The show must go on

It took 16 years for Frank Gehry to finish the Walt Disney Concert Hall, so 14 years to renovate Newport Beach's historic Balboa Theater may be a little too much suspense.

Just ask taxpayers, who gave the theater's foundation $175,000 Tuesday when the City Council voted to revive long-stalled renovation work.

Arts-minded donors have also given $3 million since 1996. They dream of professional theater in their hometown and of a classy Balboa Peninsula. But with all this money and a list of wealthy backers, the foundation hasn't finished the job. Some wonder when, if ever, the curtain will rise again.

"I think people are leery; people want to see if it will actually happen," said Seth Siegel, chairman of the foundation board. His group plans to funnel the city's grant to theater architect John Fisher of John Sergio Fisher and Associates, who will then finish the design work.

Over years, the vision of the theater has grown into an ambitious multi-use space with a rooftop deck and art deco accents. Its stage would accommodate live plays, operas and after-school arts programming. Its 300 telescoping seats would collapse to make room for banquets and dinner-theater cabaret.

And, of course, it would show films.

The Balboa Theater has screened everything from art films to classics revivals, pornography and, on a weekly basis, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" for many years before it closed in 1992. In the early years, from 1928 to 1939, the theater hosted vaudeville and other small, live productions.

But by the 1990s, tourists and locals alike had many other entertainment options. The theater's operator couldn't make enough to cover rising rent, and the owner couldn't find a replacement. Then, in 1996, activists formed a group to save the building. They convinced the city of Newport Beach to purchase the building for $480,000 and lease it to the foundation for 25 years at no charge.

Since then, a series of setbacks and accomplishments have caused the project to drag on.

Perhaps the biggest challenge was winning approval from the California Coastal Commission. After two years of modifying parking and other aspects of the plan, the notoriously hard-to-please agency gave the foundation its permit in 2008.

By then, the project had lost some momentum. Construction costs had skyrocketed. Negotiations to buy or lease an adjacent building for dressing rooms and an office collapsed in 2002. That was after the City Council had committed $1.4 million for the purchase.

"It came screeching to a halt," said Nancy Gardner, a city councilwoman and former member of the theater board. "People lost faith."

Their faith had already been tried after a long-delayed groundbreaking came and went in 2001. Young dancers performed a "bulldozer ballet" choreographed with heavy equipment to herald the renovation.

Years later, then with its Coastal Commission permit, a gutted interior and seismically retrofitted walls, the theater project was still stalled.

"It's not unusual," said Carollyn Lobell, an Irvine attorney who specializes in historic restoration and other types of sensitive development. "Any kind of project where you're redeveloping an existing site, there are always a lot of hurdles."

Some have compared the Balboa's plight to the Fox Theatre renovation in Fullerton. There, the Fullerton City Council approved a $6 million loan to move the process along — 22 years after its theater closed.

"Sometimes the trick is to hang on long enough until you gather some resources," said Betsy Vigus, a curator at the Orange County Historical Society.

Many donors have tentatively committed to contribute the Balboa Theater construction funds, said Siegel, the board chairman.

His group estimates it will take an additional $4.5 million. Before they give, donors first want to see finished plans and building permits from the city, he said.

"This is the line in the sand," Siegel said.

Fortunately for him, the foundation is now comprised of all volunteers; about six months ago it let go of its paid executive director.

"There are no administrative costs, which makes it attractive to fundraising," said Marian Bergeson, the former California legislator who recently joined the board.

By attracting heavy-hitters, such as Bergeson and Jerry Mandel, past president of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the board of directors hopes to begin pulling in construction funding as soon as building permits are issued, which Seigel expects in six months.

Bergeson said she joined because she liked the idea of the theater breathing life into Balboa Village, the area near the Balboa Pier.

In recent years many shops have turned over and some residents say there are too many tattoo parlors and T-shirt vendors.

"It's a good catalyst for revitalization," Bergeson said.

Indeed, many of the council members on Tuesday cited the potential to revitalize that part of the Peninsula and the increased sales and hotel tax revenues from a bustling Balboa.

"It's quite clear that if the theater's successful, there will be a return of dollars to the city," said Councilman Michael Henn, whose district includes the Balboa Peninsula.

He and others argued that the city needs a professional performing arts theater and that these funds will help trigger additional donations for the construction.

"It's a gamble. I think it's well worthwhile," said Henn. "We need a richer, fuller, broader arts scene in Newport Beach."

There is one other live theater in the city, a community group, the 90-seat Newport Theatre Arts Center.

The arts scene is still maturing in Newport and that's one reason donors haven't given more, Siegel said.

By partnering with the Performing Arts Center and Pacific Symphony, both in Costa Mesa, and the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, he hopes to keep some patrons in Newport.

"The Balboa Performing Arts Theater will be the moral center of the city," he said.

Mary Lynn Berger, a past donor, wrote in an email, "At the time (and on to the present!), I thought it a truly wonderful concept to have a local venue available for local productions. "

With strong support of the project, some council members were perplexed with the foundation's slow progress.

"With this many influential people behind the project, I don't understand why the money has not been committed," Councilman Steven Rosansky said during the council meeting.

Despite these concerns, council members voted unanimously to grant the foundation the money. Gardner suggested the city make some modifications to its lease so the foundation will have to meet milestones or lose the building.

Setting the theater group on a such timeline might be difficult because of how the lease was structured, the city attorney warned. It was written 12 years ago, when the foundation thought it might be done within a few years.

"One thing that has been lacking is a sense of urgency," Gardner said.

Balboa Theater Timeline

1992 — Theater closes

1996 — Activists form the Balboa Performing Arts Theater Foundation

1997 — Walt Disney Co. delivered $85,000 worth of plush, high-backed rockers for the theater

1998 — City Council buys theater for $480,000 and leases it to Foundation for 25 years at no cost

1999 — Fundraising continues, estimated cost is $3.5 million

Foundation hits unexpected costs such as Americans with Disability Act modifications

2000 — Philanthropists John and Donna Crean donate $1,000,000

Foundation installs a viewing platform for potential donors to see the raw interior

2001 — Groundbreaking ceremony with young dancers performing a"bulldozer ballet"

Foundation demolishes interior, performs extensive seismic retrofit

Construction hits snags with electrical problems and plans to build underground

2002 — City Council agrees to purchase an adjacent building for $1.4 million, to make room for the theater offices and dressing rooms. Sale falls through and lease negotiations for the space also fail.

2004 — City of Newport Beach General Plan amended to allow for roof-top deck. Theater receives designation as a City Historic Landmark

2007 — Foundation launches "Season Without Walls" programming at other venues, to raise funds

2008 — California Coastal Commission approves permit

2010 — Foundation converts to all-volunteer board of directors

City Council awards foundation $175,000 to finish design plans

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