval process." That indeed became the fate of the art center proposal for the Balboa and led eventually to the plan’s abandonment, but not before the city wrested from the Russos ownership of the theater.
The Russos considered fighting the city on the issue of condemnation but were advised by legal counsel that their chances of winning were slim. However, the family continues to pursue in court the issue of compensation, contending that the $1.8 million they were paid is far below the three to four million dollars the family considers it to be worth. A civil trial on that issue is expected to begin this fall. Family members speak of the loss of the Balboa like the soldiers of a defeated army. Paul Russo recalls a last-chance meeting with then-Mayor Roger Hedgecock in a futile effort to fend off the forces of condemnation. “He said, ‘Look, you guys are too little too late. We’ve got the art center here. They've got money in hand. They’ve got a viable project, and we’re just going to have to go with them,’ ” the younger Russo recalls.
But the art center proposal, so captivating to CCDC and the city council that they took the Balboa Theater for public use over the protests of its private owners, never came to fruition for the same reason the Russos lost it: backers could not come up with the millions to Finance it. By the end, says Fayman, projected costs had soared to $15 million. For a while after the city acquired the Balboa, the theater remained open under the auspices of Walnut Properties, which still had a lease on the building and continued to operate it as a movie house. But by November of 1985, as criticism continued to mount against the art center by a growing band of preservationists, who claimed the museum would destroy “the heart and soul” of the Balboa by gutting much of its interior, CCDC ordered another in a series of studies of the theater.
CCDC commissioned the study after Englekirk & Hart Consulting Engineers, Inc. — the Firm that was hired by art center developer Chris Mortenson — expressed concerns over the Balboa’s ability to withstand an earthquake. Company president Gary Hart said the building could be adequately strengthened by adding several floors within the theater, the very proposal that had earlier spurred preservationists to object to the art center project. The preservationists viewed the two recommendations as more than coincidental; and they claim that the study of the structural analysis of the Balboa as a theater was aimed at dashing any hopes for restoration of the Balboa.
The results of that analysis, performed by the engineering firm Blaylock-Willis & Associates (the same firm that conducted a similar study for the 1974 Munroe-Reeves report on the feasibility of rehabilitating the Balboa) would lead preservationists publicly to question CCDC’s integrity. The fight over the fate of the Balboa erupted into acrimonious political warfare that still exists and for which Fayman today blames the art center’s demise. In a report provided to CCDC in February of 1986, the engineers concluded that the theater was a safety risk. Its walls, they said, could come tumbling down in the event of a substantial earthquake. If the building were to be used as a 1500-seat theater, they said, it would cost in the neighborhood of $2.3 million to shore up.
Aside from igniting a political fire, the structural study set in motion the bureaucratic machinery necessary to close the Balboa for good as a theater, further clearing a path for Fayman’s art center. On March 3, 1986, the city attorney’s office issued the following one-paragraph announcement: “In light of the engineering report prepared by Blaylock-Willis and Associates dated February 20, 1986, we recommend the discontinuance of any occupancy of the Balboa Theatre to minimize possible risk or injury to life and property should a seismic event occur.” The following month. CCDC announced that it would give Walnut thirty days to vacate the building and agreed to pay $10,000 for its loss of the Balboa's use. Walnut vacated on April 8, 1986, but even today Walnut spokesman Haley recounts the situation with skepticism. “There was a question of whether the community was going to put in a legitimate theater, a museum, a library — it went around the course many times. Then finally, for safety’s sake — that’s what they claimed — the lease was terminated.”
THE GROWING political outcry of theater preservationists gained steam as its leaders pointed more and more to what they considered a heavy hand by CCDC in pushing through the art center project. They cite the sudden closing of the Balboa as an example. Steve Karo, one of the most active and vocal leaders of the effort to retain the Balboa as a theater, maintains that CCDC used the structural study as a mechanism “to get the theater people off their backs so they could get on with the art center.” Karo claims the CCDC decision to order the study made no sense at the time because CCDC already had committed itself to the art center, which, if constructed, would have made the building seismically safe by its own engineers’ estimation. “They had already contracted with the art center, and they were moving forward with that project,” says Karo. “Why would they do a study on the structural portion of the building as a theater?”
Karo claims the CCDC move was purely political. The engineers for Blaylock-Willis & Associates who performed the 1974 Munroe-Reeves study had reached the same conclusions about safety, but the building was never closed. “They [CCDC] already knew what their [Blaylock-Willis & Associates’] opinion was,” says Karo. “We could only assume that they were after the same opinion. The big question is, why didn’t they close it down in 1974?”
