Spreckels Theatre Hippodrome 1915

Spreckels Theatre


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        "Jack Dodge said he was the one who went to Spreckels asking him to build a theatre...Anyway you looked at it, it would take a lot of sugar, and John D. ----- Spreckels that is ----- had it.
        Spreckels engaged architect Harrison Albright to draw up plans for the new building and theatre. The construction contract was let on November 15, 1910. Both Albright and the contractors were told, " I want the very finest. Nothing less!" As the theatre and building were being completed two years later, the cost had reached a million dollars. In 1912, that was a lot of sugar!
        Jack Dodge negotiated a rather unusual lease on the Spreckels Theatre. At the close of each year accountants for Spreckels would audit the theatre’s books; if there was no net profit for the year, then nothing was due on the lease. Spreckels seemed to have been more concerned that only the best shows be brought into the theatre. If the year’s operation failed to show a profit, that was alright just as long as the shows were of high caliber."

From" The Sugar Days of the Spreckels Theatre"
By Merle Clayton San Diego Magazine June 1973

In the Beginning

The Spreckels Theatre has been in almost continuous operation since its official opening on August 23, 1912. It was commissioned by sugar magnate John D. Spreckels to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal for the Pan American Exposition held in San Diego in 1915. The theatre 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 fire proof and provide the ultimate in mechanical equipment for heating and ventilation. In addition to fire proofing the theatre stage had a steel sheet that could be lowered in case of fire or emergency to seal off the audience chamber from the backstage. In the event of a fire, the stage house would turn into a chimney unless the fire curtain was dropped into place. When completed, San Diego’s premier theatre was the largest of its kind west of New York City, and pronounced 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 the time of its premiere, a national theatre magazine called the Spreckels Theatre "one of the most beautiful theatres in the world."

John D. Spreckels & Harrison Albright

Spreckels Building Excavation 1908

Procenium and Stage 1927

Boxes, Procenium, Stage 1912

Opening Night

The Gala Grand Opening on Friday evening August 23, 1912, was a glittering event. It was attended by prominent personages from Los Angeles and San Francisco as well as the cream of San Diego’s elite filling every seat in the audience. John D. Spreckels was in attendance in a private box to host the evening. They packed in to see Bought and Paid For starring Frank Craven, direct from its New York City run. At the time it was accounted the most notable occasion in the cities’ history. Two days later on Sunday, August 25, the theatre opened the Gilbert and Sullivan Company from New York’s acclaimed Casino Theatre presenting a wildly popular run of The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance, and H.M.S. Pinafore in repertory. Thus began the long tradition of excellence, featuring the best theatrical productions that were touring the U.S.A., and ultimately the committed practice of presenting great performances from the world’s stage.

The Venue

photo credit: Irv Lefberg

Even by today’s engineering standards the Spreckels Theatre Building was deemed a modern structure from the very beginning, 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.

Entrance, Tiffany Window, Skylight 1912

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.

Grand Lobby 1912

The walls, ceiling, and stairs in the stately two story Grand Lobby were faced in Predora onyx. There was a large translucent onyx set of panels that acted as a skylight, allowing in the sunlight to filter into the lobby during the day. Originally in 1912, the stained glass window dominating the wall above the theatre entrance doors 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 bowels of the theatre in sections. The crated panels mysteriously disappeared from their storage locker sometime during the late 40s. A large framed burlap covered corkboard remained in that place to display posters for years to follow. In 1983 the missing window was finally replaced with Yaakov Agam’s beautiful new window design commissioned by theatre President, Jacquelyn Littlefield.

The Vaudeville Years

The Spreckels Theatre was originally managed by San Diego theatrical impresario Jack Dodge. He booked and operated the theatre for nineteen years until 1932. In 1915 the theatre began booking touring shows by the Vaudeville Hippodrome touring circuit. This explains the addition of their name to the marquee in that year. That practice continued through 1921. Orpheum circuit shows were also shown. The vaudeville shows were punctuated by regular performances by 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 Charley 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 popular singing sensation Judy Garland.






Abbott & Costello



The public’s interest in vaudeville began 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 movies. This eventually made the showing of live performances obsolete.

Talking Picture Heydays

Louis B. Metzger

"Lost Horizon" Ballyhoo 1937

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 Spreckels as well as other California theatres in their business holdings . The new management further altered the theatre by building a kiosk out in front of the lobby to sell theatre tickets to the people right out on the street, replacing the original box office. They now operated the Spreckels Theatre solely as a movie house. It featured first run studio films in the heyday of talking pictures.

This was the Depression. Movies were a cheap intoxicant for an American public hungry for 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 (Littlefield) took over the operation of the theatre when she was 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 50s and into the 60s when inner city areas began their urban deterioration. Then Mrs. Littlefield began to reconsider how to format the theatre. The motion picture industry shifted towards showing films in smaller multiplex theatres, and away from playing 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. Mrs. Littlefield considered the Spreckels Theatre an irreplaceable architectural edifice and an invaluable cultural asset to San Diego. She determined to insure its preservation.

"You're in the Army Now" Promotion 1941

Mr. Peanut Party 1951

Oldsmobile Give-a-way 1936

Opening Night 1934

"Arizona" Ballyhoo 1940

Jacquelyn (Metzger) Littlefield

A New Beginning

In February 1962 Mrs. Littlefield 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 Spreckels Theatre to its original use as a venue for live performances. She undertook a major renovation of the theatre to prepare it for its new life presenting live performances again. One of the first shows to play the Spreckels Theatre following the transition was the San Diego premier of Ray Charles, Live! It was a new beginning. On August 4, 1972, the Spreckels Theatre Building was designated a National Historic Site.

Rebuilding the Programming

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 Mrs. 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. The original terms of their agreement were written down between them on a cocktail napkin, right away they decided to get the ball rolling. This luncheon resulted in bringing hit Broadway shows to the people in San Diego for the first time in a subscription series, at the 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 Dickenson in The Belle of Amherst. The sold out season was rounded out with Bubbling Brown Sugar, The Royal Family, and Raisin. The series proved to be an unqualified success. 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 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 over the years.

A Tribute

In its 100 year history innumerable legendary performers have graced this stage. A roll call of some of these illustrious names that haven’t already been cited reads like a Who’s Who of 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, and so many more.








Doobie Brothers

Film Location


Live HBO Special

Over time the 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 Alley 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 this season to all the people of San Diego who have made up our audiences. They have filled the 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 Spreckels 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. Thus we re-dedicate our efforts in 2012 to our audiences of the future in this year of the Spreckels Theatre’s One Hundredth Anniversary.

About The Spreckels  |  History  |  Restoration & Renovation  |  Spreckels Office Rentals  |  Employment & Volunteering  |  Image Gallery  |  Press & Archive

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