Lyric Opera makes a bet on a budding 'belle of the ball'
By Valerie Scher
CLASSICAL MUSIC CRITIC
February 2, 2003
The long-neglected North Park Theater, built in 1928, has a bright future as a cultural home for opera, chamber music, dance, theater and film.
So say leaders of Lyric Opera San Diego (formerly San Diego Comic Opera), who will officially launch a fund-raising campaign tomorrow at the theater, located at University Avenue and 29th Street.
The company has already raised $1.8 million more than half the $3.2 million it needs to help renovate the city-owned building, which is expected to reopen in early 2005.
Never mind the peeling paint on the marquee, the barred and boarded-over windows, the decorative urns and torches that are missing from the roof. Backed by city officials, the business-support organization North Park Main Street and local developer Bud Fischer, the historic movie palace and theater will be transformed into the centerpiece of a complex that will include offices, dining and parking
"This theater has been a Cinderella, an orphan in the ashes," says Lyric Opera's artistic director, J. Sherwood Montgomery. "But it's going to be the belle of the ball."
Like Cinderella, the North Park Theater was overlooked and underappreciated. It stopped showing movies decades ago. Subsequently used for church services, the theater was purchased by the city in the late 1980s and has been vacant since 1989.
Though previous attempts to turn the North Park Theater into a performance venue failed, mostly because of money problems, the ongoing restoration project appears to be succeeding. The San Diego City Council approved the renovation last April, the architectural plans are in place and the 800-seat theater is currently undergoing earthquake retrofitting. On Tuesday , the Council voted unanimously in favor of negotiating the DDA (Disposition and Development Agreement) for the parking structure, which ensures that it will built.
The city and Fischer are providing financial support for the project that will cost approximately $5.7 million, not including the parking garage.
"It's all very positive; this is something to rally behind," says San Diego City Councilwoman Toni Atkins, whose district includes North Park. "We're talking about the revitalization of the theater with a use that the community embraces."
"This is a great old building with a lot of the original stuff," says Fischer, the developer who is key to the renovation. "I got involved because I thought it would be a good project and good for the community."
Supporters say that raising the remaining $1.4 million is eminently doable, given the potential benefits of making the North Park Theater a cultural resource that will enhance the neighborhood.
To help prevent nearby streets from being clogged with cars, the city has entered into a public-private partnership and will construct a parking structure across from the theater on what is now a parking lot at 29th Street and North Park Way.
The largest donation for the theater project thus far is a $1 million gift from the Delaware-based Stephen and Mary Birch Foundation, which has long been generous to San Diego organizations. (The facility will be named the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theater Complex.)
Fischer has contributed $200,000 to Lyric Opera's campaign (in addition to the $2.5 million he is putting in as developer of the building). Funds also came from local philanthropists Merle and Teresa Fischlowitz, whose $200,000 challenge grant grew to $600,000 thanks to contributions from Lyric Opera board members and supporters.
"The fact that Lyric Opera San Diego would come forward is a huge victory," says Councilwoman Atkins, who says the 24-year-old company is "well-known locally and respected, with the ability to raise the necessary funds."
The move to the North Park Theater will undoubtedly bring greater prominence to the city's second-tier opera troupe, below San Diego Opera. Lyric Opera currently presents operas, operettas and musicals in Balboa Park's 600-seat Casa del Prado Theater. Its next offering, Mozart's "The Abduction From the Seraglio," opens a six-performance engagement (in English) March 28. The company's first Mozart production, it will be led by former San Diego Opera chorus master Martin Wright, Lyric Opera's new principal guest conductor.
Company officials say the North Park Theater will be superior to the Casa del Prado in terms of looks, amenities and sound quality. They praise the spacious lobby, charming decor, deep stage and ample orchestra pit.
"The acoustics are excellent," says general director Leon Natker. "The theater is the right shape, made with the right materials."
If all goes as planned, Lyric Opera will serve as managing tenant, with an option to purchase the theater (at a still-to-be-decided cost) from developer Fischer. The company was charged the nominal fee of $1 for a 99-year lease but will still have to cover operating expenses.
Expecting to move its offices from downtown to the theater in 2005, the company plans to expand its annual budget from the current $600,000 to more than $1 million and to increase productions from four per season to five or more.
But Lyric Opera doesn't present enough performances to make the theater a bustling, year-round operation. The company will be in charge of renting the facility to other groups. Though rental fees are yet to be determined, company officials say the "reasonable rates" will be in keeping with the often limited budgets of local nonprofit groups.
Already, nearly two-dozen arts organizations have inquired about the theater. Among the potential renters are the San Diego Master Chorale, San Diego Chamber Orchestra, Malashock Dance & Co. and the Hispanic Film Festival.
In addition, the film program at Balboa Park's Museum of Photographic Arts has expressed interest in collaborations with the theater when a larger venue is needed for film-related events.
Another plus is the theater's proximity to the area's schools.
"School groups wouldn't even have to take the bus. They could walk there with their teachers," says artistic director Montgomery, who calls the North Park Theater a "jewel box" of a venue.
For Montgomery, the theater has sentimental meaning. He and his family used to live in the area, and he attended movies at the North Park as a child.
"I can remember sitting there as a 7-year-old and wishing I could see a show on stage, not a movie," he says.
Thanks to the renovation, Montgomery will not only be able to see shows. He'll also be directing them.
Jack Montgomery (1962 Centaur)
Valerie Scher : (619) 293-1038; email@example.com
Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.