Local residents volunteered in droves in the hot August sun to sweep, rake and scrub the long-vacant Starlight Bowl in the Balboa Park amphitheater into almost-new condition. A crowd of about 300 turned out to support the newly organized, Save Starlight campaign that seeks to restore the historic amphitheater to its former glory.
Originally built as The Ford Bowl for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, the city-owned theater closed in 2012 and its 3,500 seats have sat empty ever since. Part of the reason the Starlight Bowl had to close was because it lies on the flight path of Lindbergh Field, which has steadily increased its traffic load. Now there are about 250 to 300 flights a day, drowning out musical performances.
The Save Starlight campaign is led by one Steve Stopper, a former audio technician at the Starlight Theatre, the organization that took over from the Starlight Bowl when it declared bankruptcy in 2012.
Last year, Stopper lobbied the city to end Starlight theater’s lease so a new organization could get it up and running again. The 300 volunteers quickly cleared he property of weeds and debris, restoring the old amphitheater to its former glory. The stage needs repairs, the sound and lighting equipment need updating, graffiti needs removing. Just last week, when city officials opened the gates for the cleanup, they had to chase off vagrants living in the dressing rooms.
Many cleanup volunteers came because they said they hate seeing Starlight Theater go to waste. Longtime residents have been attending shows there for years and would like to do so again. Starlight peaked in the 1950s and 60s, when there were fewer competing theaters. In the 1970s, other theaters started popping up and filling the gap. Renovations were considered to revitalize the theater, including a dome to block out the noise from overhead planes.
Actors even adopted the famous “freeze frame” technique, pausing the performance when a plane flew overhead. But eventually the flights became too much and the Starlight’s owners and performers ran out of answers.
San Diego City Councilmember Gloria says that the city hopes to start accepting lease bids for the property sometime next year. Save Starlight’s leader Steve Stopper currently runs a nonprofit arts career school and plans to be among the first applicants to make a bid for the property. Stopper’s plan to reopen Starlight would begin with the installation of a new sound system inspired by the Coachella music festival and the introduction of a brand-new set of programming. Stopper wants to see a mix of 100 shows a year by community groups, schools, nonprofit theater, dance, concert groups, as well as magic shows, open mics and more.
The biggest challenge of saving Starlight, Stopper says, is to overcome the impression that the old theater cannot be saved. Recreating the old Starlight, which featured Broadway musicals, is not an option. But creating something new out of an old community asset is the dream of Save Starlight.
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(all data current as of 10/17/2017)
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