North Park Theatre
By Welton Jones
A renovated theatre is always splendid news for the city, the audiences and the artists who will occupy it. However, the reopening of the North Park Theatre in October will be especially heartening because it is one of a dying breed.
For theatre-lovers, the most thrilling aspect of the 1929 building's exterior is not the neon, the marquee or even the large parking lot just next door... It's the distinctive multi-story bulge over the backstage area that represents a scenery loft.
Such a loft allows tall backdrops and other scenery pieces to be hoisted out of the audience view when they're not needed. Any fully rigged theatre, capable of accommodating a Broadway-type show, must have such a loft.
There are only seven theatres left in San Diego County with fly lofts. The North Park is one of them, the only one, in fact, outside the downtown San Diego area. The major expense of unsupported interior space makes new fly loft construction prohibitively expensive.
Various institutional theatres around the county have some room for flying scenery. The outdoor Starlight Bowl, the Old Globe Theatre's main stage, the Mandell Weiss Theatre at UCSD and the Don Powell Theatre at San Diego State University are examples. But none of these can hide a full-sized drop directly above the stage. Only Copley Symphony Hall and the Civic, Spreckels, Balboa, California, Horton Grand and North Park theatres are so endowed.
The North Park was among the last of its kind, a "combination" theatre with both a professional stage for live shows and a professional projection booth for movies, when it opened at University and 29th Street in January 1929. Just a few months later, the stock market crashed, launching the Great Depression and changing movie theatres forever.
There were other movie houses built in the 1920s along University Avenue: the Academy at 38th, the Fairmont (later the Crest) at Fairmont, the Ramona right down the street at 30th, and the Vista at 40th, but they were intended to be just neighborhood film houses.
The North Park had always been marked for higher uses. Alas, these rarely came. As the decades flashed by and popular entertainment embraced motion pictures, the North Park's stage potential was largely ignored. By the time the national Fox Theatre empire was dissolved in the 1970s, the North Park had developed a reputation as just another slightly seedy older film house in an out-of-the-way neighborhood.
The house closed in 1975 and became home to a series of church groups until the 1980s when the late Martin Gregg, a theatrical impresario, took over the lease and briefly restored live performances.
In 1990, the City of San Diego, urged on by Councilwoman Gloria McCall, purchased the property and began long negotiations to restore the theatre. Eventually, downtown developer Bud Fischer took on the project, buying the house for $1 and undertaking a restoration, in association with the Lyric Opera of San Diego, which eventually may cost over $8 million.
The Lyric Opera, which will reopen the theatre Oct. 14 with "The Mikado," is the principal tenant and manager of the building, which also will have street-level coffee house and restaurant businesses.
The interior has an enlarged stage and orchestra pit; reduced seating (from 1,100 to 787 seats) on original chairs reupholstered by Bill's Furniture Upholstery in the neighborhood; and original chandeliers restored by Gibson and Gibson of Chula Vista.
The exterior is being repainted to match the yellow color found underneath many brown coats. Historic photographs were consulted in recreating the missing finials on the roof. A new marquee blossomed above the sidewalk along University Avenue but the box office itself was moved around the corner to 29th Street, making room for a new restaurant along the avenue.
But the distinctive contour of the fly loft is right where it always has been.
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