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Balboa Theatre Celebrates 100th Anniversary

Q&A: CEO Wallace Weighs in on Milestone, Successful Venue Management

SAN DIEGO – On March 28, the Balboa Theatre turned 100, a milestone in the theater’s and San Diego’s history with San Diego Theatres, the operator of the Balboa Theatre and the Civic Theatre.

Carol Wallace
President & CEO
San Diego Theatres

As the Balboa Theatre celebrated 100 years, its President and CEO Carol Wallace notes that various programming iterations and approaches through the decades have helped operators of the theatre keep it open, thriving, and keep the venue a viable showcase for the performing arts in San Diego.

Through a century, diverse stakeholders have consistently worked together to keep this historic landmark a center for the arts, an attraction for residents and visitors, and an essential part of the San Diego cultural landscape.

By focusing on the customer experience, San Diego Theatres has built a successful model for marketing and operating San Diego’s Balboa Theatre and Civic Theatre.

After a successful 25-year tenure as president and CEO of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation, Wallace retired only to find herself back in the business of managing buildings – this time two public theatres.

As president and CEO since 2018 of San Diego Theatres, the non-profit that markets and operates both theatres, Wallace has led the revitalization of San Diego Theatres.

Wallace says revenues are up and audiences have returned to live performances at the two theatres following the shutdown in 2020-21 caused by Covid-19.

As the rejuvenated and updated Balboa celebrated its 100th anniversary last month, the future of the Civic Theatre remains uncertain as plans for the redevelopment of the Civic Core unfold in the next 18 months. The hope is for the revitalization of all, Wallace said.

The San Diego Business Journal asked Wallace what’s ahead for San Diego Theatres as a new set of opportunities and challenges emerge:

Can you talk about the Balboa Theatre’s 100th Anniversary and the programming San Diego Theatres has created to engage the San Diego community in the celebration?

The Balboa Theatre’s 100th Anniversary weekend included Hershey Felder’s Great American Songbook Gala, Centennial Salute: Honoring San Diego’s Military, Toons & Tunes, and San Diego Spotlight: A Night of Community Events. The weekend’s goal was to open the doors to all of San Diego and showcase the theatre’s diverse talent and programming. The Balboa Theatre has a theatre pipe organ that was highlighted throughout the weekend and will be a mainstay for events in the future. In the fall, a silent film series featuring the organ will begin.

When you left your role as President and CEO of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation, you indicated it was to retire. How did you manage to end up running San Diego Theatres?

I joined the Convention Center Corporation in 1991 to manage the San Diego Convention Center and build the Phase 2 Expansion. Then-City Manager Jack McGrory became aware of my experience operating the older and new convention centers as one operation (in Denver) and managing a theater (in Dallas). Therefore, we discuss the business opportunity of managing the three facilities under one umbrella corporation. The venues were transferred in 1993. The Convention Center Board formed San Diego Theatres as a subsidiary Corporation of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation in 2003 to operate the Civic Theatre and then the Balboa Theatre.

Don Telford was the first CEO of San Diego Theatres and retired in 2014 after leading the Theatre management team for over 40 years. I retired from the Convention Center in 2015. The board of directors of San Diego theaters hired a CEO for San Diego Theatre, who was quickly stolen away and taken to another city. San Diego Theatres was without a CEO for a couple of years, and then the Board reached out to me in 2018. I joined the team for what was to be an interim position, and it has now been six years. I fell in love with live theatre as a fourth grader when I saw my first performance in Cincinnati. Working with San Diego Theatres is a labor of love, and I’m having the best time of my life.

What are the differences or similarities between operating a convention center and a theatre?

The convention center business and theater business have one word in common: Business. The skills and abilities to successfully operate a convention center or theatre are easily transferable. Our essential role is to provide and maintain top-quality venues that attract top-quality events and ensure that those events have a successful opening show or performance. As we look at the operation of both theatres, we are in the business of creating moments that matter to our audiences. The goals are the same for convention center operations and theatre operations, but the clients are different.

What is San Diego Theatres’ mission and role in San Diego’s arts community?

San Diego Theatres delivers exceptional performing arts and educational experiences, fosters collaboration and partnerships, and creates an accessible place for everyone to enjoy the arts. As we look to the future, we are committed to supporting our local performing arts non-profits through programs like the Balboa Theatre Grant Fund and continuing to provide exceptional services and support for all our clients.

What do you see ahead for San Diego Theatres?

San Diego has great performing venues, and San Diego Theatres operates two of the most successful, the Civic Theatre and the Balboa. The Balboa was renovated and reopened in 2008. Now, it is time to consider the next steps for the Civic Theatre. The Civic Theatre is the home to Broadway San Diego, the San Diego Opera and other performing arts entities. It is important to note that Broadway presentations and opera performances can only occur in a theatre the size of the Civic, which has a proscenium stage large enough to host these events and an orchestra pit. Without the Civic Theatre, there would be no Broadway or Opera performances of the caliber we enjoy today.

