<< Go Back up to Region ‘California (outside the L.A. Metro area)’

Follow Mike Hume’s Historic Theatre Photography: Follow Historic Theatre Photos on Instagram Follow Historic Theatre Photos on Facebook Follow Historic Theatre Photos on Twitter
Spreckels Theater, San Diego

Spreckels Theater, San Diego

First Opened: 23rd August 1912 (107 years ago)

Former Names: New Spreckels Theater

Website: spreckels.net Open website in new window

Telephone: (619) 235-9500 Call (619) 235-9500

Address: 121 Broadway, San Diego, CA 92101 Show address in Google Maps (new window)

Featured Photos

Overview

The Spreckels Theater was hailed as the first modern commercial playhouse west of the Mississippi, and has been in continuous operation – save for a couple of refurbishments – since its opening in August 1912. The theatre was commissioned by sugar magnate John D. Spreckels to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal and the upcoming Pan American Exposition held in San Diego in 1915, and accordingly was built with precisely 1,915 seats.

Spreckels Theater Building on Broadway
Spreckels Theater Building on Broadway

The theatre is contained within the Spreckels Theater Building, occupying an entire city block of the original downtown grid. The building is 200ft wide and 235ft deep. The front doors of the theatre’s lobby to the rear wall of stage take up the entire 235ft of depth. The auditorium is 88ft wide and 70ft deep.

Opening night was a production of “Bought and Paid For”, with Spreckels bringing the entire New York cast over to San Diego at his own expense. Originally planned to be a single performance, due to popular demand a matinee and additional evening performance were added the day after the grand opening.

Los Angeles-based architect Harrison Albright (also known for San Diego’s U.S. Grant Hotel and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, and the Santa Fe Freight Depot in Los Angeles) designed the building for Spreckels, who had relocated his family to San Diego after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Having witnessed first-hand the destruction wrought by the earthquake and its ensuing fires, Spreckels was determined that his new building would be both fire and earthquake proof.

A demonstratable example of the over-engineering employed to meet Spreckels’ demands can be seen in the theatre’s fire curtain, which is composed of sheets of steel mounted on a frame and faced with two inches of vitrified asbestos – much heavier than the regular asbestos fire curtains more commonly used at the time, and requiring a significant amount of engineering to move up and down. The walls of the theatre are thick and built of reinforced concrete (a new building material at the time) and effectively separate the theatre from the entire surrounding office building, in addition to the theatre having its own independent fire escapes.

Spreckels Theater Auditorium
Spreckels Theater Auditorium

The auditorium is Baroque in style and features two balconies. The theatre’s main lobby, reached from the building entrance lobby (now called the Grand Lobby), provides access to all levels: Orchestra, two stairs to the Balcony (now called the Mezzanine), and one stair to the Family Circle and Gallery (now called the Lower Balcony and Upper Balcony respectively). The topmost level does not otherwise connect with the rest of the house except in the lobby, suggesting it may have been a somewhat segregated area – possibly class rather than racial segregation, given the theatre’s location on the generally more tolerant U.S. West Coast. Other theatres of the era had completely segregated balconies with physically separate entrances and box offices, however the Spreckels seems to have been only partially segregated.

Proscenium Sounding Board and Opera Boxes
Proscenium Sounding Board and Opera Boxes

Double-height grand opera boxes step down from the first balcony toward the stage, drawing the eye toward the action. Atop the opera boxes sit grouped allegorical sculptures by sculptor Charles C. Cristadoro. The proscenium sounding board is a huge mural painted in delicate hues, depicting two angels sprinkling riches from a cornucopia and the sea god Neptune bringing prosperity to San Diego. The mural was painted by Los Angeles-based artist Emil T. Mazy, who also painted the complementary mural in the main ceiling dome depicting the dawn. It is flanked by four lesser domes/medallions which depict Air, Earth, Fire, and Water.

Extensive use of the-then new “electric light” was made in the auditorium. The fronts of both balconies, the front faces of the opera boxes, and accent lines in the ceiling were all highlighted with bare incandescent light bulbs, similar in style but smaller in scale to the exposed lighting employed by architects Adler & Sullivan at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. Lamps were removed from the faces of the opera boxes when it was found they were mysteriously going missing after performances – they were within easy reach of those seated in the boxes!