CCDC’s Trimble bristles at the suggestion of a fix. “Oh, hell,” he exclaims, noticeably agitated. “They can question anything they want to. What does that mean? It was done by a qualified engineer. Question it as long as you want to. The fact stands that the building is substandard.” Moreover, he continues, people who ask why the theater was not closed in 1974 are “naive.” In 1974, he says, the Balboa was still in private hands. “The city had the authority, but they didn’t own it as a public building.” Karo wonders if that means it's okay for buildings to cave in on people during earthquakes, so long they are not public buildings.
It was not just the structural study, however, that Karo and his allies questioned as the art center saga unfolded. They cite, for example, a series of letters written in 1984 and 1985 by local theater leaders that panned the Balboa as a performing theater. Preservationists claim that CCDC, which solicited the letters after it sponsored tours of the Balboa, selected those people it knew would give the hall bad ratings. Among them, for example, was a letter from Old Globe executive producer Craig Noel. “Please, I beg you, look with a jaundiced eye on those who tell you that the Balboa Theatre should be kept as a theatre,” wrote Noel. “Some ten years ago, I was asked by city officials to look at the Balboa, as they were considering it for a civic facility. I told them then, in no uncertain terms, that I felt that the renovation of that theatre would be excessive. I feel even more strongly about this today. It would be a far more advantageous location for a museum....”
The museum, no doubt he meant, was the one Danah Fayman wanted to build there. What Noel’s letter did not say was that he and Fayman had served together at the Old Globe when she was pressing the Old Globe to locate a third theater downtown. It was then he told Fayman that the Balboa was unsuitable for use as a performing center. “Years ago I was on the board of the Old Globe,” says Fayman. “This was before the fire. We were wanting a third theater, and I was a big downtown fan, and I was hoping they would find a place downtown. I was on the committee, so we went and looked at the Balboa as one possibility.” Among those who “went and looked,” she says, was Noel. “Craig just said, ‘Oh, this will never work. This is a terrible theater.’ ”
Karo points out that the use to which the Old Globe wanted to put the Balboa and the use to which its preservationist advocates want to put it are so different that Noel's opinion could be, at the same time, accurate for the Old Globe but inaccurate for the others. What concerns him is the political maneuvering he believes CCDC is guilty of in its pursuit of the art center. It was a case, he says, of Jerry Trimble listening only to his influential friends. Unlike Fayman, Karo and his associates had little credibility and very limited access to the corridors of power where CCDC made its decisions.
AS THE POLITICAL winds blew fiercer around the Balboa, Karo and other preservationists became bolder, laying plans to call their own set of experts in to examine the Balboa and threatening to take the issue to the voters in a referendum. In the meantime, says Fayman, hopes began to dim for art center proponents. She says that an increasingly hostile press made it difficult for art center backers to persuade prospective contributors to part with their money. Although Fayman’s proposal had won support earlier on the editorial pages of both the Union and Tribune, staff writers who covered theater and the arts waged what she believes was an unrelenting war of words against the museum proposal. She specifically cites the work of Union theater critic Welton Jones and Union arts critic Anne Marie Welsh. “Welton Jones and Anne Marie Welsh really made it tough,” says Fayman. “I think there was editorial opinion on the news pages.” And, she says, neither Jones nor Welsh ever talked to her about the art center during the period the articles were appearing. “They never called me,” says Fayman. “I don't know what motivated Anne Marie — well, I do know. Jones motivated her. But he’s just a theater bug. He just loves theater, and he likes putting out theater, as well as going to it as a critic. He’s a producer too.” Fayman believes it was Jones’s view that “it is bad to lose any theater,” regardless of the merits of the art center.
Jones contends he was just doing his job as a journalist. “My beat is the theater, and it is expected of me that I cover it,” he says. “As far as influencing Ms. Welsh, well, she is a colleague. She talked to me and asked me what I thought, and I told her. We exchanged information about it frequently.” Jones, who counts himself among the many fans of Fayman for her devotion to art in San Diego, says he had nothing against the art center. “If art can happen, I’m in favor of it. What distressed me and surprised me was the plan to take a viable and acutely essential theatrical resource and convert it to a use that seemed to me could be housed in any number of other locations. I felt, personally, that it was a shame that they would consider trashing a theater for any purpose. But never, at any time, did I have anything against the art center, and I still don’t. I was just a theater reporter covering his beat.”
