The construction fencing outside the Lobero Theatre is temporarily hiding a major upgrade to enhance the audience experience inside the Santa Barbara landmark.
The $7 million, six-month project involves replacing worn-out seats, installing air conditioning and ventilation, restoring the ceiling and adding bigger restrooms. The new seats will look almost identical to the old ones, but they’re wider and offer more leg room.
“The whole idea of the Encore Lobero campaign is ‘art is comfort,’” executive director David Asbell said of the fundraising effort.
“We’ve spent a lot of money making the building safe and improving all the technical abilities. Now it’s time to put some money into the audience.”
The oldest, continuously operated theater in California, the Lobero originally was built in 1873 by an Italian immigrant named Jose Lobero. After he died in 1922, a group of civic leaders raised enough money to rebuild it in 1924 at 33 E. Canon Perdido.
The theater survived the 1925 earthquake that destroyed much of Santa Barbara, and it ended up serving as a shelter for people who had lost their homes.
Lobero development director Jim Dougherty has spent the past two years fundraising. He said $2 million was contributed by Lobero board members, $2.5 million came from local foundations and the rest of the funds are individual donations.
“We have a remarkable community,” Dougherty said. “We have a good base of people who have supported the theater for many years.”
Dougherty said it probably would have cost less to tear down the theater and build something new and contemporary.
“But you’d lose something,” he said. “The memories of the past give you a sense of the importance of history and what it means to people.”
Looking back, Asbell noted that the theater has hosted thousands of great performers in music, theater and dance from all over the world.
“It’s central to the cultural community of Santa Barbara and we want to preserve that as long as possible,” he said. “It’s a beautiful building (and) there’s this great feeling of tradition and energy about this place.”
The Lobero will reopen in December, and Dougherty said visitors can expect the same atmosphere and intimate feeling that the theater has always had. The main differences will be a few less seats — 610, down from 680 — along with larger restrooms and a pleasant temperature regardless of the season.
(David Bazemore video)