A San Diego landmark that was once alive with crowds and music every year at this time has been dormant for seven summers now.
But organizers of the latest effort to reopen Balboa Park’s historic but moribund Starlight Bowl believe a revival finally could be near.
Steve Stopper, CEO and founder of Save Starlight, says his group has made significant progress in negotiations with the city for the right to take on managing and booking the 80-year-old theater, and to bring it into a new era.
“We are very, very close,” says Stopper, who met with city reps about a week ago. “There’s a special-use permit in writing with our name on it,” and remaining roadblocks are relatively minor, he says.
“We like to think we’re very close to getting the keys, at least to the top part (of the venue).”
A city spokesman affirmed that conversations with Save Starlight are continuing.
Save Starlight’s aim, if it does get city approval, is to work on renovating the 3,500-seat theater’s support areas such as the box office and concessions area first, before moving down in tiers to restore seating sections and the stage area.
The organization’s longer-term aim is to help Starlight Bowl reclaim its place as an important cultural and community resource for San Diego.
The bowl’s new role would be quite different from what the venue was mostly known for since it was originally built as the Ford Bowl for the 1935-36 California-Pacific International Exposition.
The open-air theater, located at Balboa Park’s south end near the San Diego Air & Space Museum, traditionally hosted summer musical-theater productions.
Starlight Civic Light Opera (better-known as Starlight Musical Theatre) produced musicals there for decades. At one time it was the premier entertainment destination in town, attracting sellout houses to see big-name entertainers under the stars.
Summer musicals there were still a major part of the local entertainment landscape through the 1990s and early 2000s; the San Diego City Council even proclaimed July 1997 to be “Starlight Musical Theatre Month.”
But recurring financial troubles, partly the result of greater competition for entertainment dollars as San Diego grew, finally forced the organization to file for bankruptcy in 2011, a year after it staged its last show at the bowl.
Save Starlight, which has no connection to the former management, envisions opening up the bowl to a much wider palette of productions and events; unlike its predecessor, the new organization would act as a presenter rather than a producer.
“I want it to be a community space for everybody,” says Stopper, who ran the sound system at the bowl for 10 years when Starlight Musical Theatre was still in residence.
Stopper envisions everything from rock concerts to seminars to arts festivals at the bowl, with plenty of family-oriented entertainment as well as a focus on affordability.
“What I’d like to do, when we’re open and running at a cost-effective level, is to then let it become what it’s going to be,” he says. “You’ve got to create a situation where there’s room to grow.”
Although Save Starlight hosted a major cleanup at the bowl a year ago that attracted 300 volunteers, “the weeds came back,” Stopper notes - and eradicating them is just the start of the work the venue needs before it’s ready to reopen.
The city estimated in a recent report that it would cost $4.5 million to restore the bowl to good condition, not including any work needed to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act or seismic safety.
“We do need money to get it fixed up,” Stopper says. “But once it’s open, my plan is for it to be sustainable by (its own) operations.”
One feature (if you want to call it that) Starlight Bowl became famous for in latter decades was the need for stage actors to “freeze” in midperformance as jets roared overhead on their way to landing at Lindbergh Field. (The bowl lies directly in the airport’s flight path.)
Stopper says he envisions that being less of an issue in the future, simply because there would be fewer plays and similar entertainment events susceptible to disruption by jet noise. He adds that there are ways to at least mitigate some of the sound problems.
“And some people really did like the stopping” for novelty’s sake, he adds.
Whatever the bowl’s future holds, Stopper says, the hope is to honor the local treasure’s past.
As he puts it: “That place has an amazing legacy.”