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When it debuted in 1935, the Starlight Bowl was a civic gem.
The 3,500-seat outdoor venue, then known as the Ford Bowl, drew crowds to Balboa Park during the famed California Pacific International Exposition and in decades to come, countless rock concerts and plays.
Now it’s filled with weeds.
The shuttered Starlight, nestled in the heart of Balboa Park between the San Diego Air & Space Museum and the municipal gym, hasn’t hosted a show in at least five years. The facility needs millions of dollars in upgrades and fixes, according to one study. The theater also has lost its steward. The San Diego Civic Light Opera Association, the now-defunct nonprofit that had run the facility since 1946, walked away from its city lease last fall in the wake of a lawsuit alleging multiple contract violations.
What’s left is a dilapidated 80-year-old theater and hopes for the best. None of the major organizations that support Balboa Park has stepped up to formally champion its future or offer a vision for it.
“It’s a big black hole in the park,” said Tomas Herrera-Mishler, who leads the Balboa Park Conservancy. “Something great has to happen there.”
Yet even natural cheerleaders like Herrera-Mishler aren’t convinced the theater can successfully operate as it once did.
The Starlight struggled with fundraising and attendance for decades. It also sits directly under Lindbergh Field’s flight path, at times forcing actors to pause mid-line whenever planes flew over. Over the years, backers have talked about diversifying theater offerings and ways to cope with the plane noise.
Those challenges helped fuel the climax of the Civic Light Opera Association’s financial woes in 2011. The group filed for bankruptcy as it struggled to address more than $1.5 million in debt and a lawsuit from a national stage-hands union. Shows were put on an indefinite hold, which meant the organization was violating its city lease mandate to hold at least 24 performances a year. The Civic Light Opera Association mulled a move out of the Starlight Bowl.
Yet the nonprofit and the city held on, even as the organization lost its right to operate in the state and struggled to cobble donations.
Former board chair Kimberley Layton, the Chargers’ community relations chief, and other Opera Association members met with leaders and performance groups to tell their story.
Layton, once chief of staff to ex-Mayor Susan Golding, said the group quickly learned potential performers and event organizers found the Starlight lacking. The Opera Association eventually secured more than $50,000 from the San Diego Foundation, City Councilman Todd Gloria’s office and other sources to figure out what should be done with the space.
The group’s report called for nearly $16 million in repairs and upgrades – and nearly half were considered immediate needs in the event the facility could be ready for the 2015 Balboa Park Centennial celebration. A canopy that could cover at least a portion of the facility to help lessen airplane noise would cost at least $3 million alone.
“It was even more than anyone was expecting,” Layton said.
Then, as word of the price tag for repairs circulated, vandals hit Starlight.
A city park official called the facility an “attractive nuisance” in an October 2013 email to Layton.
“It was discovered that someone is living in the dressing room and has rummaged through all of the props and the costume box enclosures,” Balboa Park manager Susan Lowery-Mendoza wrote in the email, which was obtained by Voice of San Diego. “They have heat lamps on marijuana plants. PD was called and the pot plants removed. The facility is yet again in need of being secured and to my knowledge, it has not been cleaned up since the first vandalism.”
Layton said break-ins were common even before shows were halted given the Starlight’s four-month theater seasons, which left months of dark periods. Before and after the bankruptcy filing, she said the group cleaned and made repairs when it could.
But at that time, the organization was most focused on raising cash to keep its city lease and upgrade the Starlight Bowl. Checks weren’t coming in as hoped.
While the group struggled, city leaders chose not to crack down on the group’s violations of that contract. Instead, a city spokesman said, they gave the Civic Light Opera Association time “to plan and complete a capital campaign in the approximate range of $25 million.”
The group met repeatedly with Gloria, whose City Council district includes Balboa Park. The councilman said the Opera Association made clear it was aware of its lease requirements and focused on eventually complying.
While Gloria acknowledges the group’s stumbles, he defends his decision to support the Opera Association’s ill-fated quest to raise money.
“They were our partners in that space for many years and we wanted them to be successful,” he said. “I think to have not have made those efforts would certainly have caused plenty to ask why the city didn’t do more to try and help them before they walked away from the lease.”
Gloria and other city officials maintained that stance for years.
But years of effort proved fruitless. Layton resigned as the nonprofit’s chair last August.
She said the city had long made clear it couldn’t be the sole provider of funds to rehabilitate the Starlight and preferred a public-private partnership. Layton said she resigned in frustration when she realized the Civic Light Opera Association couldn’t make that work.
Around that time, a local sound technician decided he couldn’t take it anymore, either.
Former Starlight contractor Steve Stopper sued the city and the Civic Light Opera Association in September, claiming a waste of taxpayer resources. The suit demanded the City Council terminate the Starlight lease.
Stopper, who runs a nonprofit that trains students to produce and record music and theatrical performances, envisioned his group or another could take over the historic facility and reopen it within months. He’s convinced it would take far less than $16 million to make that happen and pictures creative sound solutions that will allow shows, community events and even music festivals.
The Civic Light Opera Association notified the city it wanted to end its lease at Starlight two weeks after Stopper’s lawsuit. It suggested an end date in October.
Months later, the city’s still unraveling the lease. A spokesman said officials are planning to issue a broad request for proposals from organizations that may want to operate the facility. They haven’t set a timeline for that process.
Gloria said a handful of groups, including Stopper’s, have informally floated ideas for the Starlight.
Jim Kidrick, CEO of the San Diego Air & Space Museum, said he’s expressed interest in taking over the Starlight and expanding his institution’s footprint. He declined to offer more specifics.
The city hasn’t undertaken major repairs or prioritized maintenance at the facility as it prepares to accept bids for its future.
On a recent visit, tall weeds escaped through cracks in the historic theater’s seating area and debris blew throughout the facility as planes roared overhead.
The city says more serious talks about maintenance and repairs – and how to pay for them – will come during lease negotiations. Those are likely months or even years away.
Indeed, the Starlight Bowl’s needs have yet to appear on a public list of city facilities that need repairs despite the 2013 study commissioned by the Civic Light Opera Association. The Starlight Bowl is among many Balboa Park properties for now left off the estimated $300 million needs list for the park, meaning the true price tag to fix what’s broken in the park is likely much higher.
Many of those other institutions will have advocates and benefactors to rally for their needs in coming years. The Starlight Bowl, which for generations hosted plays and musical performers, is now searching for its voice.