The theatre then seated 1,915 people to honor the year of the Exhibition. The architect was Los Angeles based Harrison Albright. When the theatre was built, just after the San Francisco earthquake, it was designed to be earthquake proof and fireproof, and outfitted to provide the ultimate in mechanical equipment for heating and ventilation. When completed, San Diego’s premier theatre was the largest of its kind west of New York City, and declared to be acoustically perfect. It was inaugurated with rave reviews for its beauty, architectural design, stage mechanics and as a perfect setting for the shows that played its large stage. It was the first poured concrete theatre and office structure west of the Mississippi River. At its premiere, a national theatre magazine called The Spreckels Theatre “one of the most beautiful theatres in the world.”
Harrison Albright designed the theatre’s décor in the baroque style. Allegorical paintings by Emil Mazy of Los Angeles decorated the proscenium and the ceiling. The large painted mural over the stage depicted two angels sprinkling a horn of plenty and the ancient sea god Neptune Bringing San Diego the Riches of the Pacific Ocean. A large central illuminated medallion in the theatre’s ceiling depicted Dawn. The four smaller medallions featured motifs of Air, Water, Fire, and Earth. Above the box seats were poised two large allegorical group sculptures by Charles C. Cristadoro (who later worked for Walt Disney) in their own illuminated niches.
The Grand Lobby 1912
The walls, ceiling, and stairs in the stately two-story Grand Lobby were faced in Predora onyx. There is a large translucent onyx set of panels that acts as a skylight, allowing the sunlight to filter into the lobby during the day, as well as lights behind the onyx columns. Originally,, the stained glass window featured on the wall above the theatre entrance was designed and crafted by the Tiffany Studios. It was a classical Greek scene of “Nine Dancing Muses”. Due to civil defense blackout regulations during World War II, the Tiffany window was taken down and stored in the basement of the theatre in sections. The crated panels mysteriously disappeared from their storage locker sometime during the late 1940s. A large framed burlap-covered cork board remained in place to display posters for years to follow.
Even by today’s engineering standards, The Spreckels Theatre Building was deemed a marvel of design, meeting 85 percent of the current state of the art design standards. The elegant auditorium was completely open without any pillars or columns obstructing the sightlines. Servicing for the backstage was outstanding. It was designed to drive trucks onto the stage through large double doors on either side from two streets to unload baggage, sets, lights, and hanging stock. This unique feature allowed a production of Ben Hur in 1923 to stage the horse drawn chariot race. This left delighted audiences wild eyed and spellbound. They watched the teams of horses thundering through the double stage doors from 1st Street, galloping across the stage and out the opposite door on 2nd Street, careening around the back of the theatre, and skidding back in through the 1st Street doors again, and again.
Grand Lobby Today
In 1985, the missing window was replaced with Yaakov Agam’s beautiful new window design commissioned in 1983 by theatre President, Jacquelyn Littlefield. Agam’s use of vivid colors contrasts with the dark and light elements elsewhere employed in the lobby. Sunlight filtering in from the skylight and emitted through the colored glass creates a mesmerizing effect, achieving a sense of movement as the sun travels across the brilliant San Diego sky. The art piece has become a favorite of theater patrons, striking a playful counterbalance to the more classical compositions that adorn the the history-rich halls and ceilings of the theatre’s interior.
Jacquelyn Littlefield sought out experimental artist and sculptor Yaacov Agam due to his contributions to the optical and kinetic art scenes. Agam’s fascination with movement and dynamic light creates pieces that rely as much on viewer participation as the artist’s original design. He is recognized as one of the most prominent artists in Israel, where his instantly recognizable architecture adorns the facade of several acclaimed buildings around Tel Aviv. His artistic credo speaks to the engagement his most celebrated pieces require of the viewer: “My intention was to create a work of art which would transcend the visible, which cannot be perceived except in stages, with the understanding that it is a partial revelation and not the perpetuation of the existing. My aim is to show what can be seen within the limits of possibility which exists in the midst of coming into being.”
The Vaudeville Years
The Spreckels Theatre was originally managed by San Diego theatrical impresario Jack Dodge. He booked and operated the theatre for 19 years until 1932. In 1915 the theatre began booking touring shows by the Vaudeville Hippodrome touring circuit. This relationship resulted in the addition of their name to the marquee that year, which remained through 1921. The vaudeville shows were punctuated by regular performances from national and international stage stars. These illustrious performers included opera star Enrico Caruso; the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova; American jazz singer Al Jolson; comedy stars Charlie Chaplin, Eddie Foy, and Will Rogers; band leaders John Phillip Souza and Paul Whiteman; acting virtuosos Ina Claire, the Barrymores, Otis Skinner, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks; and celebrated singing sensation Judy Garland.