In October 2022, the Mayor (Todd Gloria) established a Civic Core Revitalization Committee of community leaders to make recommendations on the 6 blocks within the City Centre, which include the Civic Theatre. In May, the decision was made to issue the RFP without the Civic Theatre being included as a requirement for developers bidding on the opportunity. In July, San Diego Theatres Board Chair Lynn Thiele and I authored an opinion editorial published in the San Diego Union-Tribune. We made the case that the arts play an essential role in enlivening a city and that it was critical that the Civic Theatre or a similarly sized venue, exist in San Diego. We urged the leadership of the City of San Diego and potential developers bidding on the opportunity to redevelop the Civic Core to incorporate the Civic Theatre or a replacement theatre in the redevelopment plans.

San Diego Theatres invited any potential developer to provide technical and operational details to help inform their submission for the redevelopment of the Civic Core. Attached is a copy of the opinion editorial that was published. In February, the City Council heard an update on the plans to redevelop the Civic Core. Subsequently, four council members signed a joint letter urging the mayor’s lead on the civic center redevelopment to include the Civic Theatre in any future Requests For Proposals that the City of San Diego issues for the project. Advocates and users of the Civic Theatre attended and spoke in favor of the Civic Theatre being updated or a new theatre being built to replace the current venue.

What industry measures do you use to benchmark the performance of the Balboa and Civic?

We consistently measure Key Performance Indicators, track year-over-year results for our two venues and compare them to industry benchmarks. The KPIs we measure and track annually are number of use days (rental days), number of performances, number of events and attendance (number of patrons). We also break down these same KPIs by genre.

COVID-19 shuttered venues, including the Civic and Balboa Theatres. Can you share how you managed the response to the pandemic, which began four years ago this week?

It’s difficult to believe that COVID-19 was four years ago. We closed our doors and shuttered both theatres on March 20, 2020. Unfortunately, we had to release most of our events team and only maintained a skeleton team to work to be prepared if and when the theatres would reopen. You may recall that four years ago, there was little belief that we would do live performances again. Working with our great business clients, we moved event dates and moved event dates again.

Our theatres reopened in July 2021, with our first performances in August. When we were permitted to reopen with restrictions, (the San Diego) County Health Department provided tremendous support in keeping us updated on the latest restrictions. We had monthly and many times weekly virtual meetings and calls with county and state officials, and we provided much-needed guidance on what we needed to do to protect guests, staff and performers.

San Diego Theatres reopened in a strong financial position as we qualified for federal funds and grants for both the Payroll Protection Plan and the Shuttered Venues Opportunity Grants. Four years later, we are on track for a record year.
How have the two theatres bounced back?

After an 18-month shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Balboa and Civic Theatres have bounced back more than 100%. In fact, FY24 will be a record-breaking year with more performances than ever before.

Your tagline is “Moments That Matter.” What does it take to keep these two theatres operational and in prime condition, so audiences and artists have exceptional experiences?

At San Diego Theatres, we build an experience for every person who walks through our doors. We understand and believe that performance art and live events expose us to worlds we’ve never imagined. Attending an event and having an intimate experience with a room full of strangers changes us. We all bring something different when we attend an event and take something different away, but the one thing we all have in common with performance art and theatre is that it matters. We provide the physical space and the environment of excellence for guests to come and experience moments that matter to them and their families.

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Balboa Theatre by the Numbers

  • Since reopening in 2008, the Balboa Theatre has received more than 1.5 million visitors to the more than 2,000 performances that have been presented.
  • In the first three years after opening, the theatre averaged 65,000 visitors per year while the demand for that market was developed and nurtured.
  • The business continued to grow over the years to an average of 100,000 in attendance and 100 performances per year.
  • Fiscal year 2024 is shaping up to be a record-breaking year for the historic theatre with almost 150,000 in attendance to 156 shows.
  • The presentations are in various genres, including comedy, music, dance/ballet, podcasts, family shows and lectures. A silent film series is planned for next year.

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Balboa Theatre Capital Investment

  • The historic Balboa Theatre was renovated by the City of San Diego’s Redevelopment Agency and reopened for use in January 2008, following a $26.5 million restoration and renovation funded by the Agency.
  • As part of the funding for the Theatre’s restoration, the original Redevelopment Agency committed to keeping the Balboa Theatre a public asset for the community’s benefit. A Capital Improvements and Replacement Reserve fund was established for ongoing capital needs.
  • Civic San Diego was responsible for all major Capital Improvements and Replacements to the premises through July 2023. The original capital reserve fund was $5,968,444, with amounts categorized by type of projected need.
  • Since 2008, more than $4 million has been invested from this fund in capital improvements to maintain the historic space while keeping up with current technology.
  • The major investments have been in the theatrical equipment, lighting, audiovisual systems, HVAC, carpeting, painting, and an overhaul of the building control system and roof.

 

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