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Balboa Theatre, San Diego

Balboa Theatre, San Diego

Architect: William H. Wheeler

First Opened: 28th March 1924 (97 years ago)

Reopened as El Teatro Balboa: 5th December 1930

Reopened: 19th January 2008

Former Names: El Teatro Balboa

Website: www.sandiegotheatres.org Open website in new window

Telephone: (619) 564-3000 Call (619) 564-3000

Address: 868 4th Ave, San Diego, CA 92101 Show address in Google Maps (new window)


Opened in 1924 as a vaudeville theatre and movie palace, the Balboa was designed in several Spanish styles popularized by San Diego’s 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition. Following an extended period of closure starting in the 1980s, the Balboa underwent an extensive renovation and reopened in 2008.

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Detailed Information

The Balboa Theatre in 1924
The Balboa Theatre in 1924

in 1924The Balboa Theatre was named for the Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the first European to discover the Pacific Ocean in 1513. Built by Robert (Bob) E. Hicks, the building and theatre were designed in a blend of Mediterranean Classicism, Moorish, and Spanish Revival styles by architect William H. Wheeler, who had previously designed the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles earlier in the 1920s. Interior decoration was by Anthony Heinsbergen’s Los Angeles-based interior decorating company.

Wheeler, being an accomplished musical performer in his own right, was familiar with entertainment and the arts. It is claimed that some enhancing features of the Balboa Theatre, such as a generously-sized Orchestra Pit, a large number of dressing rooms, and very good acoustics, were down to Wheeler’s familiarity with the demands of live entertainment and performance.

Exterior of the Balboa Theatre Building, facing onto 4th & E Street
Exterior of the Balboa Theatre Building, facing onto 4th & E Street

The enclosing Balboa Theatre Building would be described in modern terms as a multi-use building. In addition to the theatre there were retail stores at street level along one side, with four levels of elevator-accessible office space above them. The office space was commandeered by the U.S. Navy during Word War II and was used as SRO accommodation. It is now utilized as office, support, and event space for the theatre.

The exterior of the building fronts onto 4th St on the edge of the Gaslamp Quarter to the east, and Horton Plaza to the north. The focal point of the five-story exterior is the octagonal tower on the building’s northeastern corner which features a [non-original] marquee and vertical sign, both taking advantage of the diagonal location to be seen from three of the four cardinal directions.

The theatre’s polychrome tiled dome
The theatre’s polychrome tiled dome

The top of the octagonal tower is capped with a polychrome tiled dome, itself almost three stories high and clearly taking cues from the Spanish Revival theme of Exposition Park’s California Tower. Be sure to scroll down to see photos from inside the dome and its normally secret contents!

Moving inside, the original entrance/ticket lobby at the bottom of the octagonal tower was originally open to the street but was later converted to an indoor space. The floor features an original mosaic with one of three images throughout the theatre of Balboa’s 16th century sailing ship (the others are a metal miniature atop the exterior vertical sign, and the ship depicted on the theatre’s grand drape). Doors featuring deep glass engravings separate the exterior lobby from the main lobby at the rear of the main floor seating.

Both exterior and interior lobbies were extensively altered in the 1950s, with a drop ceiling being introduced to the exterior lobby in the name of “modernization”, and major changes to the interior lobby to accommodate Concessions stands. Several rows of seats at the rear of the auditorium were removed to expand the lobby, engraved glass windows in the original dividing wall between the lobby and auditorium were removed or plastered over, and a Hot Dog stand replaced a staircase to an upper level. The main lobby is small for the theatre’s size and the balcony-level lobby is considered as an equal circulation space however is still small.

Auditorium from Balcony
Auditorium from Balcony

The auditorium originally accommodated 1,534 patrons, with 75% of those on the main floor and 25% in the balcony. By contrast the current seating capacity is 1,339 (reduced by 28 seats when the Orchestra Pit is used) with 811 (60%) on the main floor and 528 (40%) in the balcony.

The auditorium has a fine coffered ceiling, regularly-placed pilasters leading up to clear span beams crossing the auditorium ceiling, and a heavy high-level cornice reinforcing the rectilinear treatment of the walls and ceiling. The sum of all these parts was intended to suggest a beautiful Persian rug on the ceiling and panels of rich tapestry on the side walls. Notably unique features are the Islamic-themed open plaster fret work directly above the proscenium which screens the organ chambers above, and the 28ft-high (8.5m) waterfalls flanking the proscenium arch, allegedly designed to assist with air-cooling the auditorium.

