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Reviving the Historic Adams Ave Theater

The 100-year-old building will reopen this November following a multiyear effort by designer Jillian Ziska
Madeline Yang
Adams Ave Theater

Adams Ave Theater

Madeline Yang

Last seen loaded with bolts of discount fabric for sale, San Diego’s favorite vintage movie palace-turned-punk rock concert hall is newly renovated and ready for its latest incarnation as an events and performance space. Normal Heights’ landmark Adams Avenue Theater will officially reclaim neighborhood venue status in early November.The redesign has been a multiyear effort by Jillian Ziska, and her events planning business To Be Designed—a subsidiary of management group Social Anthology, which also operates Verbena Kitchen and Hangar 858. Ziska remodeled Adams Avenue Theater with an eye toward hosting weddings and other private events, while also plotting community-oriented gatherings akin to holiday bazaars, and shows ranging from live music to stand-up comedy. As a result, its tastefully re-imagined interior remains something of a blank canvas for planners and promoters. “Blank enough for people to envision their own aesthetic,” Ziska explains. Much of the character comes from the 100-year-old building itself. Ziska was so determined to develop a space that feels like more than “four walls and a roof,” that she spent years pursuing the historic theater, ultimately signing a lease in February 2020. “We wanted something with a past that we could revitalize and bring back,” she stresses. To anyone under 30 years old, Adams Avenue Theater has only ever been a fabric store fronted by a theatrical marquee. But its history goes back to 1924, when it opened as The Carteri Theatre, a movie-house designed by Louis J. Gill—best known as the original architect of the San Diego Zoo (and, to architecture nerds, as the nephew of Irving Gill). 

Over the next several decades, the original, Spanish Colonial façade got an art deco makeover, including its red, green, and gold terrazzo. But by the 1960s, the cinema shuttered, effectively sitting empty until given a second life by—who else?—punk rockers. Back in 1982, Casbah owner Tim Mays was cutting his teeth as a rock impresario when he began booking shows at the theater, delivering standout acts from punk’s heyday, like Black Flag, The Cramps, and Iggy Pop. “We used to cram 900 people in there,” recalls Mays, who also remembers San Diego police cruisers would park across the street, waiting for the shows to let out, “so they could, you know, round up any miscreants and troublemakers.” To wit, in 1986, a return engagement by English hard rock band Motörhead had to be canceled at the last minute, angering ticket holders who “broke into the place and trashed the theater.” That spelled the beginning of the end for Adams Avenue Theater as a rock venue. But such bygones won’t stop Ziska’s team from booking music events for what is now a more welcoming, a 289-person venue. She and Mays have been discussing a revival of the space as a decidedly quieter, non-punk performance space. “There’s more mature artists out there that would probably work,” notes May with a chuckle. Ziska also plans to redeem the space as a moviehouse. It’s equipped with a digital projector to screen classic and cult films. “We’d essentially create a living room setting,” she says, imagining a theater with plush, lounge seating.As a private events space, Adams Avenue Theater will offer packages ranging from $5,500 to $10,500, but it will undoubtedly be the occasional public events that Normal Heights residents will appreciate most. “The more in-person, community stuff we can do, the better. It’s going to be for the neighborhood, and the businesses around us,” says Ziska.

By Ian Anderson

Based in San Diego, Ian Anderson writes contemplative features about food, drinks, travel, and culture. On the side, he authors left coast road trip guidebooks, and is currently at work on a collection of autobiographical essays, Stories from Before We Were Connected. He did not form British prog rock band Jethro Tull in 1967.

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