Starlight Bowl (San Diego)

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The amphitheater in 2009

The Starlight Bowl is an amphitheater located in Balboa Park in San Diego, California. It was constructed for the 1935–1936 California Pacific International Exposition and seats 4,300. It was originally named the Ford Bowl because the automobile manufacturer sponsored outdoor concerts at the venue during the exposition by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the San Francisco Symphony, and other performers.[1]

Civic Light Opera[edit]

Until 2011 Starlight Bowl was the outdoor home of the San Diego Civic Light Opera, also called Starlight Musical Theatre, which presented several Broadway musicals each summer. The Civic Light Opera company was founded in 1945.[2] It was one of the oldest musical theatre companies in the United States.[3]

The amphitheater sits almost directly under the landing path for San Diego International Airport. During musical performances the conductor had a set of lights that indicated the noise level from passing planes. When the noise reached a certain level the conductor signaled everyone to pause, and the musicians and performers froze in place until the plane passed.[4] Audience members regarded the "freeze" as part of the performance, and longtime attendees like to recount awkward pauses from long-ago shows. Dancers sometimes had to balance on one foot in mid-step for ten to fifteen seconds, holding a pose, and then resume their routine, singing and dancing as if nothing happened. Singers were sometimes left in the middle of an a capella solo, having to (hopefully) find the right note again after the pause. The theater was sometimes dubbed by insiders as the "stop-and-go theater".

Another quirk of the Civic Light Opera performances was the "little red box," a prop which had been used in (nearly) all performances since 1945 - sometimes as background or part of a set, and other times carried on stage by the performers or even passed around from one to another. Performers considered the box a kind of good luck charm, while audience members enjoyed trying to spot the box in each production.

The San Diego Civic Light Opera struggled financially in recent years. In 2011 (which would have been the company's 65th season) no productions were mounted,[5] and in August the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.[6] In 2012 there were no productions, and the company's website was still live but was only advertising shows at other venues.[7] As of 2016 the company's email no longer works and its Facebook page has been removed. The unused Starlight Bowl theater is falling into disrepair and has been described as an "attractive nuisance".[8]

Save Starlight[edit]

A new Non-Profit called Save Starlight was founded in 2016 to restore the bowl. Their mission is to restore the bowl as a new platform for a multi media , multi cultural event space. The organization was granted a Special Use Permit for the topmost section of the Bowl in December of 2017. In partnership with the city, the signage has been repaired and several external issues have already been fixed and it is the intention of Save Starlight to have small scale performances in place as early as summer of 2018. They are currently accepting volunteers and donations on their website for this project.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Balboa Park Facilities S-Z". City of San Diego: Park & Recreation.
  2. ^ Starlight Theatre: Our Story
  3. ^ "Starlight Theatre and Starlight Bowl". Balboa Park. Archived from the original on September 24, 2010.
  4. ^ Herbert, James (June 17, 2010). "Starlight gives 'em what they want". The San Diego Union-Tribune.
  5. ^ Herbert, James (July 22, 2011). "Starlight plight a sign of venues' dicey realities". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved July 24, 2011.
  6. ^ Welsh, Anne Marie (August 14, 2011). "Starlight's financial woes nothing new". The San Diego Union Tribune.
  7. ^ "current website". Starlight Theatre. Retrieved November 3, 2012.
  8. ^ Hargrove, Dorian (September 17, 2015). "The tragedy of the Starlight Bowl: A plan afoot to save the Balboa Park classic". San Diego Reader. Retrieved 30 May 2016.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 32°43′35″N 117°09′13″W / 32.726408°N 117.153504°W / 32.726408; -117.153504