The San Diego Union of 28th March 1924 described the waterfalls as follows: “The feature of the interior decoration of the Balboa is said to be unique, is the replica of world famous water falls, created by falling water and the superb lighting effects of the showhouse. For these two immense grottoes, nearly 30 feet high have been built into the walls on either side of the proscenium arch. The lights will play upon the water, which tonight will represent cascades, during intermissions, providing charming diversion”. Although noted as being “world famous water falls”, information is yet to be found on which waterfalls they represent.

28ft-high waterfalls flank the proscenium
28ft-high waterfalls flank the proscenium

Another notable feature, although not unique, was the Title Curtain which had the appearance of a silver sheet perforated by green holes. The curtain cost $3,000 (just over $46,000 adjusted for 2020) and was demonstrated to the opening night audience, causing them to frequently applaud at the “particularly lovely” combination of colors: “the beautiful metallic cloth curtain seemed to stand at one moment like a rocky precipice, then to change to a blue ice wash, then a scintillating screen of crimson fire as the lights played a color symphony over its lustrous surface”.

Opening night at the Balboa Theatre featured nationally-known acts such as the Fanchon & Marco Sunkist Beauties. The movie industry was represented by stars Conway Tearle and Corinne Griffith who put in personal appearances.

By 1930, Bob Hicks, the theatre’s original builder, was looking into different business ventures and ultimately left the Balboa. Fox West Coast Theatres surveyed the theatre and noted that “The stage portion [...] is quite large and completely equipped for presenting stage performances should they be desired”, not surprising given the Balboa was primarily designed as a legitimate theatre which could also accommodate the screening of movies.

The theatre’s Grand Drape, recreated by iWeiss LLC based upon photos of the 1924 original
The theatre’s Grand Drape, recreated by iWeiss LLC based upon photos of the 1924 original

Fox West Coast took over, and after approximately two weeks of “extensive alterations” reopened the theatre on 5th December 1930 under the new name of El Teatro Balboa, “a de luxe Spanish talking picture theatre”, to be operated in the same fashion of the big motion pictures houses of Mexico City. The theatre featured live vaudeville and movies accompanied by orchestra and organ. Upgrades included wiring for sound with a Western Electric sound system, new projection equipment, the addition of a new neon marquee at street level, and the addition of the four extant Spanish-themed chandeliers within the auditorium.

In 1946 National Theatres Corporation took over operations. It is unclear if the name reverted to the Balboa Theatre at this time. The SRO housing (converted offices) continued in use as the Balboa Hotel until the mid-1960s.

In 1959 the theatre was sold to Service Auto Parts, et al., in anticipation of demolition. Initial salvage took place with marble and other fixtures being removed, along with the marquee and vertical sign. In early 1960 the theatre was purchased by the Russo family of San Diego to save it from demolition, and reopened as an “action movie” theatre. Balcony seating was removed to avoid the need to meet Union requirements on the number of projectionists required based on the amount of seats.

The Balboa in the 1960s
The Balboa in the 1960s

In 1972 the Balboa Theatre was designated as a City of San Diego historic landmark. Five years later in 1977 the City Council voted unanimously to apply to add theatre to the National Register of Historic Places, as part of the designation of the Gaslamp Quarter, however the theatre was specifically exempted from the application by the San Diego City Center Development Corporation (CDCC), who went on to consider plans to gut the theatre for commercial space, intending to strip the interior and build four floors of retail space.

The theatre was not renovated when the new Horton Plaza Shopping Center next door took shape in 1985, and was subsequently acquired by the City of San Diego’s Redevelopment Agency by eminent domain in November 1985. The City condemned the property and closed it in early 1986.

In 1996 the theatre was added in its own right to the National Register of Historic Places, due in no small part to the efforts of the Balboa Theatre Foundation, a non-profit which had been set up around ten years prior, initially as the Save Our Balboa Organization, to fight for the theatre’s preservation.

The Balboa Theatre in 2019
The Balboa Theatre in 2019

Following the addition of the theatre to the National Register of Historic Places, in October 2002 the CCDC U-turned on their prior position and committed to funding a complete restoration of the theatre, which began in 2005. The $26.5 million project engaged the services of restoration architect firm Westlake Reed Leskosky. One of their noted restoration elements was to design in 1,513 seats, to keep in mind Balboa’s discovery date of the Pacific. The exterior vertical sign and marquee were recreated based upon historic photographs.

In 2008 the theatre reopened after having been closed to the public for over 22 years. Mayor Jerry Sanders used the restored theatre to deliver his State of the City address on 10th January 2008, and public performances began the next day on 11th January.

