The Balboa Theatre, now contiguous with the Horton Plaza Shopping Center, opened March 28, 1924, at the SW corner of 4th and E Streets.

A well-designed combination stage and screen house from the era of palatial theaters, this 1,500-seat, single-balcony playhouse has fine acoustics, a commodious orchestra pit, a stage the size of most Broadway stages, a high and wide stage house for hanging scenery, a spacious assortment of dressing rooms and even a pair of live waterfalls on either side of the proscenium arch. The waterfalls operated at full force during intermissions, but they dripped when they were turned off, which was distracting to the audience.

The Balboa was the city’s first big downtown theater built for the exploding popularity of motion pictures but equipped also with full stage facilities. (The California Theatre in 1926 and the glamorous Fox Theatre in 1929 were the other two that still survive. The Spreckels Theatre of 1912 preceeded the dominance of movies.)

The tiled dome of the Balboa is in the same style as the domes of the Santa Fe Depot at the foot of Broadway. Designed by architect William Wheeler, himself a sometime stage performer, the Balboa was owned and operated by Robert E. Hicks, a former Colorado newspaperman and columnist for the San Diego Union, who also was involved with the Plaza and Cabrillo theaters around the corner on Horton Plaza.

During the 1920s, the theater presented a mixture of vaudeville performances and films, with several shows daily. The 426-pipe Robert Morton pipe organ installed in the Balboa was built in Van Nuys in 1922 and moved to the new Fox Theatre in 1929.

The Balboa was remodeled for sound pictures in 1930, when a new neon marquee was added, and soon became the city’s leading venue for Spanish-language films and stage shows. After 1932, however, the theater was used mainly as a film house on “the wrong side of Broadway” with occasional stage shows.

In 1959, when the Balboa was to be razed in favor of a parking lot, it was purchased by the Russo Family Enterprises, remodeled and operated by the Fox chain. The Russo family took over its operation in 1976 and eventually leased it to Walnut Properties, which operated the Paris Pussycat Theatre nearby. Though no X-rated films ever were shown at the Balboa, its management by Walnut further tarnished its reputation at a time when downtown theaters were being demolished wholesale in the name of redevelopment.

Architects of the Horton Plaza Shopping Center incorporated the Balboa’s distinctive tiled dome into the general look of the shopping center, thus guaranteeing that the exterior, at least, would survive. The City bought the Balboa in 1986 through condemnation, but a scheme to gut the theater and turn it into an art museum foundered. Since then, the Balboa Theatre has remained dark despite many promising plans to revive it.

[History of the Balboa Theatre contributed by Welton Jones, critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune.]


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