As opposition mounted and fundraising became more difficult, a decision reluctantly was made to abandon the museum. “We had a kind of board retreat with a fundraiser one Saturday morning and spent a long time on it and went over everything,” says Fayman. “We didn’t decide that morning, but we all went home and thought about what we worked on that morning. And that’s when it happened. About two or three weeks later or four, we all came to the same conclusion independently.” A short time later, the legal mechanisms were set in motion to bring an end to the art center proposal.
Fayman says there were two key factors in the death of her dream. One was the unexpected political opposition that frightened away prospective contributors; the other was a change in federal tax laws that eliminated tax credits for the adaptation of the Balboa to an art museum, which made it impossible for the art center to fly without a public subsidy. “There was a lot of opposition, and it was very public,” says Fayman. “It cast a lot of doubt on whether there would be an art center in there. You can’t go out and raise money for something when people are not sure whether it is going to be there or not. If you don’t have a building, you can’t go out and raise money for it.” That, coupled with the tax-law change, proved too much for the art center to bear. “For two years, we went sailing along until this tax-law change,” she says. “Then it looked like it would take some public subsidy to make it work. Then the word ‘subsidy’ got out, and all of a sudden, it was a very attractive theater, which it had never been before.”
Preservationists don’t see it quite the same way as Fayman. Their view is that if the city would subsidize Fayman, why not the Russos earlier, or those who later sought to retain the Balboa as a theater? Regardless of the various interpretations, however, the art center died at the hands of the preservationists. But they didn’t stop there.
As the art center breathed its last labored breaths, Karo and others who sought to save the Balboa were bracing for another battle with CCDC, this time over a city-sponsored study of theater needs downtown. The Harrison Price-Theatre Projects study of downtown theater space is another example of political shenanigans by CCDC, Karo claims. While the art center project was still alive, preservationists claim, they had to fight to get the Balboa included in the study. CCDC had first excluded the Balboa, saying that the agency had an exclusive agreement with the art center for the building’s future use. Thus the Balboa was irrelevant to downtown San Diego’s future theatrical scene. But then, says Karo, after being forced to include the Balboa in the study, the CCDC selected an advisory group to choose the firm to conduct the study, instead of consulting theater groups in the city that were known to favor the Balboa.
In response to what they expected to be a negative assessment of the Balboa by CCDC’s consultants, the preservationists called in a group of their own experts and guided them through the theater. Karo himself paid the airfare and expenses out of his own pocket. Accommodations were provided by a sympathetic hotel owner. Among these experts were an engineer with the Chicago-based d’Escoto Inc., which had been instrumental in the restoration of four theaters in the Midwest; and a consultant from Conrad Schmitt Studios of Milwaukee, a hundred-year-old firm that specialized in theater plaster and mural restoration. Experts from both firms concluded that the Balboa was in excellent shape and could be restored into a grand theater. To add force to the findings of these experts, preservationists called a news conference in February to coincide within days of the release of the $62,000 Harrison Price-Theater Projects study.
As they expected, the CCDC-sponsored study placed the Balboa in last place, behind the Spreckels and the California theaters. The study again reinforced, albeit belatedly, the CCDC’s view that the Balboa could best be used as an art center. “The city’s redevelopment agency bought the theater with the intention of converting the building into an arts center,” wrote the consultants. “This use would fulfill the recommendation that the building should be preserved for arts usage but would inevitably mean removing its potential for re-use as a performing arts venue in the future. This however may not be a serious loss since the potential of the auditorium as a performance venue is not great, and a positive adaptive re-use would preserve the fine exterior and the best of the interior decor.”
Trimble believes the Harrison Price-Theater Projects report is the most reliable information available about the Balboa’s potential for use as a theater. He dismisses the preservationists’ experts as not experts at all. “We're the only one who hired theater experts,” he says. “Steve Karo and his group brought in people that do a nice job of painting and fixing up buildings. There’s a big difference. They are not theater experts.’’ That view, responds Karo, typifies the “arrogance” he and other preservationists have had to cope with during their long and largely unsuccessful dealings with Trimble and CCDC.
Even with the art center now out of the picture, relations between Trimble and the preservationists can hardly be said to have warmed. In a letter written just last month, Toni Michetti, president and chairman of the board of the newly formed Balboa Theater Foundation, complained to Trimble of “unofficial discouragement from CCDC” in the foundation’s attempt to devise a plan to restore the now-abandoned theater. Michetti asked that some $2.5 million, earmarked for the art center project, “remain dedicated to the renovation of the Balboa Theatre pending reasonable efforts by the Foundation to demonstrate the viability of its recent proposal for the renovation of the Balboa as a performing arts venue.”
