The Spreckels Theatre

San Diego, California


The Spreckels Theater Building was built in San Diego, California, in 1912. It was touted as “the first modern commercial playhouse west of the Mississippi”. It was designed for philanthropist John D. Spreckels and was meant to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal. It was originally created to host live theater performances but was converted to allow motion pictures in 1931. It has been in continuous operation since its opening, with a few brief intervals for refurbishing.

Architect Harrison Albright designed the Spreckels Theater for the city’s premier philanthropist, sugar heir John D. Spreckels. The building, which opened on August 23, 1912, was constructed to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal. As with many west coast buildings from this era, it is constructed of reinforced concrete and concrete panels with architectural terra cotta manufactured by Gladding, McBean. The six-story building has a marquee over the main entrance. The Theater is a 1,915-seat auditorium with an ornate Baroque interior. The auditorium is open with no pillars or columns to obstruct sightlines. The number of seats was chosen to correspond with the Panama-California Exposition year (1915). The stage is 82 feet x 58 feet and was one of the largest stages ever constructed. Even by today’s standards, the theater meets most criteria to be considered state-of-the-art.

The theater originally presented live theatrical productions. Notable performers at the Spreckels included Enrico Caruso, John Barrymore, Al Jolson, Will Rogers, and Abbott and Costello. In 1931, it was converted into a first-run motion picture house by its then-owner Louis B. Metzger. In 1976, owner/operator Jacquelyn Littlefield (Metzger’s daughter) returned it to a live theater format, bringing touring Broadway shows to San Diego in cooperation with the Nederlander Organization. When fire destroyed San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 1978, the Spreckels hosted the Globe’s 1978-79 season. In July 2015, Conan O’Brien hosted his Conan show from the theater to correspond with that year’s ComicCon.

San Diego’s Spreckels Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. It continues to operate as a theater.



The Spreckels Theatre


Intolerance movie set, 1916

Spreckels exterior

Opening night at the Lou Bard Playhouse, 1923

Original outdoor lobby doors and glass work

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