I first went to the Starlight Bowl in 1980 with two pieces of advice: arrive early and try to put up with the planes booming down to Lindbergh Field.
I got to Balboa Park early but not early enough. All nearby parking lots were full up, and every lawn in the vicinity had picnickers with wicker baskets on gingham tablecloths. There were grandparents and young children and every age in between.
I wasn’t just going to see an outdoor musical; I happened on a tradition then in its 35th year.
Founded in 1945, the Civic Light Opera Company produced musicals every summer at Starlight Bowl. For many San Diegans this was their first experience with live theater. And they came back, filling the 3200+ seats season after season.
Ask local actors of a certain age where they got the bug. Many will say “Starlight — in spite of the damn planes.”
During a performance, when landing lights flickered north of Mt. San Miguel, a bulb blinked near the conductor’s music stand: jumbo jet on flight path. He hand-signaled the cast: pick a place to freeze in the next ten or so seconds. And the show would stop — literally — until some big-bellied silver bully roared by, just off your right shoulder it seemed. Like the wave at a sports event, the noise ran a clockwise lap from 9:00 and back around the amphitheater, often shaking the truck-sized oleander bushes. Then the blare dopplered off down the way.
The cast leaped back to life and the show went on. Often the choices of when to stop, which split second, which word, were as inventive as the sound was nuisance.
Owing to financial difficulties, the Civic Light Opera/Starlight Musical Theatre filed for bankruptcy in 2011. Since then Starlight has been home to weeds, graffiti, and skateboarders.
A new grass-roots, 501c3 initiative, Save Starlight, began a campaign last week to “preserve, revive, and revitalize” the historic venue.
2005 South Pan American Plaza, Balboa Park
(No longer in business.)
The hope is to make it a versatile space not just for theater, but also “open-air concerts, cinema, special events, festivals, and more.” The initiative proposes a three-stage process: 1) a campaign to assemble a “broad coalition” and to raise “necessary resources for a “detailed realistic restoration plan”; 2) renovate the bowl, especially muting intrusive noises; 3) implement a sustainable plan for ongoing operations.
Steve Stopper, an acoustic expert and longtime audio technician at Starlight, heads the drive. “I believe it is well past time the city act on behalf of all residents and visitors in San Diego.”
As a step in that direction, on June 25, between 12:00 and 3:00 p.m., Save Starlight hosts “Reverse Gardening: a community weed-pulling party and volunteer clean-up day at the Bowl.” All ages welcome. “Great music, as well as healthy drinks and snacks will be provided.”
Information: [email protected], or 619-252-1744.