A SHORT HISTORY OF COPLEY SYMPHONY HALL
San Diego's Copley Symphony Hall opened as The Fox Theatre on November 8, 1929, about twenty or so years after the first concert was given by a so-called San Diego Symphony Orchestra. It took until the mid-1980’s before the San Diego orchestra had its own home in what was renamed Copley Symphony Hall.
EARLY SYMPHONY HISTORY
After a few concerts in 1910 and 1911, the San Diego Symphony Society was organized, and the group hired Buren Schryock as the first music director. He gave a number of remarkable and adventurous concerts over the years prior to America’s entry into World War I, but that conflict and the difficult economic conditions of the years immediately following the Armistice did the orchestra in.
It was in the mid-1920’s that Nino Marcelli, the director of music education in the San Diego Public School System, and a fine composer and conductor in his own right, began a series of concerts with the alumni of his San Diego High School Orchestra. They had attained considerable popularity and fame, and had even toured throughout the state to considerable acclamation. He appropriated the name of “San Diego Symphony”, and gave a series of concerts in various venues, including the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. In 1927, The San Diego Symphony Orchestra Association was organized to back those concerts, and from that point to today, the group has been properly called the San Diego Symphony. The Association had even contacted Buren Schryock in order to continue the name, “San Diego Symphony Orchestra.” Schryock gave them the original articles of incorporation; that act represented the direct continuation of the San Diego Symphony.
WHERE TO PLAY?
At the time the "San Diego Symphony" was a summer orchestra, whose concerts at the Organ Pavilion (and later at the Balboa Park/Ford Bowl) were extremely popular. After Marcelli stepped down, distinguished guests, such as Ferde Grofe’, Arnold Schoenberg and Erich Korngold led the group. The Second World War, like the First, stopped the concerts. Balboa Park was taken over by the Navy and closed to the public.
After the War and the navy’s appropriation of the park, summer concerts were again organized, this time under the direction of Fabien Sevitzky. He remained as director for several years, only to be followed by a fine local boy, the young Robert Shaw. Maestro Shaw eventually left for greater fame and appropriate glory, and the Association began to think of making the SDSO a year-round organization. The first winter series was 1959-60; Earl Bernard Murray had been chosen as the orchestra’s music director. The concerts were given in the old, quite uncomfortable Russ Auditorium. The summer concerts continued, of course, and attracted large crowds.
Zoltan Rozsnyai followed Murray as music director, and increased the orchestra’s winter season by pairing the concerts. By 1965, the San Diego Civic Theatre had been built and the orchestra played there regularly. Succeeding music directors were Peter Eros, David Atherton and Yoav Talmi, each of whom increased the proficiency of the orchestra.
A PERMANENT HOME EMERGES
It was David Atherton who, as music director, led the efforts to move the orchestra to the vacant Fox Theatre in downtown San Diego. That hall has a very interesting history. Philip Gildred, a carefree young entrepreneur whose travel plans were delayed in San Diego on his way from South America to New York, liked San Diego so much that he embarked upon a plan to give the city a landmark theatre. In association with William Fox of the Fox Theatre chain, he built the Fox Theatre for $2.5 million. It is estimated that today's cost would be 20 times that amount. Originally the full structure between 8th and 9th avenues on B Street contained not only the large theatre but also a parking garage (a new concept in the 1920’s), offices and a large department store that served downtown for many years as Montgomery Ward.
THE MOVIE PALACE
The new Fox received only the best. A huge, $50,000 pipe organ was built into five walled chambers of the theatre. The interior decorative motif was cast vaguely in a Rococo theme, somewhat typical of the French Renaissance. Built by William Simpson Construction Co., the theatre was designed jointly by the architect W. Templeton Johnson, and William Day of the designer firm Weeks and Day. The theatre is believed to be the last surviving example of designer William Day's creative work with this decor. Accuracy insists, however, that much of the interior decoration was the work of William Fox’s favorite designer, Mrs. Fox, whose tastes ran to the somewhat spectacular, often combining facets of various periods and geographies. Over the years, the interior has been preserved in its original motif, and regardless of the mélange it represents, it must be acknowledged that, if anything, it is appropriately theatrical!
A DAZZLING 1929 OPENING
In addition to a trainload of Hollywood personalities brought to San Diego for the opening night festivities in 1929, San Diegans turned out in record numbers to participate in the parade from Broadway to the theatre. The city's population was 147,000. The crowd was estimated at 100,000. Some of the guest stars on opening night were Jackie Coogan, Buster Keaton, George Jessel and Will Rogers.
On opening day the Fox became San Diego's largest movie theatre. It was then the third largest in the state, but today stands as California's largest. Because of San Diego's cross section of population, the Fox also became a choice for motion picture sneak previews. Walt Disney loved the atmosphere so much that he opened all of his movies at the Fox.
A NEW LIFE FOR THE FOX...AND A NEW HOME FOR THE SYMPHONY
Through an agreement with the City of San Diego, the Fox Theatre became the city's second official civic theatre. Symphony Archivist Dr. Mel Goldzband explains what happened next: "During the early '80s era of David Atherton as SDSO music director, the Fox became available. Atherton, Lou Cumming, then symphony president, and the symphony board thought seriously about somehow purchasing it. The symphony had by then never achieved a meaningful level of financial security, much less a financial base that allowed for such a purchase, but the energies of the board and the conductor were put to the test. The negotiations became incredibly complex, and the fund-raising achieved heroic status. In brief and in considerable oversimplification, in 1984 the Symphony bought the entire 'Fox Block' and then sold it to the Charlton-Raynd Development Company. The development company, in turn, donated the theatre to the orchestra over a five-year period."
"Meanwhile, the Charlton-Raynd people developed the rest of the block including the hotel and the Symphony Towers office building, as well as the parking garage uniquely suspended over the theatre. The late Helen Copley made the key contribution of two million dollars that allowed the Symphony to purchase the property. Perhaps not to the extent of Mrs. Copley's generosity, but nonetheless significant contributions were also made by many other San Diegans."
"COPLEY SYMPHONY HALL"
In March of 1985, a $6 million renovation project, which took six months to complete, employed people who were dedicated to the purpose of restoring the theatre and the pipe organ to its original grandeur. Notably, the same Los Angeles firm who had decorated the hall for its 1929 opening, came down to duplicate the decoration during the 1980’s restoration. When the "Fox Block" redevelopment was finally finished, the Fox Theatre (now "Copley" Symphony Hall) itself was surrounded by the new structures on the block, including the Symphony Towers Office Building, the Sheraton Suites Hotel, and the much enlarged parking garage. A very important point: none of those structures is in direct contact with the walls of the theatre, and so no sound or vibration disturbance from any of the surrounding structures will ever interfere with the sound of the music played inside.
Since the 1985 re-opening, numerous improvements to the Hall have been made. These upgrades to the theatre include acoustically friendly cherry wood floors and risers for the stage, fully modular orchestra shell and stage ceiling units, a "piano elevator", new sound booth and music library facilities, expanded restrooms, a new administrative lobby, completely renovated administrative offices, a new lobby elevator, ADA-compliant railings and new wheelchair seating areas, a renovated backstage elevator, fully digital light and sound systems, the backstage Grosvenor Family Musicians Center, practice rooms, new carpeting and the Revelle Room reception area. Copley Symphony Hall is one of the few venues in the world that belongs to the orchestra playing in it. It has proved to be a gem and a pleasure to sit in to hear great music performed superbly. It is a true historical treasure for the citizens of San Diego, and a beloved home for the San Diego Symphony.
(- Essay by Symphony Archivist Dr. Melvin G. Goldzband with assistance from J.D. Smith)