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Spreckels Theatre, San Diego

Spreckels Theatre, San Diego

Architect: Harrison Albright

First Opened: 23rd August 1912 (111 years ago)

Former Names: New Spreckels Theatre

Status: Closed; undergoing renovation

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)

The Spreckels Theatre was hailed at its opening 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.

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Detailed Information

Spreckels Theatre Building on Broadway
Spreckels Theatre Building on Broadway

The theatre is contained within the Spreckels Theatre Building, occupying an entire city block of the original downtown grid. The building is 200ft wide and 235ft deep (61m by 72m). The front doors of the theatre’s lobby to the rear wall of the stage take up the entire 235ft of depth. The auditorium is 88ft wide and 70ft deep (27m by 21m).

Commissioned to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal and the upcoming Pan American Exposition held in San Diego in 1915, the auditorium was originally fitted with 1,915 seats.

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 the ensuing fires, Spreckels was determined that his new building would be both fire and earthquake proof.

A demonstrable 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 (51mm) 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 Theatre Auditorium
Spreckels Theatre 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: main floor level (Orchestra), two stairs to the first balcony (originally called the Balcony and now called the Mezzanine), and a single stairway to the second balcony (originally called the Family Circle and Gallery and now called the Lower Balcony and Upper Balcony).

The second (top) balcony does not otherwise connect with the rest of the house except in the lobby, however we can be sure this was class segregation and not racial segregation given a few factors: (1) the theatre’s location on the generally more tolerant U.S. West Coast; (2) the lack of a separate street entrance and box office; and (3) the original naming of the front/lower part of the balcony being the Family Circle. Racially segregated theatres of the era had physically separate entrances and box offices.

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 are grouped allegorical sculptures by sculptor Charles C. Cristadoro.

The proscenium sounding board is a huge mural painted in delicate hues, depicting the sea god Neptune and two angels sprinkling riches from a cornucopia (a horn of plenty), 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 medallions which contain murals depicting the basic elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Mazy was also the interior designer for the atmospheric-style Fox Theatre in Bakersfield.

Extensive use was made of the-then new “electric light” 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 ventilation 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 pronounced to be perfect. The theatre was managed on behalf of Spreckels from the outset by prolific San Diego theatre manager Jack Dodge and his partner Harry C. Hayward.

Loading Dock Stage Left
Loading Dock Stage Left

The stage is notable for having two completely separate loading docks. On both sides of the building identical tall arched entrances were built. These open into wide and high enclosed 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 teams to drive from the street to the stage and [unload and then exit] through to the opposite side of the building”.

The double loading doors were used to magnificent effect when the Orpheum vaudeville circuit brought a production of “Ben Hur” to the Spreckels Theatre 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, with walls of translucent onyx
Entrance Lobby, with walls of translucent onyx

The theatre and building entrance lobby (now called the Grand Lobby), 30ft wide and 80ft deep (9m by 24m), 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 transmitted in a diffuse pattern into the lobby. A Tiffany glass picture window (a classical Greek scene of “Nine Dancing Muses”) was originally mounted above the doors leading from the main lobby into the theatre lobby, however it was put into storage in the building’s basement during World War II and subsequently mysteriously disappeared. A stunning multi-colored glass replacement, by Yaakov Agam, was installed in 1985.

Some famous names to have played the Spreckels’ stage include: Abbott and Costello, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Enrico Caruso, Ina Claire, Ronald Coleman, Judy Garland, Al Jolson, Mary Pickford, William Powell, Will Rogers, John Phillip Sousa’s band, and Paul Whiteman’s orchestra.

In 1922 the theatre started regularly showing silent movies in addition to stage shows with the addition of a projection booth 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 theatre’s 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 Theatre. In 1937 the theatre’s appearance was updated with a new neon marquee and vertical sign on the building’s exterior. 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 (Jaquie) 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.

In 1962, Littlefield bought the entire building for $1.65 million from the Star and Crescent Investment Company, 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. Despite offers to sell, Littlefield was determined that the Spreckels Theatre was an irreplaceable architectural icon and an invaluable cultural asset to San Diego, and refused to sell the theatre. She envisioned the theatre returning to its legitimate roots, which took place to an extent with the San Diego premiere of Ray Charles, Live! in 1964.

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 Theatre initiated three improvement projects:

  1. The 75-year-old marquee and vertical sign were returned to their original 1937 glory with new wiring, paint, and new neon.
  2. New seating was installed in the Mezzanine which features additional legroom, new end standards, and new upholstery.
  3. The lighting in the Grand Lobby was reinstated having gone dark due to war effort demands in the mid-1940s.

