Thieves target offices at Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park
Organizers say at least $50,000 worth of equipment and donated autographed guitars were among items taken; nonprofit group hopes site can be more secure as they try to reopen the long-shuttered facility
Thieves broke into buildings at the Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park late last week and stole thousands of dollars worth of television production and sound equipment and a half-dozen guitars autographed by famous musicians.
Park workers on Saturday noticed a trash bin was used to smash through a locked chain-link gate near the bowl’s stage and that the thieves had broken through gates and doors to get into the ticket booth and concession building at the front of the historic complex.
Once inside, the burglars took their time ransacking the two buildings — not only stealing sound and video equipment, but taking drinks, cookies and chips from a ground-floor office pantry and even some boxed wines that had been donated to be used for a future fundraiser.
The intruders took the good computer monitors — and left the cheap ones. “They had enough time to unscrew this stuff from the rack,” said Steve Stopper, founder and CEO of Save Starlight, a nonprofit group working to reopen the long-shuttered facility, as he pointed to where sound equipment had been kept. “They took the more valuable things.”
Stopper believes the items were taken sometime between Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning, and he pegged the loss at $50,000. San Diego police estimated the loss at $28,000, a department spokesman said.
The burglary wasn’t the only property crime reported in Balboa Park this weekend.
Someone used a BB or pellet gun to break windows in the office and bathroom of the federal building located on Pan America Plaza, just up the street from the Starlight, between 9:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., said police spokesman Billy Hernandez.
Starlight backers were particularly upset to lose guitars autographed by such artists as members of the B-52s and Styx, Jason Mraz and Grammy Award-winning blues musician Keb’ Mo’ and a drum head signed by members of the band War.
At an earlier auction, a guitar signed by Tom Petty donated to the group had sold for $15,000.
“This is like a big, big kick in the face,” Stopper said.
The guitars were intended to be auctioned off at a fundraising gala, which was originally planned for November. The date was pushed back to early 2020 after a eucalyptus tree crashed onto the theater in July. As the city was completing repairs, the nonprofit group was asked to temporarily remove its security cameras and alarms because power was shut off and city electricians wanted them to remove loose wiring that was not in conduits.
Stopper and other backers say the burglary comes as a time when the nonprofit is starting to gain momentum on reopening the amphitheater, which sits in Balboa Park next to the municipal gym and the San Diego Air & Space Museum. It secured a special-use permit for the upper section of the bowl in early 2018 and is working on getting a permit for the stage and amphitheater areas, too.
The project eventually will need millions of dollars in funding to bring the facility back to life, organizers say.
Starlight Bowl has been the subject of multiple attempts at a revival since the 2011 bankruptcy of its longtime operator, Starlight Musical Theatre, which produced its final show at the 3,500-seat venue in 2010. The site was built for the 1935-36 California-Pacific International Exposition.
The Save Starlight organization — which has no connection to the bowl’s former management — hosted its first cleanup effort there in 2016, and has been trying since then to raise funding and gain permits for a gradual reopening of the historic outdoor theater. The upper part of the bowl was used last summer for the 2019 edition of the San Diego International Fringe Festival
Today, the amphitheater is again choked with weeds. On Monday, with the lower gate still broken, people freely wandered onto the stage and into theater seats.
The Save Starlight group’s vision is to leave behind the bowl’s in-house musical theater productions and instead become a music, event and performing arts venue, hosting concerts, seminars and arts festivals at the site. The plan also is to sell food to Balboa Park visitors daily from the concessions building, said Jamie McGuffee, community outreach manager for the group.
Chris Parks, chairman of the Save Starlight board, is asking employees at local pawn shops and music stores to keep an eye out for people trying to sell the pilfered guitars.
“We need the city to help us button this thing up. We need surveillance, we need to maintain that space and then we need those big money donors,” he said. “We need somebody to come on.”
Stopper also hopes a major donor will step forward. “We are back about four years from where we started,” he said. “The bottom line is, for us to go forward there has to be a major change.”
Staff writer James Hebert contributed to this report.