After 140 years of jamming, what do you do for an encore? If you’re the Lobero Theatre, you close your doors for six months, make a few crucial upgrades and adjustments, and then throw them back open again for an “Encore Season,” which is what the Lobero is calling the wide-ranging set of presentations and performances that crowd its calendar from December until May and beyond.
The Lobero has traditionally been Santa Barbara’s most flexible and eclectic midsize venue, a place where traditional and cutting-edge artists can easily coexist. It’s also been a theater for all the arts, with significant offerings in music, dance, and theater. And whether what’s onstage is a contemporary dance company or a classical piano recital, the audience tends to be studded with true aficionados, many of whom prefer this intimate venue to all others as the perfect place to lose oneself in the artistry of a favorite performer.
What’s New Is Old
As is always the case when such venerable institutions spruce themselves up, the idea of alterations to the Lobero’s original design sent waves of anxiety through the preservation community and beyond. Although the intent of the new design was to provide as much continuity as possible with the original, certain features had to be modified in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Starting with the theater’s distinctive sloping brick apron, which was far steeper in places than the current building codes allow, and including two mature olive trees that were afflicted with a species of fungus-based wilt, some exterior features were reimagined. For example, two different olive trees were obtained from a nursery, one 60 years old, and the other 100, to replace the blighted trees that were removed. The ski-slope-steep approach is gone, as well, but its red bricks are back, lending authenticity to the seven steps that now lead visitors up from Canon Perdido Street to the new level-surface outdoor lobby/esplanade.
Inside, both the men’s and women’s bathrooms have been greatly expanded so that they now not only adhere to guidelines for wheelchair access but also contain enough stalls to process the crush that comes during intermission at a full show. I was there on Wednesday, December 4, for the sold-out Warren Miller film screening, and the elapsed time for my intermission trip to the men’s room, which included waiting in a substantial line, remained under five minutes.
The curving lobby/hallway immediately inside the front doors, which is now referred to as the promenade, is wider and simpler than before, although the latter may be due to the fact that on opening night it appeared to be a work still in progress.
Inside the theater, where what happens counts most, the differences are at once more subtle and more important. There are 60 fewer seats than before, and the increased legroom is noticeable, especially in the center section. The rake of the hall has also been altered to give the audience better sightlines. This was the hardest of the changes to detect; yet along with the firm and comfortable new seats, it ought to have the most potent long-term impact. Gone are the days when selecting prime center-section seats in the front third of the room meant sacrificing easy eye contact with the performers onstage.
For Lobero Executive Director David Asbell, the project represents what he terms “an organic approach” to the maintenance of California’s oldest continuously operating theater. “I love the new theater, and I say that having lost my office to the new women’s room,” said Asbell, who, along with the rest of the Lobero staff, has new administrative digs directly across the walkway toward State Street in Suite 29. For Lobero Director of Development Jim Dougherty, who raised the money for the project, and Lobero Technical Director Todd Jared, who Asbell jokingly asserted was in charge of spending it, the completion of this renovation represents several decades of continuous dedication to preserving and enhancing the building and its programming.
The Holidays and the Film Festival
And what a year of programming this Encore Season will be. Beginning with a pair of outstanding holiday events, the Santa Barbara Choral Society’s all-star Hallelujah Project on Saturday and Sunday, December 14 and 15, and continuing with the annual Christmas Revels on Saturday and Sunday, December 21 and 22, the Encores are scheduled to roll on throughout the year, especially as the remodeling includes a comprehensive HVAC system. In January, CAMA’s Masterseries returns with the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio on Saturday, January 11, followed in typically eclectic Lobero fashion by neo-folkie Shawn Colvin on Friday, January 17, and comedian Colin Quinn’s Unconstitutional, an irreverent review of some famous and some less-well-known episodes in American history on Saturday, January 18.
The Lobero building goes into overdrive every year during the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and 2014 will be no exception. In addition to screening a full daily schedule of films for the entire length of the two-week event, the Lobero’s courtyard and stage area serve as the venue for the filmmaker/VIP-only UGG Australia Pavilion and the glamorous tribute after-parties. On Saturday and Sunday during the Film Festival’s middle weekend, the Lobero hosts the writers’ and directors’ panels, two of the most star-studded and newsworthy happenings of the fortnight.
Bringing Back the Beat
Once the tinsel has been swept away and the red carpet has been rolled up for another year, it’s time to get down to the serious business of getting down. As any veteran Santa Barbara concertgoer will tell you, it’s not really the Lobero until the jazz giants hit the stage, and that’s what’s happening in a big way beginning in February. On Tuesday, February 18, a super group of sorts will arrive, featuring three of the most exciting musicians in the world — legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxman Joe Lovano, and the young Grammy-winning bass player and singer Esperanza Spalding. Argentine pianist Leo Genovese will accompany them, and they look set to blow the roof off the place.
Jazz at the Lobero continues in March and April with gigs by area titan Charles Lloyd in his exotic world-music configuration Sangam, a Newport Jazz Festival touring all-star group, and the saxophonist Branford Marsalis with his current quartet in May.
Along with two extraordinary piano recitals courtesy of CAMA by Stephen Hough and Richard Goode, the spring promises something extra special in the form of two unusual tribute concerts by artists who have carved out uniquely powerful positions within the landscape of contemporary American music. On Saturday, March 22, singer and Lobero favorite Tierney Sutton comes in with After Blue, her celebration of the music of Joni Mitchell. And on Friday, May 16, guitarist Bill Frisell will present a not-to-be-missed evening called All We Are Saying, which will examine the musical legacy of John Lennon.
Along with the DANCEworks residency, which this year features choreographer Mark Dendy, it’s these kinds of world-class, once-in-a-lifetime concerts that make the Lobero such a key player in our city’s culture, and it’s good to have them back and better than ever.