Spreckels had the most up-to-date mechanical equipment installed for heating and ventilating, to ensure the comfort of his patrons. The auditorium is notable for not having any columns obstructing views, something of a marvel in 1912. Three massive steel roof trusses support the auditorium ceiling, and the balconies are supported on cantilevers from columns at the rear of the auditorium. The acoustics were also pronounced to be perfect. The theatre was managed on behalf of Spreckels from the outset by prolific San Diego theatre manager Jack Dodge and partner Harry C. Hayward.

Loading Dock Stage Left
Loading Dock Stage Left

The theatre is notable for having two completely separate loading doors. On both sides of the building were built identical tall arched entrances. These open into wide and high alleys leading to the Upstage Left and Upstage Right corners of the stage. Fully-laden trucks could reverse up each alley and unload directly onto the stage. At its opening the local press noted that the double entrances “allow[ed] teams to drive from the street to the stage and [unload and then exit] through to the opposite side of the building”. The feature was used to magnificent effect when the Orpheum vaudeville circuit brought a production of “Ben Hur” to the Spreckels Theater in 1923, the finale featuring a horse-drawn chariot race which saw horses galloping at full speed across the stage, out one door then looping back to the other side unseen behind the building, and back in the other door to begin their race again many times over – all much to the enjoyment of the audience.

Entrance Lobby
Entrance Lobby, with walls of translucent onyx

The theatre and building entrance lobby (now called the Grand Lobby), 30ft wide and 80ft deep, was designed to impress from the outset. Its double height walls and ceiling were entirely clad with translucent onyx, with a set of panels in the ceiling acting as a skylight and allowing onyx-filtered sunlight to be emitted in a diffuse pattern into the lobby. A Tiffany glass picture window was originally mounted above the doors leading from the main lobby into the theatre lobby, however it was required to be put into storage in the building’s basement during WWII and later mysteriously disappeared. A stunning multi-colored glass replacement, by Yaakov Agam, was installed in 1985.

Some famous name to have played on the stage of the Spreckels Theatre in the early days were Will Rogers, Al Jolson, Judy Garland, Ronald Coleman, Ina Claire, William Powell, Enrico Caruso, Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, and John Barrymore.

In 1922 the theatre started regularly showing silent movies in addition to stage shows, with a projection booth being added at the rear of the first balcony.

In 1931 the theatre’s lease came to be held by Louis B. Metzger (then General Manager of Universal Pictures) and the policy became first-run movies, gradually sliding into double bills of a first-run followed by a ‘B’-movie and perhaps a newsreel or cartoon. From 1931 it was known as the New Spreckels Theater. The building remained under control of the Spreckels family until 1943 when it was sold to the Star and Crescent Investment Company (Metzger had tried to buy it but was outbid, however remained as manager). Then in 1944 Metzger’s daughter Jacquelyn Littlefield (née Metzger) took over management of the theatre, at age 22, following her father’s untimely death.

Auditorium from Stage
Auditorium from Stage

In the 1950s and 1960s urban multiplexes were starting to rise in prominence and Littlefield had to find a way to compete. Despite offers to sell, she was determined that the Spreckels Theater was an irreplaceable architectural icon and an invaluable cultural asset to San Diego, and refused to sell the theatre. Then in 1962, Littlefield bought the entire building for $1.65 million and spent $125,000 to renovate the theatre. Plaster features were returned to their original form of gold brushed over a cream base, helping to accentuate the three-dimensional nature of the plasterwork. Seats were replaced and more generously spaced which saw seating capacity reduce from 1,915 to 1,500. Littlefield envisioned the theatre returning to its legitimate roots, which took place with the San Diego premiere of Ray Charles, Live!.

In 1976 Littlefield reached an agreement with the Nederlander Organization to bring Broadway shows to San Diego, resulting in a subscription season with stars such as Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Reeve, and Katherine Hepburn.

As part of its centenary celebrations in 2012, the Spreckels Theater initiated three improvement projects: the 75-year-old marquee and vertical blade sign were returned to their 1937 glory with new wiring, painting, and new neon. New seating was installed in the Mezzanine which features additional legroom, new end standards, and new upholstery. The lighting in the Grand Lobby was also reinstated having gone dark due to war effort demands in the mid-1940s.

Movie, TV & Music Video Appearances

Television

Listed/Landmark Building Status

How do I visit the Spreckels Theater?