The Balboa houses a 4-manual, 23-rank Wonder Morton organ which made its debut performance on 27th September 2009. It is one of only five “Wonder” models that the Morton Organ Company built for Loew’s Theatres in the 1920s. Many elements of the Balboa’s organ were originally installed in Loew’s Valencia Theatre in Queens, New York, NY. The Balboa’s original 4-manual, 31-rank organ (Opus 14568) was moved to Copley Symphony Hall in 1929.

The Balboa is currently managed by non-profit San Diego Theatres Link opens in new window who also manage the San Diego Civic Theatre.

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Technical Information

Flying System
System Type
Single purchase (downstage) and double purchase (upstage) counterweight linesets operated from fly floor at Stage Right
Fly Floor
32ft (9.8m) above stage level
Grid Height
79ft 2in (24.1m)
Linesets
33 @ 5-line linesets
Loading Bridge
72ft (22m) above stage level
General Information
Seating Capacity
1,339 (Orchestra: 811, 28 seats killed for Orchestra Pit use; Balcony: 528)
Lighting
Followspots
2 @ Lycian XLT 2k Xenon
Stage Dimensions
Apron Depth
4ft (1.2m)
Proscenium Height
24ft (7.3m)
Proscenium Width
41ft (12.5m)
Stage Depth
27ft 5in (8.4m)
Stage Width
82ft (25m)
Historic Photos & Documents

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Photos of the Balboa Theatre

Jump to Photo Section:

  1. Auditorium: Orchestra (Main Floor)
  2. Auditorium: Balcony
  3. Auditorium: Grand Drape
  4. Auditorium: Closeups
  5. Auditorium: Waterfalls
  6. Auditorium: Plasterwork Closeups
  7. Organ Console
  8. Exterior
  9. Entrance Lobby
  10. Front-of-House Areas
  11. Front-of-House Closeups
  12. Stage
  13. Fly Floor
  14. Projection Booth
  15. Dressing Rooms
  16. Organ Chambers
  17. Roof
Auditorium: Orchestra (Main Floor)

The auditorium originally accommodated 1,534 patrons, with 75% of those on the main floor. By contrast the current seating capacity is 1,339 (reduced by 28 seats when the Orchestra Pit is used) with 811 (60%) on the main floor.

The red drapes on the side walls are acoustic banners, which change the acoustic properties of the room by reducing reverb time and making the room more “dead”. They are rolled-up out of sight into slots in the ceiling for music events (e.g. the annual visits by the opera), and come down again for speech and amplified events.

Auditorium: Balcony

The auditorium originally accommodated 1,534 patrons, with 25% of those n the balcony. By contrast the current seating capacity is 1,339 (reduced by 28 seats when the Orchestra Pit is used) with 528 (40%) in the balcony.

The red drapes on the side walls are acoustic banners, which change the acoustic properties of the room by reducing reverb time and making the room more “dead”. They are rolled-up out of sight into slots in the ceiling for music events (e.g. the annual visits by the opera), and come down again for speech and amplified events.

Auditorium: Grand Drape

The Balboa Theatre’s grand drape is a recreation of the original grand drape featuring Balboa’s sailing ship, and was created by iWeiss Link opens in new window as part of the 2005-08 renovation. Modern printing technology was used to recreate the complex patterns and main image of the sailing ship on the grand drape.

Auditorium: Closeups

The four Spanish-themed chandeliers are not original to the theatre, and were added in late 1930 when Fox West Coast Theatres took over management of the theatre and renamed it El Teatro Balboa, exclusively exhibiting Spanish language films.

Auditorium: Waterfalls

The 28ft-high waterfalls flanking the proscenium arch were allegedly designed to assist with air-cooling the auditorium.

External air was pumped into the auditorium from behind the waterfalls and the theory was that the water partially evaporated into the air, taking a certain amount of heat out of the air at the same time by replacing it with aerated water droplets.

The concept is similar to an evaporative air conditioner or swamp cooler, however really only works in environments where the source air is lacking in moisture, such as in desert environments.

With San Diego’s location so close to the sea, the incoming air would be relatively moist already and so the ability for more water to evaporate by being blown through the waterfalls would be minimal. Still, it sounded like a “cool” idea!

Auditorium: Plasterwork Closeups

Plasterwork in the auditorium was repaired and renovated as part of the 2005-08 renovation.

The auditorium ceiling was meant to suggest a beautiful Persian rug, with spectacular pilasters framing panels of rich tapestry on the side walls.

Visitors to the Balboa Theatre are strongly recommended to go up to the rear of the Balcony where one can get up close and personal with the architecture.

Organ Console

The Balboa’s original 4-manual, 31-rank organ (Opus 14568) was moved to Copley Symphony Hall in 1929.

