Group Aims at 2008 to Reopen Balboa Theater

Times Staff Writer

The effort to reopen the historic Balboa Theater has been a lengthy one, but Newport Beach activists who bought the cinema nearly a dozen years ago say they have finally set a date for bringing the once popular movie house back to life.

But don’t rush out to order tickets just yet.

The theater won’t be opened for five more years, giving Newport Beach’s philanthropic leaders a chance to raise the $6.5 million needed to revamp the former 325-seat vaudeville theater, which opened in 1913.

For local residents, the lengthy theater restoration project is not a race -- money has trickled in and progress has come in fits and starts -- but the passion for the task has continued to run deep. The effort has always been more about old memories than lathe and plaster, said Nancy Gardner, who heads the theater foundation’s board.


“I saw surfing films here by [cinematographer] Bud Browne when I was really young,” said Gardner, whose father -- former state Appeals Court Judge Robert Gardner -- taught her to surf a few yards from the Balboa Boulevard theater.

Even though it’s been closed for more than a decade, the old theater has a knack for survival.

It first opened in the heart of Balboa and was turned into an amusement arcade 10 years later.

The cinema reopened around the corner years later on the former site of the Rendezvous Ballroom, a big-band hangout that later burned to the ground.


In the 1970s, the theater became an adult movie house, and when the steam went out of that enterprise, it became ground zero for the then-burgeoning “Rocky Horror Picture Show” craze. The theater finally closed in 1992.

The renovation efforts, which began nearly as soon as the theater closed, call for a modest face lift before the theater reopens as a performing arts center. It will keep its local charm, Gardner said. “Don’t expect productions of ‘Swan Lake’ here or anything with elephants in it,” she said.

Foundation supporters envision a busy venue for musicals, concerts, plays, children’s productions and movie screenings.

“This is wonderful location,” Gardner said. “The performing arts theater in Costa Mesa is wonderful, but it’s also a little sterile. Ours is a lot more simple.”


Mary Lonich, the foundation’s executive director, said the landmark theater’s Spanish Colonial facade will be retained, but advanced technology will be employed inside for staging, lighting and acoustics.

The theater was to have reopened in 2000, a date that got pushed back to 2001 and then postponed indefinitely until the foundation announced a reopening date of 2008.

Seismic retrofitting and unforeseen expenses plagued earlier campaigns.

“We also needed to build a very professional, credible organization,” Lonich said.


But the campaign also needed levity, she said. Instead of holding receptions in a cramped lobby, the foundation approved the addition of a rooftop deck offering visitors a spectacular view of the ocean and the Balboa Pier. And without much effort, visitors will also be able to see the Wedge, Balboa’s popular bodysurfing beach.

“We are located near the Wedge, and we’re working on an idea to incorporate that into the theater,” Lonich said. “This is Southern California, and it’s all about having some fun with raising money for the project.”

Rather than stuffiness, she said, “it’s going to be more of a place where shades are required but shoes are optional.”