Mesa Musings: Balboa Theater ties us together

I'm hoping the Balboa Theater gets its mojo back!

An important community resource for more than 80 years, the theater's already had nine lives, but is deserving of a 10th.

I remember riding the Balboa Ferry with my parents and younger brother in the late 1940s and early '50s to attend first-run feature films at the venue. Yes, in those days kids could attend films with their parents without fear of being scarred for life.

The Balboa Performing Arts Theater Foundation has been engaged in a campaign for the last 14 years to restore the local landmark. It's been a grind.

Located on Balboa Boulevard on the Peninsula, just a stone's throw from the Balboa Pier, the 350-seat facility opened as the Ritz Theater in 1928, and housed live theatrical and vaudeville productions.

It was renamed the Balboa Theater in 1939 and turned its focus on celluloid.

My parents began dating during World War II and spent considerable time at the theater. In 1943, my mom, Betty, lived on Balboa Island with her parents, Bill and Effie Thomlinson. Both my grandfather and mother were Santa Ana Army Air Base civilian employees.

My grandfather was head chef for the base's 11 mess halls, and my mom was secretary to the mess officer.

Bill Carnett, my father, completed cadet training at the base, but washed out of flight school in Texas due to an inner-ear problem. He returned to the base as a tech sergeant and ran a mess hall.

Dad was without a car for a time in 1943. On weekends he'd hitchhike from the base to Balboa Island to spend time with my mother. On Friday or Saturday evenings he and Mom would walk the nearly three-quarters of a mile from my grandparents' Marine Avenue residence, via the bayfront sidewalk, to the Balboa Ferry on Agate Avenue.

They'd cross the bay to the peninsula, then walk three blocks to the Balboa Theater. They had to catch the 11 p.m. ferry back to avoid being stranded for the night.

Occasionally, he'd borrow a friend's car and they'd drive from Balboa Island to the Lido Theatre. Or they'd go to dinner and a movie in Santa Ana.

They were married in 1944.

In the late 1940s and early '50s, we'd walk as a family — Mom, Dad, my brother and me — to the ferry to cross the bay and view a film at the Balboa Theater. My brother and I usually preferred walking atop the island's seawall as opposed to the sidewalk, though it considerably slowed progress.

There were always two sleepy boys on the long walk home from the ferry. My little brother usually succeeded in being carried.

Sometimes, during the summer, we'd stop at the Fun Zone before the show and ride the Ferris wheel. Or, we'd be rewarded with a Balboa bar, a square of vanilla ice cream on a stick, dipped in chocolate with nuts or candy sprinkles, or a frozen chocolate banana on a stick. You could also buy those treats at shops on Balboa Island.

Today, Balboa Island's population density is higher than sections of San Francisco, and the real estate is more valuable than almost anywhere in the U.S., with the exception of Manhattan. When we lived there in the 1940s and '50s, many homes were unoccupied for much of the year, and numerous sandy vacant lots were sprinkled throughout the island.

For two years in the early 1970s the Balboa Theater grew seedy and was operated as an adult theater. Later, it was sold and served as a revival house, screening classics like "Casablanca" and "Citizen Kane." For an extended period it ran weekly midnight showings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

It closed in 1992 — but didn't give up the ghost.

In 1996, the Balboa Performing Arts Theater Foundation was established to resurrect the facility and turn it into a 300-seat multiuse cinema and performing arts theater. Plans call for the theater to accommodate music, dance, theater and film.

Though progress on the venture grinds exceedingly slow, I'm hoping it ultimately succeeds.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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