City might help with Balboa theater

The final act has begun for Balboa Village Theatre supporters, who received a firm deadline Tuesday to meet certain requirements or risk the long-shuttered theater's chance for an encore.

It's a tale that has unfolded over decades. The Balboa Peninsula venue, which originally opened as the Ritz Theatre in 1928, has been closed since 1992.

Setbacks have been numerous, but the theater's foundation told the Newport Beach City Council during its study session and regular meeting Tuesday that residents still hoped for the stage to be lighted once again.

Cue the dramatic suspense: Among the city's stipulations, the foundation must raise $2 million, draw up a business plan and have that plan reviewed by Dec. 31.

Only if the conditions are met to the council's satisfaction will the city contribute an additional $2 million.

"Now it's up to us," said Don Hecht, the foundation's sole board member.

Newport Beach City Council support of the proposed, 300-seat black box theater would help drum up the needed funds, Hecht said.

A council vote of confidence toward the concept would inspire a community that — like its council — had been promised an imminent reopening time and again.

"The city really needs to step up and make a decision on this," urged Doug Pasquale, who said he had already given $50,000 toward the cause. "Do something about it, be proactive."

The city purchased the building in 1998 for $480,000. It cosponsored a 5K run to raise money, considered seeking state grant money and debated the purchase of adjacent property.

More recently, the council gave the foundation, which dates to 1996, $175,000 to help move forward a $5.5-million renovation plan that has been reconsidered and projected now to cost $2 million.

"There's a difference between what you want and what you need," said theater President Steven Beazley, who is the former Orange County Fair & Events Center chief executive.

Renovations paid for by the city's pending contribution would include fixing the leaky roof, covering the sand floor with a cement slab and reinforcing the walls. The $2 million raised by the foundation would be set aside for reserves.

Council members continued to harbor concerns.

Mayor Pro Tem Ed Selich said he remained uncertain about whether the city should be investing in the theater business and offered several questions: Is this project the city's highest priority? Is the theater an appropriate target for the investment of public funds? Why not build a theater somewhere else?

"I really want to support it in my heart, but my logical mind just continues to raise questions," he said.

Councilwoman Nancy Gardner agreed that $2 million dollars could be spent in a variety of ways.

"I've wrestled with myself and wrestled with myself," said Gardner, who was the only holdout in the 6-1 vote that set the stipulations.

Others argued that the theater represented wider improvements desired for the Balboa Village area, as championed by Councilman Mike Henn.

"We think this is really the catalyst to help renovate the whole village," said Ralph Rodheim, speaking on behalf of the Balboa Village Merchants Assn.

Over time, the venue's offerings evolved from Vaudeville shows and small theater productions to Hollywood movie screenings to popular revival and art films, according to a history compiled by the foundation.

The new black box theater would probably host a variety of shows, including music, movie and other stage performances.

When the foundation returns with its results, the city will also determine whether to enter into a 50-year lease with the foundation, during which time the city would receive 2.5% of all ticket revenues, as the foundation proposed.

"The devil's always in the details," said Councilman Tony Petros. "I don't want to sit on a rotten egg for 50 years."

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