The hollow windows and doors that once opened to dressing rooms of the Santa Barbara Bowl now lead to a heap of broken concrete and dirt 15 feet high.
The 4,500-person venue in downtown Santa Barbara is now in phase one of a $20-million renovation project designed to add a new stage house, a new proscenium (an arch that covers performers), an extended patio area at the top of the seating and over 10,000 square feet of underground bathrooms. The plan was designed by New York-based architect Blake Middleton in association with DesignARC of Santa Barbara.
An anonymous Montecito resident donated $3 million to fund the project and the state of California added another $3.1 million. The money that was raised was enough to start the current phase, but it is not enough to build the new proscenium.
The rest of the money is coming from two types of membership: Friends of the Bowl ($35), and Concert Club ($1,100), which allows members to buy seats to shows before the rest of the public. The first stage of construction will last until May, when the summer concert season will begin.
“Everything we’ve known is gone,” said Eric Lassen, an architect and the volunteer chair of the Santa Barbara Bowl Facilities Committee. “What we’re trying to do is preserve the old character of the bowl while at the same time making it more comfortable for the performers.”
Over the past five years, the bowl has installed a large storm drain surrounding the stage to divert run-off, upgraded power capabilities and bought a temporary stage to accommodate musicians’ increasingly large stage and lighting equipment, according to Maureen McFadden, independent press agent for the Santa Barbara Foundation.
Originally built to house the Fiesta celebration in 1936, the bowl was funded by $77,000 of Works Project Administration money approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The same agency built landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge and music venues like Red Rocks in Denver. All functions at the bowl stopped during WWII, but returned afterward under the management of Old Spanish Days, the group that ran Fiesta.
In the 1960s, the bowl began to hold rock shows and slowly deteriorated. In 1994 control of the venue was turned over to the Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation, a non-profit organization that began to take in private money for improvements.
The new stage would allow for much larger shows, particularly symphonies and operas that would ordinarily shy away from the bowl because of its small size. The plans include a chorus dressing room and bathroom, and an elevator for handicapped performers and grips.
“Most UCSB students can remember clearly their first trip to the bowl,” McFadden said. “This project is trying to be as faithful to that experience as possible.”
“This is the premier venue between L.A. and S.F.,” Lassen said. “Those afternoons when the stones turn red and the lights get low, I don’t know if there’s a better place anywhere.”