With all due respect to its bigger neighbors to the north and west, the Lobero Theatre, more than any other performing arts structure in town, is Santa Barbara. Intimate without being exclusive, elevated without being elitist, and recognized around the world as a magical venue, the Lobero gives Santa Barbara’s creative community a picturesque focal point and a vital connection to some of the greatest performing artists in the world.
What began in 1872 as the dream of an itinerant musician-the Italian trombonist and singer Giuseppe “Jose” Lobero-first opened to the public on its current site in February 1873. Excerpts from Italian opera entertained a crowd that included the region’s luminaries and what the Santa Barbara Index termed “a lot of coarse fellows, who could not restrain their natural rudeness by refraining from indulgence in poor tobacco and brown paper.” Lobero ran the original theater, which seated nearly 1,300, until it broke him. Married to Maria Clara Lugarda Cota for more than 10 years when the theater was built, Lobero ran through her inheritance funding the project and died in suitably dramatic fashion when, in June 1892-financially distressed, elderly, ill, and having quarreled with his wife-Lobero took a pistol and shot himself in the head.
More than 100 years later, current Executive Director David Asbell can laugh about it. “You’ve got to love the way he operated,” said Asbell recently. “He borrowed all the money from Hollister and others; he lied all the time, had children with just about every woman in town except his wife, then committed suicide. It can’t get any worse than that. I feel like as long as I remain alive, I’ve avoided Lobero’s fate.”
Although he is clearly kidding about the way he perceives the man whose legacy has been so defining for the performing arts in Santa Barbara, Asbell has a lot to smile about. First, there is the building itself. The original theater was torn down in the early 1920s to make way for the structure we have now: a magnificent George Washington Smith design with an ornate ceiling and interior by Smith’s great collaborator, Lutah Maria Riggs. When, a year after the building’s dedication in 1924, the great Santa Barbara earthquake hit, the Lobero remained standing, a tribute to the seismic prescience of Smith, the principal architect of our city’s inimitable style. With a few adjustments throughout the decades, and some major work in the late 1980s, the Lobero has entered the 21st century more beautiful and vital than ever. With as many as 18 separate organizations presenting there in a given year and an extraordinary range of performers appearing under the auspices of its own Lobero Live programming initiatives, the theater contributes to making downtown Santa Barbara, in Asbell’s words, “the most ideal performing arts center in the world.”
The Lobero Theatre Foundation, which has been around since the new building was opened for the first Old Spanish Days Fiesta in 1924 and is now headed by Palmer Jackson Jr., recently completed a successful capital campaign. The foundation is now embarking on another major fundraising project, this time in order to create an endowment to support the theater’s independent programming. Asbell is passionate about this project, which has already received several major gifts, including the establishment by philanthropist Michael Towbes of the Endowment for Excellence in Dance. The project, which goes under the general rubric of the Lobero Theatre Endowment for Excellence, has four sections: dance, theater, classical music, and American roots music.
The purpose of the programming endowment is something anyone in Santa Barbara who cares about seeing the world’s greatest performing artists should understand immediately, because it’s about establishing and maintaining strong relationships with the very best people in the world in every performing arts genre. With the small size of the venue something that no one would wish to change, subsidization is the only way that artists of the stature of, for example, Mikhail Baryshnikov, can continue to think of the Lobero as a beautiful and beloved second home.
In the coming season, you can expect to see the widest range of artists and greatest crop of talent ever presented at the venerable theater, which has played host to everyone from Igor Stravinsky and Ingrid Bergman in the 1940s and 1950s to actor Sacha Baron Cohen and rock band My Morning Jacket in the last two years. Highlights include Festival of Fools organized by Boxtales Theatre Company and honoring Marcel Marceau, to a truly amazing upcoming benefit for Girls Inc. in November in which A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters will be performed by two Santa Barbara residents-John Cleese and Carol Burnett. Please consult the Web site or the lovely Backstage at the Lobero program that is distributed at Lobero Live events to view the full listing. See you at the Lobero.
To learn more about this season of performing arts at the Lobero Theatre or to buy tickets, log on to lobero.com or call the box office at 963-0761.