Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara celebrating 150th anniversary this month
By Chadd Scott
The Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara. Photo credit Patrick Price
Santa Barbara feels like a different country. It looks that way too. The aesthetic is by design – and by earthquake.
In 1925, Santa Barbara suffered a devastating 6.3 magnitude quake destroying 85% of commercial buildings downtown. One of the only left untouched was the recently rebuilt Lobero Theatre. Originally founded in 1873, the then-flagging theater went dark in 1917. The old Lobero Opera House was demolished and in its place the new Lobero Theater built, opening on August 4, 1924, less than one year before the quake.
“The new Lobero suffered no damage,” Lobero Theatre Historian Brett Hodges said. “In fact, later that morning, several local banks set up in tents on the lawn in front of the theater. With one armed U.S. Marine guarding the cash, the banks opened for business as usual at 10:00 AM in front of the most earthquake-safe building in town.”
Beyond sturdy, the Lobero was also stylish. It had been redesigned by Lutah Maria Riggs in partnership with famed architect George Washington Smith in a modernized Spanish Colonial style.
“In 1915, the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego had popularized a new style of architecture called ‘Spanish Colonial Revival;’ Spanish Colonial Revival combined California Mission architecture with Spanish Baroque and Moorish Revival,” Hodges explains. “It featured smooth plaster walls, small porches and balconies, arched doorways and windows, and perhaps most distinctively, low-pitched roofs clad in red clay tiles.”
The Lobero and Spanish Colonial Revival soon became the model for rebuilding Santa Barbara’s downtown after the earthquake, the theater’s design serving as throughline.
“Inspired in part by George Washington Smith and Lutah Rigg’s handsome and sturdy Lobero Theatre, the city established an Architectural Board of Review, the first in the country, and adopted the Spanish Colonial Revival style as a theme for rebuilding the city,” Hodges said.
The now iconic “Santa Barbara style” was off and running.
From Lobero Opera House to Lobero Theater
The original Lobero Opera House was the largest adobe building in California and could seat 1,300 people.
“In the 1910’s, with competition from motion pictures and the new, fancier Potter Theater, the Lobero was booking second rate vaudeville acts, lots of temperance (anti-alcohol) lectures and even wrestling matches,” Hodges said.
A change was needed.
Enter Riggs (1896 – 1984). She moved with her mother to Santa Barbara in 1914 after her father left the family to join a cult. She earned a scholarship to Cal–Berkeley by winning a local contest for selling the most newspapers. Graduating with an architecture degree in 1919, she began her career in 1920 as a draftswoman for Smith.
“Smith is considered the father of the Spanish Colonial Revival style and his firm designed many of the iconic Spanish Colonial Revival buildings in Santa Barbara in the 1920’s, residences like Casa del Herrero in Montecito, Meadow Farm and Florestal in Hope Ranch, and the Lobero Theatre,” Hodges explained.
Riggs spearheaded the Lobero rebuild.
“Based partly on the genius of her designs for the Lobero Theatre, in 1924 Riggs was named a partner in Washington’s firm,” Hodges said. “After Washington’s death, Riggs started her own architectural firm in 1931 and for the next 40 years designed some of the most important private residences in Southern California.”
Historic image of Lobero Theatre auditorium. Courtesy of the Lobero Theatre
As you can image, a female architect in 1920s America was an extreme rarity. For her groundbreaking achievements the Los Angeles Times named her its Woman of the Year in 1966
She also designed the Santa Barbara Vedanta Temple which Hodges considers her most famous non-residential commission in the area. Begun in 1954 and finished in 1956, the structure is an extraordinary South Indian style wooden temple located high in the hills above Montecito.
While its competitor, the Potter Theater, crumbled in the 1925 quake, the Lobero flourished, going on to host many of the most famous entertainers of the 20th century straight through to today – Jack Johnson and David Crosby are among upcoming performers.
“The Lobero has been called ‘Santa Barbara’s Living Room’ for good reason,” Hodges said. “It’s an extraordinarily intimate performing arts venue – the acoustics are fabulous, and no seat is very far from the stage.
The Lobero is now the oldest continuously operating theater in California and the fourth oldest performing arts theater in the country, trailing two theaters in Philadelphia, the Walnut Street Theatre and the Academy of Music, and the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. Dating all the way back to 1873, the institution celebrates its 150th anniversary this month – February 2023.
Small Theater, Big Acts
“The Lobero has been the heart of Santa Barbara cultural life since opening in 1873,” Hodges said. “When it opened, the Lobero was only the second opera house in California, and for decades was the envy of Los Angeles featuring a busy schedule of vaudeville shows, minstrel acts, seances and Gilbert & Sullivan light operas.”
In addition to entertainment, the Lobero hosted county political meetings and graduations for Santa Barbara High School.
“When the railroad came to Santa Barbara in 1887, famous celebrities like John L. Sullivan, Lillie Langtry and Susan B. Anthony began to come to town for Lobero appearances,” Hodges said. “This helped put Santa Barbara on the media map and coincided with the discovery of Santa Barbara as a healthy and beautiful location for long winter vacations.”
Not surprisingly in this part of the world, the Lobero Theatre’s history intersects prominently with Hollywood.
“For a small-city theater which only seats around 600 people, the Lobero has had an outsized influence on the course of American performing arts in the 20th century,” Hodges said. “Lobero Theatre performances helped jump-start the careers of Hollywood legends like Ingrid Bergman, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Bing Crosby, Lucille Ball and Betty Grable.”
The world’s most prominent figures in classical music and opera also played here: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Leopold Stokowski, Marion Anderson.
Popular music, too
“The Lobero has always been an influential jazz venue. It all started in 1949 with the wonderfully named Nappy La Marre and the Dixie Land Bobcats,” Hodges said. “In 1953, Dave Brubeck performed and in the following decades the Lobero helped popularize the west coast style of jazz, also known as cool jazz. Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, and jazz vocalists like Betty Carter, Shirley Horn, and Sarah Vaughan are some of the jazz legends who have appeared at the Lobero. In recent decades, the Jazz at the Lobero series has kept the Lobero at the forefront of the jazz scene.”
Hodges continues feeling privileged when entering the Lobero’s hallowed halls.
“I love being in a building that has been host to many of the most iconic thought-leaders and performers of our time. From Orson Welles to Frank Lloyd Wright, Martha Duncan to Mikhail Baryshnikov, Kirk Douglas to Quentin Tarantino, Joan Baez to Neil Young,” he said. “I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the Lobero’s green room over the past two centuries!”
The Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara. Photo by Patrick Price