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Observatory North Park, San Diego

Observatory North Park, San Diego

First Opened: 17th January 1929 (91 years ago)

Reopened: 14th October 2005

Former Names: West Coast North Park, North Park Theatre, Birch North Park Theatre

Website: www.observatorysd.com Open website in new window

Telephone: (619) 239-8836 Call (619) 239-8836

Address: 2891 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92104 Show address in Google Maps (new window)

Featured Photos

Overview

Opened as the West Coast North Park in early 1929 by Fox West Coast Theatres, it was promoted by Fox as the first theatre in San Diego to be designed from the ground up for the exhibiting of sound, synchronized, and talking pictures. The theatre is now a popular and vibrant live entertainment and music venue.

The West Coast North Park at its opening in January 1929
The West Coast North Park at its opening in January 1929

Building of the theatre was first announced in the Exhibitors Daily Review of August 1928. The 1,200-seat theatre, built by University Park local Emil Klicks, opened 17th January 1929, hailed as the first theatre in San Diego designed for the talkies.

At its opening, a dedication on the theatre organ was given by organist Jamie Erickson, a footlight presentation on the stage by Ted Mack and the New California Music Masters, Fanchon & Marco acts temporarily transferred from San Diego’s California Theatre for the premiere, followed by a feature presentation and San Diego premiere of the movie Win That Girl (1928) Link opens in new window.

Organ Grille Closeup
Organ Grille Closeup

The theatre was designed in an understated Spanish Renaissance style, with reports of the time noting that the theatre did not carry any ornate “ginger-bread” decorations. The decorations of note in the auditorium of 1929 are the same as they are today: the ornate curved organ grilles, massive wall sconces, highly-decorated ventilator grilles in the ceiling, and the elegant electric chandeliers.

The theatre stopped showing movies and closed in 1989. The City of San Diego bought the theatre in 1990 and transferred ownership to its Redevelopment Agency to complete a $900,000 seismic retrofit. The space was used sporadically for various discount and religious enterprises.

In the early 2000s a combination of North Park community members, the Redevelopment Agency of the City of San Diego, and the Lyric Opera of San Diego, raised millions of dollars to renovate the theatre. The $12 million project saw the stage extended forward into the auditorium, and although a balcony was added, overall seating capacity was reduced to 800. The theatre lobby was converted into a restaurant. The City was convinced to build a multi-level parking lot across the street.

The theatre in 2019
The theatre in 2019

In 2005 the theatre reopened as the Birch North Park Theatre on 14th October as a venue for the Lyric Opera of San Diego. In October 2010 the Lyric Opera installed a replica vertical sign on the building’s façade, funded through a loan from the Redevelopment Agency.

By 2011 the Lyric Opera was unable to meet its financial obligations. It unsuccessfully tried to sell the theatre in 2011 before filing for bankruptcy in 2013. The Verant Group’s West Coast Tavern, which was the Lyric Opera’s tenant in the lobby area restaurant, fought in bankruptcy court for control of the building, which it eventually won.

The Verant Group kept the theatre going as a live entertainment venue, and then in early 2015 it was announced that SD Observatory LLC would purchase the theatre. The group now own and manage the theatre, marketed as The Observatory North Park, and the restaurant space (West Coast Tavern), built in what was originally the theatre lobby. The Observatory North Park continues to be a popular and vibrant live entertainment and music venue.

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Historic Photos & Documents

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Photos of Observatory North Park

Jump to Photo Section:

  1. Auditorium: Main Floor
  2. Auditorium: Balcony
  3. Auditorium: Closeups
  4. Exterior
  5. Stage
  6. Basement and Dressing Rooms
  7. Counterweight Wall
  8. Fly Floor
  9. Organ Chambers
Auditorium: Main Floor

The main floor level was originally fully seated, and the only level in the theatre, but is now standing room only. A bar and other audience facilities are located at the rear, below the non-original Balcony.

Close inspection of the floor reveals numerous small holes. These are the “mushroom” ventilators, now sealed-up, which would have originally emitted fresh air into the auditorium. The large ventilator panels in the ceiling originally expelled the foul air outside.

Auditorium: Balcony

The Balcony level is not original and was added as part of the 2004/5 redevelopment for the now defunct Lyric Opera of San Diego.

As of late 2019 the Balcony area was not being used; either the front standing area or the rear area with tables and bench seating. It may be pressed into use in the future.

Auditorium: Closeups

The theatre features large ventilators in the ceiling which would have originally expelled foul air upward and out of the theatre.

“Simplicity in Decoration” was the phrase used to describe theatre upon its opening. Years of theatres decorated with mythical figures, and what was then considered overly elaborate decoration, had taken their toll on society, and before Art Deco got a grasp on design the understated Classical theme, with a hint of Spanish, was the order of the day in North Park. That did not stop the North Park Theatre getting some of the riotous wall sconce lights we have ever seen!

Exterior

The building fronts onto University Avenue. The old lobby areas of the theatre have been turned into a bar (the West Coast Tavern Link opens in new window) which is run by the same team as the main venue.

There is a small Box Office on the side of the main building, on 29th St. The main entrance for events at the theatre is just south of the Box Office, through one of the original fire exits from the rear of the theatre.

There is a large surface parking lot immediately south of the theatre, and a multi-story parking structure located immediately southeast.

Stage

The stagehouse was refitted in the early 2000s for the residency by the now defunct Lyric Opera of San Diego.

A false proscenium was added downstage of the original proscenium and the stage extended outward over the orchestra pit, which is now sealed-up and inaccessible. This affords a much deeper stage than the North Park Theatre was originally built with.

Basement and Dressing Rooms

Cast and Crew rooms are located beneath the stage and include kitchen facilities.

Counterweight Wall

The theatre’s modern counterweight flying system was supplied by JR Clancy Link opens in new window, fitted at the same time as the present fire curtain, installed by iWeiss Link opens in new window, in 2004/5 when the theatre underwent major renovation to become host to the now defunct Lyric Opera of San Diego.

It is fantastic that in replacing the original Armstrong counterweight flying system, the original index rail from 1929 was left intact. What makes the index rail especially important is that the empty spaces on the index rail for the downstage linesets have been filled-in, rather than left blank which happened at most theatres. The titles Valance, Grand Drapery, Picture Sheet, and Vitaphone Sheet are terms which have been almost lost to history. See the closeup photo below for details.

Fly Floor

The Fly Floor is located Stage Left and has a Pin Rail. There is no Loading Bridge and the chains beside the Counterweight Wall, plus weights stored on the Fly Floor, suggest that arbor/cradle loading is performed at this level.

Organ Chambers

The theatre originally housed an organ however it has long since been removed. The organ chamber at Stage Right is now used as a production office space.



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