Stately in both design and dimension, the Grand Lobby of the Spreckels Theatre Building was intended to provide a magnificent entryway to the theatre and building offices. The elegant architectural lines, rich appointments, and onyx facings were carefully crafted to create the sense of high expectations for the dramatic events taking place inside. From 1912 to 1941 the Grand Lobby created a spectacular first impression on the audiences arriving for Spreckels performances. However, early in 1942 due to the declaration of World War II, the walls and the ceiling were painted down in a flat grey zolatone. The gorgeous finishes and materials were camouflaged for the war effort, and then consequently lost to memory by 1978 when the theatre began to feature live shows again. Nobody working at the theatre or building recalled that beneath those thick layers of dull paint hid stone elegance, and much more. Restoring the Grand Lobby would become a journey of re-discovery and would require a very long process.
Grand Lobby in 1978
When the theatre was re-converted from showing movies back to live performances, the lobby appeared as a dim version of what originally existed. Not only was the entire lobby painted over, but a plywood false wall hid the existence of the original Box Office, from both the outside and inside .The interior was for all intent and purpose a small, dark, closet used for storing supplies on makeshift plywood shelves. Tickets were still sold from a small one person kiosk where the tile floor of the lobby met the public sidewalk out on Broadway. The lobby was completely open to the street, and it was encrusted with 68 years of ground-in grime. There were no glass entry doors like there are now in the façade's great glass wall. There was not a stained glass window over the theatre entrance doors either. All that was in that space over the theatre doors was a large corkboard frame used to display movie posters.
Tiffany Nine Muses Dancing
Then in 1978 the theatre manager accidentally discovered that behind the shelving and plywood walls in the storage room was hidden a filthy, marble wall. Curiosity led to action. By removing a portion of the interior shelves a set of three long-forgotten box office windows were revealed lined in copper sheathing. Everything was coated in 37 years of accumulated dust and grease. By removing the rest of the interior false wall the original Box Office was re-discovered. The wooden structure blocking the view of the lobby was another false wall on the outside of the Box Office ticket windows. From the lobby side the plywood had been painted to match the color of the rest of the lobby. It had been built to look like the actual architectural façade of the wall covered with poster cases, completely hiding the Box Office.
Civil Defense Black-Outs 1942
The story was slowly pieced together that after Pearl Harbor in 1942 the entire West Coast was mobilized to protect the coastal cities from a subsequent Japanese attack. The civil defense policy mandated "black-out" precautions at night to stymie enemy planes from identifying bombing targets. No lights were permitted to shine that might guide Japanese bombing runs. "Black-out" meant that every light in the entire city was covered, muffled, or eliminated. Stories speculated the Spreckels Grand Lobby was wired with a unique lighting effect. It was rumored there were strings of lights inside the walls so that the whole lobby actually glowed. There were originally no visible lighting fixtures in the Grand Lobby at all. Supposedly the walls glowed so brightly that ambient light bathed Broadway in its reflected glow.
Spreckels Management painted the entire lobby flat grey to stifle illuminative light reflecting out onto the street. The marquee and blade were turned off. And the Tiffany stained glass window titled Nine Muses Dancing was taken down, crated, and stored to prevent interior theatre light from shining through the colored glass onto Broadway. With the passage of time the original Grand Lobby design was forgotten and the black-out version was taken to be the only way it ever looked. Thus the status quo remained un-changed. And so the theatre continued on for the next 37 years without returning to the original lobby décor.
Transformation and Restoration
By 1978 this had all been lost to memory until the rediscovery of the Box Office .Over the next year the lobby underwent a transformation. The Box Office underwent a complete renovation and it became evident that all the painted surfaces were really made of carved stone. The Box Office restoration led to the demolition of the ticket kiosk at the front of the lobby, no longer needed for ticket sales. All tickets were again sold out of the renovated Box Office. Then the paint was painstakingly hand stripped from all the lobby surfaces of the all walls, ceiling and stairs. It revealed the original carved onyx stonework. This included the revelation of a large ceiling panel that was open to the sunshine during the day and acted as a large skylight inside the lobby.
A cache of old photos of the lobby was discovered inside the walls of the concession closet when it was torn out. In it was a picture of the Grand Lobby in 1912 revealing for the first time since 1942 that once there was a stained glass window over the theatre's entrance doors where now there was an old corkboard poster frame. Theatre President, Jacquelyn Littlefield, determined to find and restore that window to its proper place. A hunt was established to find the Tiffany panels, but after searching the entire building without result, it was abandoned. Eventually the story emerged that the panels of the window had been crated, put away, and then stolen from its storage place in the Spreckels basement.
Agam Window Commissioned
Mrs. Littlefield decided to commission renowned Israeli artist Yaakov Agam to design a new work of art in stained glass to occupy the honored place above the theatre doors. In 1983 Agam's dazzling corrugated abstract window was installed. It contained a modern design made up of over four thousand pieces of stained glass using every color in the rainbow. It provided a magnificent artistic visual anchor to the Grand Lobby when it was finally unveiled.
The Agam Maquette
Glass Wall FaÇade Installed
The portal beneath the marquee providing entry into the Grand Lobby had always been open to the street. The lobby had by then become a night time refuge for indigents seeking a private rest stop and protected place to sleep. Once the original finish was revealed and the Agam window was in place, it became evident that the Grand Lobby had to be protected. A plan was adopted to enclose it by creating a glass wall that covered the entire lobby entrance way. The glass wall addition was designed by Mrs. Littlefield with large entry doors engraved with the Spreckels "S" on them. The effect of this addition created a private sanctuary of quiet peace and open space. It also created a unique enclosed environment that could be safely used for pre-show audience congregation as well as private gatherings, meetings, and dinner parties
Grand Lobby Today
Restoration of Lobby Lighting
Since the time that the walls were stripped of paint, rumors persisted that prior to 1941 there were lights inside the onyx columns that lit up the entire Grand Lobby at night. Nobody recalled ever actually seeing this effect and nothing was done about it, until recently. As part of the preparations for the Centennial Celebration, the Spreckels maintenance crew recently opened up the crown of the columns through the cornice. Lo and behold, they discovered that there were still dangling lengths of cloth covered copper wire strips in the columns attached to light sockets. What was more, after all these years they were still wired and attached to working electrical circuits When new bulbs were screwed in, some of them still worked as the old rumor mill had foretold. The Spreckels will now undertake a project to restore the illumination inside of the lobby walls as a commemorative project to honor the 2012 Centennial. In 2011-2012 the electrics will be dismantled, rewired, and returned to the original lighting scheme that was implemented for the Spreckels Theatre opening of Bought and Paid For in August of 1912.
San Diego, CA 92101
Ticket Information: (619) 235-9500
Ticketmaster charge-by-phone: (800) 745-3000
Booking Information: (619) 666-9622
Building Office: (619) 234-8397