Jaquie Littlefield passed away in January 2019 at the age of 96, still the sole owner of the Spreckels Theatre.

The restored marquee and theatre entrance
The restored marquee and theatre entrance

In mid-February 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune reported Link opens in new window that the “iconic” theatre and office building was being put up for sale after 58 years of ownership by the Littlefield family.

In April 2021, after more than a year of negotiations, the theatre building was sold to New York-based real estate investors Taconic Capital Advisors and Triangle Capital Group. According to public records the consortium paid $26.5 million for the 217,000 square-foot building.

Taconic announced that multiple millions would be invested in the building including a major renovation of the theatre. Ware Malcomb Link opens in new window is the architect for the renovation.

Venue management company ASM Global Link opens in new window will operate the theatre when it reopens. It was originally hoped that the theatre would reopen in the second half of 2022, however a revised date is not yet available.

Movie, TV & Music Video Appearances


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Listed/Landmark Building Status

How do I visit the Spreckels Theatre?

The theatre does not offer regular tours however it does generally 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.

Further Reading


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
32 @ 4-line sets (some are half width)
Stage Dimensions
Proscenium Height
Proscenium Width
39ft 6in
Stage Depth
Stage Width
88ft wall to wall
Historic Photos & Documents
Files displayed in this section may be subject to copyright; refer to our Copyright Fair Use Statement regarding our use of copyrighted media.

Photos of the Spreckels Theatre

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. Fly Floor (Stage Right)
  11. Fly Floor (Stage Left)
  12. Paint Bridge
  13. Grid
  14. Basement
  15. Attic
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.


The Spreckels Theatre 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.


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.

Fly Floor (Stage Right)

The Fly Floor at Stage Right is the main working side. Whereas the theatre is a hemp house, the movie/projection screen and main house curtain are on counterweight sets operated from the stage floor. The movie/projection screen is clearly a later addition (likely to date from 1922 when the projection booth in the auditorium was added and the theatre started screening silent movies) however the set for the main house curtain looks original. Dual lattice tracks are located in the Downstage Right corner, mounted diagonally between the rear of the proscenium wall and the Stage Right Stagehouse wall. Only one track is fitted-up for use, the second looks like it was never fitted-out and may have been intended for the lambrequin/valance.

The hemp flying system is notable for having Jack Lines. Jack Lines are used to move a counterweight up the lift lines as a flown piece is maneuvered into position. A slipping knot is used to attach a counterweight (usually a sandbag) to the lift lines of a batten at fly floor level, and the counterweight is also tied to the jack line. The jack line is then used to lift the counterweight up the lift lines until close to the grid. The operators can then use the lift lines with the assistance of the counterweight, and should the counterweight’s position needed adjusted that may be done using the jack line. Jack lines are tied-off to the pin rail on the stagehouse wall, with the jack line running up the wall to a pulley on the grid and then onstage to a second pulley beside the headblocks, and thence back down to the fly floor. When not needed to lift counterweights the onstage side of the jack line is tied-off to the same offstage pin rail as the other end of the jack line.

Fly Floor (Stage Left)

The Fly Floor at Stage Left has always been the quiet side with main scenic flying operations taking place on the Fly Floor at Stage Right.

At Stage Left is a single counterweight lineset, roughly midstage, however it does not appear to operate a batten of any significance...its purpose is unknown. (the theatre’s house curtain and movie screen are operated on counterweight linesets at Stage Right).

Paint Bridge

The paint frame is massive at approximately 60ft (18m) wide. The paint bridge, running between Fly Floors Stage Left and Stage Right, is generously deep with handrails on both upstage and downstage sides. The counterweight for the paint frame is located Upstage Left with the lattice track mounted on the rear stagehouse wall, the arbor/cradle looking like an early J.R. Clancy model. A sink is provided in the Upstage Left corner. There is clear evidence of the paint frame being used to paint scenery.


The grid is 75ft 6in (23m) above the stage which is quite high for a US theatre dating from the 1910s. The grid height is another testament to Spreckels’ aspirations to have legitimate drama perform at his theatre...vaudeville would not require such a high stagehouse!

The grid stills shows graffiti from technicians who worked the space as early as the 1920s. It has clearly become tradition to sign a name up on the girders of the grid.


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.


The behind-the-scenes view of the Baroque-styled auditorium is a myriad of hangar wires and lathe plasterwork. People still clamber over the 110-year-old catwalks to change the lamps.

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