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The California Theatre Under Siege

What you see are not views of Detroit or somewhere near a New York City subway station. This is what was recently done to San Diego's historic California Theatre. It's not the handy-work of a street gang being let loose upon this once regal movie palace. It is "art" commissioned by the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. This is not exactly what most proud San Diegans would want to show our out-of-town guests. And to have to explain, "yes, someone was actually paid to spray-paint this building, which happens to be a historic landmark desperately trying to survive."

The California Theatre is highly ornate, if restored it would add considerably to the aesthetics of downtown and importantly, it holds enormous potential for adaptive reuse. Photo by Sandé Lollis

SOHO has worked to protect this gem at least since 1990 when it was slated for demolition. The absolute disregard of this art project toward the fragile facade is a painful reminder of the insensitivity this historic site has had to endure. Photos by Dan Soderberg

What we'd like to show our guests, if it could only come true, is this Spanish Revival treasure fully restored to its full glory as San Diego's most ornate movie palace. To turn the clock back as it was in 1927 when the California Theatre was touted as "the cathedral of the motion picture." Indeed, the lavish interior, decorated in gold leaf and murals, was inspired by a Spanish Church. How splendid it would be to hear, once again, the huge Wurlitzer organ thunder music throughout the vast 2,200-seat auditorium.

The California Theatre was a vibrant part of downtown life even as late as the 1960's. Many of us have fond movie-going memories with such films as The Beatles' A Hard Days Night and some of the James Bond classics. However, the California went dark as a movie house in 1976. Then two years later new life came to this jewel when she became the temporary home of the Old Globe Theatre due to the loss of their Balboa Park venue to fire.

Even as late as 1988, when money was spent sprucing up the grand lady, there was hope she would survive as a concert venue. But then in 1990 she was slated for demolition. SOHO has fought long and hard to save the California Theatre from the wrecking ball. But all the while she sits vacant, she deteriorates from neglect. Each passing year makes it more difficult to bring her back. And now to add insult to her already great injury, she's being used as an urban canvas for an "art" project. C'mon, let's show this once regal lady some respect.

About the author Native San Diegan Dan Soderberg is a UCLA graduate filmmaker whose work centers around community issues and advocacy. He is committed to helping save the rapidly disappearing historic architecture and cultural landscapes. Dan currently serves on SOHO's Board of Directors and SOHO's Modernism Committee.

Volume 41 - 2010


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From the Editor

The Cosmopolitan Hotel: A Resurrection of the Past

Most Endangered List of Historic Resources

Lead Paint: What's at Stake?

The California Theatre Under Siege

10-Year Anniversary at the Whaley House

Marston House - First Year Retrospective

People In Preservation Winners

An Evening Well Spent at PIP

Preservation Community


Book Review

Strength in Numbers

Donations 2010

Lost San Diego


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