In his response five days later, Trimble wrote Michetti: “You continue to fail to recognize that it is easy for groups to support your goals when the financial burden for restoration of the Balboa will fall to the Redevelopment Agency.” As far as the money is concerned, said Trimble, except for funds needed to cover the costs of final acquisition, a planned summer exterior refurbishment, and the expense of “evaluating your proposal,” the $1.3- to $1.5 million left over would best be spent elsewhere, because “this is an amount not large enough to accomplish even the most minimal program to open the doors of the Balboa.” The best approach, he continued, would be another “consultant-assisted evaluation" that includes both the Balboa and the Spreckels theaters. “We have pointed out time and again that the Agency must know what it is getting into before making a commitment on a project,” he reminded Michetti.
Michetti, a producer and director of musical revues, tries hard not to exacerbate former art center advocates when she discusses the foundation’s aspirations. The organization has prepared a detailed plan for restoration of the Balboa that, ironically, includes as substantiation some of the reports issued by the very experts Trimble discounts.
“The foundation really came about last August, when it became evident that the art center project was not going forward,” says Michetti. “None of us were against the art center project. We just thought there were better places to put an art center than in a theater that should remain a theater. Many of the people who came aboard when we formed the foundation are people who are not basically preservationists — but people who are very interested in downtown just because they believe in what’s happening with the downtown redevelopment situation. And because they believe that theater is extremely important to the nighttime vitality of downtown.”
Although she agrees that both the Spreckels and California have good points, she believes that the fact that the city now owns the Balboa should put it at the top of the list of city theater priorities. The Spreckels and California are privately owned. “Our feeling is, ‘Do the Balboa first. It belongs to the city. Let’s get in and do that one first.' If the negotiations go along with the Spreckels and that can be made to work, then those of us who are involved in the Balboa would be happy to help try to make the Spreckels and the California work.” What the foundation wants from CCDC, she says, is an exclusive negotiating contract, allowing them similar leverage in the fundraising sector as had the arts center backers. “All that we are asking at this point in time is for the city to give us their blessing and let us find out what our funding capabilities are. You see, it’s a chicken and the egg situation. Until we have an endorsement from the city, it is very hard for us to go out and seriously try and raise money.”
The foundation took a big step forward toward that goal last week, when the city council’s public facilities and recreation committee voted to have the city attorney prepare a draft contract with the foundation. But CCDC quickly stepped in to thwart that move, noting that once condemnation proceedings are complete, the Balboa will belong to CCDC, which will have sole authority to negotiate such a contract. In the meantime, CCDC wants to conduct another study based on the findings of the Harrison Price study to determine which downtown theater to rehabilitate. Foundation leaders contend that Trimble and others at CCDC favor the Spreckels because of the Harrison Price findings, a claim Trimble denies. He says he will favor the most economical theater project, whatever that might turn out to be.
CCDC is now saying that it cannot enter into any exclusive negotiating agreement for use of the Balboa with anyone — including the Balboa Theater Foundation — because it could jeopardize the upcoming condemnation trial, despite the fact that it did indeed enter into such an agreement with the art center before the city ever even took possession of the building. Foundation leaders assert that Trimble’s argument is specious and insist that they need such an agreement now to avoid the funding problems that scuttled the art center.
But how can the 200-member Balboa Theater Foundation, with $15,000 in the bank, succeed where such a wealthy and well-connected person as Danah Fayman failed? “Because I think that it has more popular appeal than an art center,” says Michetti. In fact, the foundation’s proposal to the city includes a list of some twenty organizations that have expressed an interest in using a revitalized Balboa Theater. Among them, ironically, is the San Diego Foundation for the Performing Arts, where Fayman is chairman. Others include the American Ballet Ensemble, the Lamb’s Players Theater, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the San Diego Chamber Orchestra, the San Diego Civic Light Opera Association, San Diego Gilbert & Sullivan, the La Jolla Chamber Music Society, and the San Diego Opera, as well as a host of charities like the National Kidney Foundation and the American Diabetes Association.
CCDC, however, remains noncommital. Trimble says he does not know what the future holds for the Balboa. Projects director Allsbrook says the likelihood is that after an exterior refurbishment is completed later this summer, the Balboa will remain boarded up indefinitely. Under consideration, says Allsbrook, is the possibility of asking for proposals from developers for the Balboa, which does not preclude its use as something other than a theater. Fayman, skeptical of the Balboa Theater Foundation’s chances of success, realizes the theater would not be city-owned had it not been for her now failed project. She is troubled by that realization. “I’m concerned that it’s just going to be a big white elephant,” she says.
