The Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park is about to get a helping hand from a very unlikely source - musician Tom Petty .
When he played at the KAABOO Del Mar festival only 15 days before he unexpectedly died at age 66, he and his band members signed a Fender Stratocaster guitar on behalf of a campaign to save the deteriorating Starlight theater.
"We are trying to find out if this is the last guitar he and his whole band signed," said Steve Stopper, the galvanizing force behind the grass-roots Save Starlight initiative. From KAABOO, Petty and the Heartbreakers went on to perform at the Hollywood Bowl before his death Oct. 2.
The Stratocaster was one of several donated guitars that friends of the Starlight are asking musicians to autograph for an upcoming celebrity guitar auction to raise money to renovate and reopen the theater for community performances and use.
Stopper said the Starlight supporters contacted auction specialists and is considering offering the guitar to Guernsey's auction house in New York for its Dec. 2 sale. Co-founder Arlan Ettinger told Stopper that signed guitars are easy to come by, but this one has a more compelling story.
"We would be thrilled to offer it for sale," Ettinger told me. He noted that a Jerry Garcia guitar that sold for $800,000 15 years ago was re-auctioned on behalf of the Southern Poverty Law Center last May and brought in close to $3.5 million.
The fact that the Fender guitar "was signed shortly before his (Tom Petty's) death and will support a worthy nonprofit cause is a game changer in a good way," Ettinger explained. He declined, however, to speculate on its value.
The Dec. 2 auction will feature one, and possibly two, Jimi Hendrix guitars, Ettinger said, as well as a bass guitar played by Bruce Springsteen during his debut album, two Garcia acoustic guitars and the first guitar played by Madonna on stage.
"We're thumbs up, ready to go," he said of the possible consignment. Stopper said he expects the Save Starlight board will finalize its auction plans soon on offering the guitar to the auction house.