‘Save Starlight' Group Works to Revive Dilapidated Open-Air Amphitheater

Since it shut down in 2012, the Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park has fallen into disrepair but one group hopes to start the clean-up process this weekend

A nonprofit group working to restore a historic open-air amphitheater in Balboa Park rolled up their sleeves Saturday and began the much-needed clean-up efforts, with the help of lots of volunteers.

Save Starlight is a grassroots organization that wants to renovate and reinvent the Starlight Bowl on Pan American Plaza. The last event held at the amphitheater was more than five years ago. Since it shuttered in 2011, the venue fallen into disrepair.

Today, the venue’s façade is visibly run down – the letters at the entrance worn and surrounding plants overgrown.

On Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., Save Starlight hosted a “Reverse Gardening Party” to help clean the venue.

Dozens of volunteers turned out for the event, which included live entertainment, refreshments and a raffle. Volunteers pulled weeds and cleaned up trash that has taken over the vacant venue over the years.

"We're basically coming in and cleaning up the bowl," Steve Stopper, of Save Starlight, told NBC 7 Thursday, ahead of the event.

San Diego-based casting director D. Candis Paule, her husband, Robert May, and their two children were among the volunteers who gathered at Starlight Bowl Saturday.

Together, they worked to tidy up a section of the amphitheater.

"The arts are so important and San Diego is such a destination for the arts. Starlight is this phenomenal space that doesn’t exist in many cities, so when you have it, we have to save it and make it a viable place for the arts to flourish," Paule told NBC 7.

May said it was amazing to see how many volunteers came out for the event, tools in hand.

"It says a lot about the city; it says a lot about the people who really enjoy the arts and space like this in such a beautiful park," May told NBC 7. "It’s gratifying to see.”

The mission of Save Starlight is to get the Bowl up and running again as some type of entertainment venue for concerts, cinema, festivals, plays, community events and musical theater while preserving the site’s history.

Originally called The Ford Bowl, the amphitheater was commissioned by the Ford Motor Company for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition.

In its early days, the Starlight Bowl featured symphony concerts that were broadcast via radio and other events. The name was changed to Starlight Bowl in the 1970s.

From the late 1950s until 2011, the venue hosted the San Diego Civic Light Opera (SDCLO) Starlight Summer Musicals. The SDCLO folded in 2011 and the Bowl hasn’t been used since then.

What makes Starlight Bowl unique is that it’s located directly under the flight path for the San Diego International Airport – making noise a factor for productions.

Save Starlight says that for decades, theatrical performances would “freeze” mid-scene or song as the planes passed overhead. As air traffic increased at Lindbergh Field, the noise created problems for the venue’s programming.

Through its campaign, Save Starlight hopes to figure out how to operate the venue despite the noise issues. The team is headed by Stopper, a former audio technician for Starlight who knows the acoustics of the amphitheater well.

"We're going to be able to do things with the sound," Stopper told NBC 7. "We're going to be able to do things with adjustments to mitigate the effect of planes because it's our take that there's no way to cover the Bowl and completely remove the issues, so you've got to work around them."

Save Starlight said a feasibility study was conducted in 2013 on the Starlight Bowl. The 155-page report said the costs for initial improvements to the venue are $7.8 million, and $15 million to complete the project.

The nonprofit told NBC 7 the report is good but their intentions are different because they want to utilize the venue for events that won’t be affected by the airplane noise, such as concerts and festivals.

Save Starlight said their plan does not cost $15 million. To learn more about the efforts to revitalize the Bowl, click here.

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