The public’s interest in vaudeville started to wane as silent movies began their seismic rise in popularity. 1922 witnessed Jack Dodge’s entry into movie exhibition, as films began to be shown regularly at The Spreckels Theatre along with live stage shows. This required an investment of a movie screen and projection booth in the auditorium. And it worked. Audiences flocked to see silent movies. A whole new entertainment industry was born during those years to feed the public hunger for motion pictures. Silent film gave way to talkies and an even greater audience rush to the theatre took place to see the new development of motion pictures. This eventually made the showing of live performances obsolete
Talking Picture Heydays
In 1931 the master lease for The Spreckels Theatre was acquired by motion picture pioneer Louis B. Metzger (General Manager for Universal Pictures) and his uncle Gus Metzger. They managed The New Spreckels Theatre as well as other California theatres in their business holdings . The new management further altered the theatre by building a kiosk in front of the lobby to sell theatre tickets to people right on the street, replacing the original box office within. They operated The New Spreckels Theatre solely as a movie house, featuring first run studio films in the heyday of talking pictures.
During the Depression, movies became a cheap intoxicant for an American public hungry to escape from daily life. A typical performance schedule featured an ‘A’ picture with a big star above the title, a “B” picture featuring a less expensive production like a western, a newsreel, a cartoon, a travelogue, and previews of coming attractions. That amounted to five hours of first-class entertainment for mere pocket change. Once inside the theatre, patrons could stay all day and night until closing. No wonder the movies were such a big hit!
The Spreckels Estate owned the building until 1943 when they sold it to the Star and Crescent Investment Company, Oakley J. Hall President. After the premature death of Louis Metzger in 1944, his daughter, Jacquelyn Metzger, took over the operation of the theatre at just 22 years old. She continued the policy of showing movies for the large military presence crowding wartime San Diego and the downtown civilian audiences.
The movie business flourished after World War II ended. Public interest continued through the 1950’s and into the 60’s when inner-city areas began their urban deterioration. Then Jacquelyn began to reconsider how to format the theatre. The motion picture industry shifted towards screening films in smaller multiplex theatres, and away from playing the cavernous movie palaces of the past. Across America, lavish theatrical venues were neglected or completely abandoned. San Diego was no different as theatres were torn down and demolished. Jacquelyn considered The New Spreckels Theatre an irreplaceable architectural edifice and an invaluable cultural asset to San Diego. She determined to insure its preservation.
Rebuilding The Programming
In February 1962, Jacquelyn and her husband purchased The Spreckels Theatre Building from Star and Crescent Investment Co. She saw the writing on the wall and decided to return The New Spreckels Theatre to its original use as a venue for live performances, undertaking a major renovation of the theatre to prepare it for presenting live performances again. One of the first shows to play The New Spreckels Theatre following the transition was the San Diego premiere of Ray Charles, Live! It was a new beginning. On August 4, 1972, The Spreckels Theatre Building was designated a National Historic Site, reflected in the venue being renamed The Historic Spreckels Theatre.
The prevailing problem was how to program the theatre to fill the seats for live events. Every kind of presentation that showed interested in playing San Diego was brought onto the stage. Then in 1976 Jacquelyn Littlefield flew to Manhattan to discuss a presentation agreement with legendary theatrical producer Jimmy Nederlander. They forged the deal at a lunch at Sardis Restaurant, with the original terms of their agreement written down between them on a cocktail napkin. This luncheon resulted in bringing hit Broadway shows to San Diego for the first time in a subscription series, at The Historic Spreckels Theatre.
That memorable first Broadway/San Diego Season of six plays included Tony Award “Best Play” winner Equus starring Brian Bedford, A Matter of Gravity starring Katherine Hepburn and featuring Christopher Reeve and Sigourney Weaver, and Julie Harris in her Tony Award winning performance as Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst. The sold-out season was rounded out with Bubbling Brown Sugar, The Royal Family, and Raisin. In the same year, the San Diego Sinfonia and the San Diego Ballet presented their seasons on the Spreckels stage.