The theatre does not offer regular tours however it does participate in the annual Open House: San Diego event, which ran for its third year in March 2019. For more details visit the Open House San Diego website Link opens in new window.

Upcoming Special Events
Adam Ant

Adam Ant (17th May 2020, 8pm)

FRIEND OR FOE TOUR 2020

Adam is set to continue the Friend or Foe tour across a further 10 US States.

Tickets will go on general sale Friday September 27th at 10am local time.

Click here to go to the event website. Link opens in new window

Further Reading

Online

Technical Information

Flying System
System Type Hemphouse operated from Stage Right Fly Floor
Fly Floors Located Stage Left and Stage Right, 30ft above stage
Grid Height 75ft 6in
Linesets 32 @ 4-line sets (some are half width)
Stage Dimensions
Proscenium Height 24ft
Proscenium Width 39ft 6in
Stage Depth 50ft
Stage Width 88ft wall to wall
Historic Photos & Documents

Historic files shown here may be subject to copyright; review our “Fair Use” statement here.

Photos of the Spreckels Theater

Jump to Photo Section:

  1. Auditorium - Orchestra
  2. Auditorium - Mezzanine
  3. Auditorium - Balcony
  4. Auditorium - Boxes
  5. Auditorium - Closeups
  6. Front of House
  7. Grand Lobby
  8. Exterior
  9. Stage
  10. Basement
Auditorium - Orchestra

The auditorium is Baroque in style and features two balconies. Double-height grand opera boxes step down from the first balcony toward the stage, drawing the eye toward the action. Atop the opera boxes sit grouped allegorical sculptures by sculptor Charles C. Cristadoro.

The proscenium sounding board is a huge mural painted in delicate hues, depicting two angels sprinkling riches from a cornucopia and the sea god Neptune bringing prosperity to San Diego. The mural was painted by Los Angeles-based Emil T. Mazy, who also painted the complementary mural in the main ceiling dome, which depicts the dawn. It is flanked by four lesser domes/medallions which depict Air, Earth, Fire, and Water.

Auditorium - Mezzanine

The Mezzanine was originally called the Balcony with seating for 428. A Projection Booth was added at the rear of the mezzanine in 1922, ten years after the theatre originally opened.

Auditorium - Balcony

The Lower and Upper Balcony were originally called the Family Circle and Gallery, respectively, with seating for a total of 719 patrons. The Balcony has its own toilet facilities and is reached by a single stairway from the theatre lobby, but is otherwise not connected with the rest of the house, suggesting it may have originally been a somewhat segregated area.

Auditorium - Boxes

The opera boxes are on Orchestra and Mezzanine levels with crystal chandeliers in the ceilings and massive entablatures above the top level, supporting allegorical marble sculptures looking out into the auditorium.

Auditorium - Closeups
Front of House

The main theatre lobby provides access to the Orchestra level, two stairs to the first balcony (now called the Mezzanine), and a single stair to the second (top) balcony (now called the Lower and Upper Balcony).

Grand Lobby

The main building lobby, now called the Grand Lobby, provides access to both the office building and theatre and is 30ft wide and 80ft deep. The two-story interior is clad with translucent onyx and was one of the largest contracts of its kind at the time.

Exterior

The Spreckels Theater Building takes up an entire city block of the original downtown grid. Its main façade is 200ft wide on Broadway (originally D Street), and 235ft deep on both 1st and 2nd Avenues.

Stage

The stage is huge at 88ft wide and 55ft deep. There are loading docks from both sides of the building. The theatre has never received a counterweight flying system and remains a hemp house with fly floors located on both sides of the stage.

Basement

The building’s 56,000 sq ft basement was entirely given over to the theatre aside from space for a cafeteria originally accessed from the Grand Lobby. The basement contained heating/cooling systems, dressing rooms, the Trap Room, and space for musicians.

A notable historic feature is the hydraulic ram which used to operate the heavy steel/asbestos fire curtain. Although the hydraulic ram is no longer operational, it was retained for its history. A modern J.R. Clancy winch to operate the fire curtain was recently fitted onto a framework which sits above the 1912 hydraulic ram.



Follow Mike Hume’s Historic Theatre Photography: Follow Historic Theatre Photos on Instagram Follow Historic Theatre Photos on Facebook Follow Historic Theatre Photos on Twitter