Ready to know more about San Diego?


The Quest to Save the Starlight Bowl

A local nonprofit looks to restore the historic Balboa Park venue to its former glory

By Vince Meehan

Starlight Bowl Balboa

The historic Starlight Bowl located in Balboa Park

Twenty-one years ago, Steve Stopper was a single dad trying to raise his daughter in San Diego. A trained sound engineer, he sought work at music venues around town, landing a gig mixing for artists and shows at the Starlight Bowl, a historic amphitheater in Balboa Park. “[My daughter] spent many evenings with me while I did sound,” Stopper recalls. “We both got bit by the theater bug.”

The 4,300-seat Starlight Bowl was built back in 1935 for the 1935–36 California International Pacific Exposition. Perched in the southern section of Balboa Park between the San Diego Air & Space Museum and the new Comic-Con Museum, the amphitheater enjoyed years of success and hosted musical acts, theater, variety shows, and cultural events. The Rolling Stones performed at the bowl in 1964 when the band was just starting out. But financial struggles shuttered the venue in 2010.

Now, Stopper is working to bring back the place that shaped so many of his memories with his daughter. He founded the nonprofit organization Save Starlight in 2016, forming a team dedicated to revamping and reopening the bowl.

Its first step is to repair the damage—overgrown weeds, sun-bleached seating—from years of neglect. The work will be split into two phases, with the upper section of the property opening to the public in 2024 and the main bowl following in 2025.

Save Starlight GroupTheatre Balboa Steve Vicki Angel Carleton

Save Starlight non-profit members (clockwise from top left) Steve Stopper, Vicki Estrada, Charleton Overstreet Jr., and Angelique Ghadishah

The upgrades will be made possible by donations from local art fans and philanthropists. “They are giving money because they want to come here and enjoy it with their families,” says Angelique Ghadishah, vice president of operations at Save Starlight. “They were here when they were young. They want to carry on that legacy.”

Stopper hopes that the new and improved Starlight will offer not only music concerts but cultural and educational programs, as well. Community members will also be able to partner with the venue to host weddings, graduations, and events. Stopper says the finished project will include a museum of recording arts, as well as a working media lab for elementary-to university-level students. He plans to collaborate with local schools and colleges to provide after-school programs and internships for those hoping to make a career in media.

Moreover, Stopper intends the space to serve as an incubator for young local musicians who will share performance bills with national acts. “What we’re looking at is bringing in a different contingent—especially younger people—[and] more diverse and cutting-edge things,” he says. Part of that depends on finding the right partners. Upon reopening, Save Starlight will work with promoters to book shows at the venue. Revenue from this arrangement will be used for upkeep of the bowl.

Starlight Bowl 1935

A full crowd at the Starlight Bowl circa 1935

But before any of this can happen, Save Starlight needs to secure a long-term lease with the venue’s current owners: the city of San Diego. The road has been a slow one, due largely to a shortage of staff at the city across all departments, including lease development, Ghadishah explains. The city’s backlog of high-priority items, like road repair and housing issues, and state mandates that require a review on all new leases have delayed the nonprofit’s efforts further. “If we get a lease tomorrow, I have 10 donors right now that each want to donate over $1 million,” Ghadishah says. “But they are not comfortable donating the money without a lease.”

In the meantime, Save Starlight has been able to make significant renovations to the upper part of the bowl by maintaining a special use permit from the city. These permits are valid for three years and can be renewed at the end of the term. Save Starlight has applied for its third renewal, which will take it into 2026. But none of the major renovations can take place until that long-term lease is approved by the city council, and Save Starlight will also need to request a proposal for a sole-source agreement, which would exclude outside entities from bidding on the renovation project.

“The whole point is for the entirety of the community of San Diego to have an all-inclusive place to call home,” Ghadishah says. “This place had such an iconic reign, and we’re just looking to bring that back.”

Share this post

Contact Us

1230 Columbia Street, Suite 800,

San Diego, CA