The Observatory North Park Theatre – A Performance Palace

WRITTEN BY: KATHERINE HON // ARCHIVE PHOTOS BY: B’HEND & KAUFMANN ARCHIVES

THE DOORS OF THE NORTH PARK THEATRE, now Observatory North Park Theatre, opened on January 17, 1929. The two-story building housed a bank, street-level shops, second-floor medical offices, and most importantly, a vaudeville performance theatre that also accommodated the latest craze, “talking pictures.” Originally part of Edward Fox’s movie chain, this Fox West Coast Theatre was the first Fox movie house built with Vitaphone Sound, the first to be air-conditioned when constructed, and the first mixed use commercial and theatre combination building in the chain. The auditorium had a seating capacity of about 1,200 persons; the stage featured an orchestra pit, hydraulic lift, and fly-loft for raising and lowering scenery. The plush interior flaunted Byzantine and Moorish details in marble and tile wall panels, a painted and coffered ceiling, and brilliantly hued furnishings and carpets. The newspaper declared it “one of the most modern, comfortable, pleasantly appointed and delightful motion picture theatres to be found anywhere.”

Griffins guard the facade on the west end of the arabesque frieze that wraps around the building. Prominent architects Charles and Edward Quayle designed the building in an elaborate Spanish Renaissance style for Emil Klicka, who was dedicated to creating “a city of our own” in North Park and funded the project that was estimated to cost $350,000. The major original occupant of the retail space was a branch of the new Bank of America, which remained there until a new building was constructed for the bank on 30th Street in 1950.
During the 1960s, changes in land use and shopping patterns eroded business in North Park, and the theatre stopped operating as a movie house in the 1970s. Although it saw some activity as a church and occasional performance venue, it sat empty and deteriorating by the late 1980s. Fast forward to 2005—a grand dedication celebrated the successful restoration effort led by Bud Fischer in coordination with the City of San Diego and Lyric Opera San Diego, the first managing tenant. A new theatre entrance was created on 29th Street to allow a restaurant (now West Coast Tavern) to help anchor the building’s business along University Avenue. The restoration of this historically designated jewel of North Park’s commercial core undeniably initiated a renaissance that continues today.

With its vintage facade shining brightly in the middle of University Avenue, The Observatory North Park Theatre is one of the most iconic relics of North Park’s vintage charm and fascinating history.