Curtain Call : Ghosts Will Have S.D. Landmark to Themselves as Balboa Theater Bows Out

Times Staff Writer

Robert Yanes swears that if the time is right and you listen carefully, you can hear voices down in the dark and deserted basement dressing rooms of the old Balboa Theater.

Yanes, a maintenance man at the Balboa for 11 years, thinks the voices and noises come from restless vaudevillians and others who long ago graced the Balboa’s stage and basked in the ovation of a packed house of nearly 1,500 people.

“I know you probably don’t believe me,” Yanes said Saturday as he stood in the dim light of the theater’s cold and dank underbelly, “but sometimes I’ve come down here and gotten kind of scared. I’ve heard voices down here. There have been people who’ve refused to walk down here alone . . . and others have quit after working only a day because they heard noises and voices.”

After today, the ghosts--if they exist--will have the place to themselves. At midnight, the dome-topped, art deco-style theater at 4th Avenue and G Street next to Horton Plaza will close for the last time because city officials say the building is likely to collapse in a major earthquake.


But it’s not the end for the Balboa, just time for another change.

Sometime in the future, the historic building will be granted yet a new and earthquake-safe life--though certainly not in any form recognizable to its former patrons. It is to be stripped bare inside, except for the ceiling, and left as a hollow box standing three stories high. Then it will undergo a transformation into the multimillion-dollar San Diego Art Center--a museum of modern art with a gallery, stores and a small auditorium.

But its days as a movie house or a legitimate theater are probably gone forever, even though some politically outnumbered local preservationists are waging a fight to use the structure as a performing theater.

“She’s a grand old lady, that’s what she is,” said Yanes, 62, who can remember sitting in the Balboa’s balcony as a youngster and being shooed away from the railing by ushers.


The balcony’s seats were removed long ago. Only the 1,000 or so seats on the main floor remain.

It only takes a glance at the huge and intricate, gold-leaf ceiling, with its four movable chandeliers, to get a feeling for what the Balboa was like in its glory days, before movie characters like Rambo and Conan the Barbarian began gracing its screen. And with imagination, you can hear the music from the orchestra pit that remains in front of the stage.

No imagination is needed, however, to see and hear the two waterfalls high on both sides of the stage. The sweet sound carries clearly to all corners of the theater, except during the show, when the waterfalls are shut off.

High up on the walls and nearly touching the ceiling are large and elaborate plaster moldings resembling vases set on pedestals and painted in bold swirls of color.


Backstage, the ropes used to lift and lower stage sets from the high fly-lot are still attached to their guides, though they are covered with dust from disuse. In the middle of the stage’s wood floor is an elevator connected to a hand-turned crank down in the basement.

And on a wall at the rear of the stage is a red- and black-lettered sign demanding, “Quiet please on account of broadcast,” an artifact from one of the Balboa’s former incarnations, of which there have been several. The last live performance there was in 1932.

For at least the last decade, the Balboa has operated as a second-run movie house. For a time, it stayed open until 5 a.m., becoming a late-night home of sorts for some of downtown’s homeless, who slept in the seats.

Despite its past, the Balboa is going out without a bang.


A smattering of people were there early Saturday afternoon watching “Ninja Turf.” The second feature was “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” a film about a Jack-the-Ripper Santa Claus that, as the movie’s poster accurately says, horrified towns across the country when it was released during Christmas, causing some theaters to yank it off the screen.

All of the handful of people who operate the Balboa--a remarkably clean place despite its age and wear--will be given new jobs by Walnut Properties, the Los Angles-based company that runs several other theaters in San Diego. But for those who have worked at the theater for many years, it’s a time of sadness, like leaving a part of themselves behind.

“A lot of people feel bad about it,” said Fran Lancaster, the woman in the ticket booth who, like the others working at the theater, was dressed in a smart-looking black suit with white shirt. “We like it here.”

“We make our own popcorn, and the candy is cheaper here, too,” said Lancaster, who has worked at the Balboa for nine years. “Some of our customers are sad. They say the new theaters are too small and crowded. Here, you can sit comfortable because the seats are farther apart, and you see two movies for one price. It’s cool in here in the summer and warm in the winter.”


“You know,” Lancaster added, “there aren’t too many of the old theaters left.”