The Balboa now houses a 4-manual, 23-rank Wonder Morton organ which made its debut performance on 27th September 2009. It is one of only five “Wonder” models that the Morton Organ Company built for Loew’s Theatres in the 1920s. Many elements of the Balboa’s organ were originally installed in Loew’s Valencia Theatre in Queens, New York, NY.

Exterior

The Balboa Theatre was built on three contiguous 100ft by 50ft (30.5m by 15.2m) lots with façades facing onto 4th Street and E Street.

The main building is five stories in height, however the focus is on the octagonal tower at the northeastern corner which is capped by an almost three-story-high polychrome tiled dome. The focus on the corner entrance meant that the theatre’s marquee and vertical sign could be concurrently seen from three cardinal directions.

Entrance Lobby

The entrance lobby, at the bottom of the corner octagonal tower, was originally open to the elements. The entrance lobby is now enclosed by glass doors. The art glass semicircular windows above the non-original entrance doors are original features.

A drop ceiling was put in place in the 1950s in the name of “modernization”. The 2005-08 renovation revealed the entrance lobby’s glorious ceiling.

The mosaic floor, an original feature, depicts Balboa’s sailing ship with the date he discovered the Pacific. It is one of three depictions of Balboa’s ship throughout the theatre, the others being atop the external vertical sign and the design featured on the grand drape.

Front-of-House Areas

The lobby at Orchestra (main floor) level was always small however is larger than originally designed after alterations to increase its size were made in the 1950s.

The Balcony Lounge was touted as a special feature of the theatre at its opening, called the Plaisance, “designed as a lounging and meeting place for patrons. Davenports and comfortable big chairs invite leisure and undisturbed rest; soft music emanates from the grills to charm the ear; the decoration of the room done by the same artist who decorated the famous Teatro International in Mexico City, delights the eye”.

The Balcony Lounge is reached using a series of stairs and ramps from the main floor level, rather than stairs. Although the Davenports and comfy chairs have gone, the space retains its charm with a colorful ceiling, feature lighting, and recreated murals on the walls.

Front-of-House Closeups

The Balcony Lounge was touted as a special feature of the theatre at its opening, called the Plaisance, “designed as a lounging and meeting place for patrons. Davenports and comfortable big chairs invite leisure and undisturbed rest; soft music emanates from the grills to charm the ear; the decoration of the room done by the same artist who decorated the famous Teatro International in Mexico City, delights the eye”.

Stage

The Balboa Theatre was designed as a legitimate theatre with the ability to screen movies as a secondary feature.

That said, the Balboa stage is not large by current standards: 82ft wide and 27ft 5in deep (25m by 8.4m). It does, however, have the advantage of being a tall stagehouse with grid height at 79ft 2in (24.1m).

The Balboa tends to be used for musical events, comedy, and opera, with larger road shows going to the Civic Theatre a few blocks north of the Balboa.

Fly Floor

The Balboa’s Fly Floor is located on the Stage Right side, 32ft (9.8m) above stage level.

There is no pinrail or lockrail at Stage level. The counterweight flying system is a combination of single purchase and double purchase linesets, the double purchase section necessitated by the Stage load-in door on the Stage Right side.

Projection Booth

The relatively new Digital Cinema Projector has a periscope mirror system to raise the projected image well above the line of audience members in the Balcony, including those who may choose to stand up while content is being projected from the booth! As of late 2019 the house followspots are two Lycian XLT 2k Xenon’s.

Dressing Rooms

Part of the architect William Wheeler’s design was to include spacious accommodation for performers and players, and so most of the basement is given over to dressing rooms and areas for the orchestra. There is a phot wall for production to leave their mark at the theatre.

Organ Chambers

The Balboa’s original 4-manual, 31-rank organ (Opus 14568) was moved to Copley Symphony Hall in 1929.

The Balboa currently houses a 4-manual, 23-rank Wonder Morton organ which made its debut performance on 27th September 2009. It is one of only five “Wonder” models that the Morton Organ Company built for Loew’s Theatres in the 1920s. Many elements of the Balboa’s organ were originally installed in Loew’s Valencia Theatre in Queens, New York, NY.

There are three organ chambers, all located above the auditorium. Moorish-style fret work above the proscenium allows the organ to “speak” from these overhead organ chambers.

Roof

The roof of the Balboa affords a fantastic view of Downtown San Diego and the Gaslamp Quarter.

The nearly three-story-high dome is in fact practical. The open grilles in the dome’s drum and in the dome itself allow for the free passage of air into the dome, required for the huge fan located inside the dome to be able to pull fresh air into the theatre from the outside. Although replaced in 2020, the fan until 2019 was decorated in the colors of the San Diego Chargers.



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