THE CONSPIRACY THEORIES
Does CCDC have a hidden agenda for the Balboa? Some people who have followed the issue closely — including participants in the preservation movement, members of the press, and several city bureaucrats who have dealt with the Balboa for one reason or another — believe so. Though none of them was able to produce irrefutable evidence, each of them, holding different pieces of a complex puzzle, suspects the same sub rosa conspiracy on the part of CCDC.
These conspiracy theorists believe that the Balboa Theater has been doomed for any use as a performing venue ever since Ernest Hahn was given the go-ahead for the Horton Plaza shopping center. The only reason the theater remains standing, they say, is because CCDC ran out of money to acquire more property by condemnation at a crucial point in the development of the shopping center. They believe, for varying reasons, that CCDC executive vice president Gerald Trimble made a secret agreement with Hahn to prevent the Balboa's use as a theater. The reason for the alleged deal, they say, most likely related to Hahn's desire to get some retail use from the space where the building stands and to alleged promises Hahn may have made in order to lure United Artists to open seven new movie houses in the shopping center. CCDC’s projects director David Allsbrook insists this is not true. The Horton UA 7 has nothing to do with the protracted uncertainty over the Balboa, he says.
But the conspiracy theorists are not persuaded by those denials. They point to several peculiarities they claim have never been satisfactorily explained by CCDC. Among them is a decision by the Horton Plaza developers to connect the mezzanine level of the mall to the balcony level of the Balboa, separating the shopping center and the theater by only a wall. This, they say, is evidence that alternate plans had been developed for the theater when the shopping center was designed, including the possibility of the extension of the mall itself. CCDC's Allsbrook, asked about the connection during a tour of the theater, said the decision to join the two structures had nothing to do with any particular future use. It was, he said, just foresight on the part of the developer.
Conspiracy theorists also assert that Trimble led Danah Fayman to the Balboa by offering other sites that were patently inadequate. Those alternate sites — two of them — were so undesirable for the art center that today Fayman cannot even speciFically recall them. She remembers only “some hotel nearby” and another site so unmemorable that she is unable to provide any description of it at all. Trimble, the theorists argue, wanted Fayman to select the Balboa because her project would guarantee the permanent end to the Balboa's use as anything remotely like a theater. If the art center went in, they say, Trimble could have satisFied neatly whatever alleged agreement he may have made with Hahn. After all, they say, Trimble has built his impressive reputation by being an expert deal maker, by perfecting the art of satisfying the complicated whims of big-monied developers quietly and thereby enticing them into the Horton Plaza Redevelopment Project area.
The most cynical of the conspiracy theorists make an even bolder claim. They say the Russos were correct when they told CCDC early on in the art center’s planning that it was “not for real” and lacked the resources to succeed. They believe Trimble knew this too. Fayman and her wealthy band of art center backers, according to the conspiracy theorists, were in fact used by CCDC in furtherance of its aim of preventing the operation of the Balboa as a theater. Trimble, asked about the claim that he was warned of the art center’s lack of substance by the Russos, refused to comment. He said the pending lawsuit over how much the Russo family will be paid for the condemnation of the Balboa prevents him from responding to anything the Russos may contend. It could prejudice the case.
Conspiracy theorists say, however, that the record of CCDC on the Balboa consistently points to a hidden agenda, even to this day. Why, for instance, they ask. does CCDC still hold open the possibility that the Balboa will be used for some other purpose? CCDC has had more than a decade to turn up such a use and has consistently failed. The Balboa Theater Foundation is willing to launch a new drive to convert the building into a 1474-seat theater capable of accommodating a variety of performing arts. The foundation has assembled an impressive list of prospective users and already has won some initial corporate backing. It asks only that it be treated similar to the art center proponents, who obtained an exclusive agreement with CCDC before the city acquired the building. CCDC’s own latest study of theater needs concludes that a theater of such capacity is important to the future of San Diego culture. But CCDC insists that another study is necessary that includes the privately owned Spreckels and refuses to enter into any agreement with the Balboa Theater Foundation. Such a contract could also prejudice the upcoming condemnation trial, according to CCDC. Asked how CCDC could enter into an agreement with the art center but not the theater foundation. CCDC spokeswoman Kathy Kalland said, “It’s a legal issue. That’s all I can say right now.”
The bottom line for the conspiracy theorists, however, is CCDC's record of failure with the Balboa. They say that none of the projects discussed by the Russos worked and, conceivably, that the art center itself did not work because Jerry Trimble did not want them to work.