Historic Structures

Balboa Theatre, San Diego California

Date added: July 12, 2019 Categories: California Theater Retail Hotel Colonial Revival

As a major player in the establishment of live performance theatres and the sweeping business of motion pictures during the 1920's, the Balboa Theatre anchored this national trend in the most southern and western part of the country. In a city with an uncertain economic future following the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition, the Balboa was truly a pioneering effort on the part of its developer, architect and contracting team, and was a landmark the day it opened. The period of significance is from the grand opening in 1924 through 1930 which encapsulates the most successful period of live performance and cinematic presentations.

Following the 1915-16 Panama-California International Exposition in Balboa Park, that attracted 3.7 million visitors, many of means, the city was transformed by the event and an urban sophistication slowly began to happen. San Diego's population doubled in this decade rising from 75,000 to 148,000. The Balboa Theatre was a grand experiment in an economically volatile city.

In 1923 the Balboa Building Company was formed, initially consisting of Robert E. Hicks and Godfrey Strobek. The charge was to build a distinctive culturally based theatre to further exploit the Spanish Revivalism that the Exposition had precedented. The project was financed by the Southern Trust and Commerce Bank. The bank President was G. Aubrey Davidson, mastermind behind San Diego's improbable Exposition venture. The vision that was conjured from personal entertainment experiences of both Hicks, promoter and developer, and Wheeler, opera singer and architect, anticipated the region's potential.

Named for the Spanish explorer Vasco Nuriez de Balboa, the first European to discover the Pacific Ocean in 1513, the Balboa Theatre opened on 28 March 1924 with much promotion and local support. Conceived and developed primarily by Robert Ernest Hicks and designed by architect William H. Wheeler, the Balboa was meant to accommodate legitimate theatre use with a strong cinematic state-of-the-art component. Unlike other theatre houses being built on the west coast at the time, the Balboa was grounded in live performances while providing for the emergent trend of motion pictures.

The word describing live performances as 'legitimate' implies that the motion pictures were somehow 'illegitimate', a lesser art form. The talking 'movies' were beginning their ascendancy whereas vaudeville, in particular, was in its twilight. In this confluence of entertainment the Balboa staged both types of experiences successfully from 1924-1930.

Live performances; i.e.: vaudeville, circus-like acts, musical theatre and even a one time ice rink atop the oversized orchestra pit, were all part of the Balboa's celebrated past. Nationally significant vaudeville acts played on the stage of the Balboa, in particular, Fanchon and Marco who opened the theatre to great pomp. Thereafter this group composed, developed and tested their acts at the Balboa prior to going 'on-the-road'.

With regard to the Balboa's cinematic contribution the San Diego Union reported on 7 December 1923: "Cabrillo and Balboa Theatres affiliate with West Coast, Inc....Signing the largest moving picture theatre affiliation contract on record in California, Bob Hicks of the Cabrillo theatre is to be affiliated in the Cabrillo and the new Balboa theatres with the West Coast company."

Robert Ernest Hicks, developer of The Balboa, son of Charles Beverly and Annie Mathis Hicks, was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, on 22 September 1876. He began work in the newspaper business as a copy boy on The Owensboro Morning Messenger in 1885, starting a journalistic career which reached its peak in the lusty era when F.C. Bonfils and H.H. Tammen were the publishers of The Denver Post. As a reporter and editor on various Colorado newspapers, 'Bob' Hicks became a special correspondent for some metropolitan dailies and the Associated Press, covering big stories in Mexico and the western United States.

During the Spanish American War he was the City Editor of The Denver Times where he worked along side Gene Fowler and Otto Floto. The former became a noted screen writer and the latter a sportswriter and circus magnate. In Denver, Hicks became interested in theatre and managed several expositions and large outdoor enterprises. He met and married Charlotte Elizabeth Lewis of Denver on 21 May 1900. They had two children, James Herndon Hicks and Elizabeth Lewis Hicks.

The family came to San Diego in 1913 whereupon Hicks purchased and opened the Plaza Theatre in 1914. In 1915 he subsequently built the Cabrillo Theatre, less than a 1/2 block from the future site of the Balboa Theatre. Walter S. Keller was the architect on both the modest sized Plaza and Cabrillo Theatres. Keller, a New York City architect who had served in the Army Corps of Engineers prior to coming to San Diego, developed a noted career and became known for his fine craftsmanship and Spanish Revivalist design expertise that led him to several prominent building commissions.

Hicks would later envision building the remarkable Balboa Theatre with architect William H. Wheeler, another noted designer, opera singer and 'man of theatre'. Together they would assemble a stellar construction team that was the who's who of the construction industry, late of the San Diego 1915 Panama California Exposition, and effect their vision.

The Balboa Theatre operated continuously from then on, however, Hicks left the scene by the early 1930's. He returned to the newspaper business and worked for The San Diego Sun. From 1934 to 1938 he served as an editor on The San Diego Union. Additionally, he was a Potentate of the Shrine, a Commander of the Knights Templar, and a 32nd Degree Scottish Rite Mason. He was also a member of Blackmer Masonic Lodge, President of the San Diego Rotary Club and the Cuyamaca Club.

His wife Charlotte was very active in local and national Eastern Star activities and preceded him in death in March of 1939. Robert Hicks was fatally stricken while at the wheel of his car enroute to Wyoming, on business, on 7 November of 1939. He was survived by the passengers of the vehicle, daughter-in-law Helen Lowry Hicks and grandchildren Patricia and Janis Hicks.