A season later in 1978, the Old Globe Theatre burned down due to arson. Mrs. Littlefield donated the use of The Historic Spreckels Theatre to the Old Globe. They transferred the rest of their season of productions to the Spreckels stage while they sought to find a way to reorganize and rebuild their theatre in Balboa Park. Slowly the Spreckels was re-established as a premiere stage for live theatre in San Diego. Since that time every genre of live presentation imaginable has played at the Spreckels Theatre.
In its over 100 year history, innumerable legendary performers have graced this stage. A roll call of some of these illustrious names comprises of a Who’s Who in entertainment: George Arliss, William Powell, Bill Bojangles Robinson, Ronald Coleman, Arthur Rubinstein, Bela Lugosi. Ed Wynn, Burt Lahr, Ronald Reagan, Eva LaGallienne, Honi Coles, Carol Shelly, Jean Pierre Rampal, Julian Bream, Burt Lancaster, Chris Issak, Ricky Lee Jones, Bobby Caldwell, Kenny Loggins, Linda Lavin, Jamie Foxx, David Bowie, Bryan Adams, Dave Koz, The Doobie Brothers, Todd Rungren, Sammy Hagar, Chaka Kahn, Sara McLaughlin, Bela Flek, Alice Cooper, Fiona Apple, Hootie and The Blowfish, Smashing Pumpkins, David Sanbourne, John Cleese, Dave Chapelle, Margaret Cho, Lisa Lampenelli, David Brenner, Eddie Griffin, Ellen DeGeneres, George Lopez, Rita Rudner, Patti Smith, Bryan Adams, Dave Chappelle Metallica, Ed Sheeran, Jason Mraz, Conan O’Brien, Joe Jackson and so many more.
Centennial Celebration & Beyond
Over time, The Historic Spreckels Theatre has featured an impressive array of world class performance companies. These great performing groups include touring productions from around the globe like: The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, The Martha Graham Dance Company; The Royal Shakespeare Company; The Moscow Art Theatre, Ballet Folklorico de Mexico; The Paul Whiteman Orchestra; The Kirov Ballet; The Alvin Ailey Dance Company, and The Harlem Boys Choir. The Spreckels Theatre has been particularly proud to serve as the performance venue for a multitude of San Diego’s talented cultural performance groups including: Art Power (University of California at San Diego); The Casbah; City Ballet; Gay Men’s Chorus of San Diego; La Jolla Music Society; La Jolla Symphony; Mainly Mozart Festival; The Old Globe Theatre; San Diego Ballet; San Diego Children’s Chorus; San Diego Music Awards; San Diego Sinfonia; and Starlight Theatre.
Our celebration of this very special milestone is a fitting tribute to those talented people who have performed on the stage and served the theatre. But we especially want to dedicate our 100th to the people of San Diego who have made up our audiences. They have filled The Historic Spreckels Theatre with their laughter, their emotion, their applause, and their joyful appreciation during the last century. The audience is who we do it all for, and that was John D. Spreckels’ real purpose in building the theatre in the first place. He wanted it to be the premiere theatrical institution to serve the cultural needs of the audiences of San Diego, then, now, and in the future. We stand in ovation to the generations of audiences from this great city.
2012 marked the Centennial Celebration of The Spreckels Theatre. This grand architectural masterpiece has been a culture shed for the city’s artistic life for five generations. The first 100 years laid a firm groundwork for the next 100 years to come! With our deep commitment to the arts in San Diego, The Historic Spreckels Theatre has earned its standing as a cherished arts institution. We have consistently fostered worldwide cultural talents and artistic excellence throughout our distinguished past. We will pledge to continue bringing the very best performances from the world to our stage in the many years to come, whether they are produced in San Diego, New York, or Rome!
In honor of the 100th Anniversary, we initiated three renovation projects designed to return new luster to the theatre. Our 75 year old marquee and blade signs were returned to their pristine 1937 condition with re-painting, rewiring, and new neon lighting. New seating was installed in the mezzanine section of the auditorium with new upholstery, iron end standards, and extra leg room. The Grand Lobby also received a facelift, the marble walls polished and the original lighting inside the marble columns brought back to life after laying dormant for 65 years, a result of the civil defense “blackouts” that were imposed during World War II.
Looking to the future, The Historic Spreckels Theatre will continue to honor our pledge to offer the finest cultural performances available for the theatre-going public. As we move forward, we will continue to transform the venue with upgrades that best support our mission and serve the needs of our audiences.