When he was first approached in 1993 about the possibility of leasing a space in Coronado to house the expanding needs of the Lamb’s Players Theatre, Producing Artistic Director Robert Smyth laughed. “We needed a 300-seat theater,” said Smyth, “and thought there’d be nothing in Coronado.” Since 1971 Lamb’s Players had run a successful touring theater company, which settled in its first resident stage in 1978 in National City. By 1990 they had nearly outgrown that space and began putting on shows at the Lyceum Theatre downtown and the Hahn Theatre (now the Horton Grand Theatre where they still hold shows today). Smyth doubted that anywhere on the island would be sufficient to accommodate the audience that Lamb’s had built over the years, but when they arrived at the Spreckels building on Orange Avenue and pried open the boarded-up space, he noticed the skylights that once held magnificent Tiffany lighting, the structure of what had been the original lobby and got an immediate sense of how big the space was, and, he said, “we knew we’d found our theater.”
The building that now houses the popular and thriving Lamb’s Players Theatre was built by John D. Spreckels in 1917. Smyth explained that Spreckels, who lived at what is now the Glorietta Bay Inn, felt that Coronado was almost perfect save its lack of a bank and a theater. “So,” said Smyth, “as a gift to his beloved Coronado, he hired his architect Harrison Albright to design the building and brought a theater to the island.” It originally served as a music hall called the Silver Strand Theatre where, Smyth said, renowned opera performer Madame Schumann-Heink graced the stage and John Phillips Souza is said to have once played. Eventually the music hall began showing movies, but in the mid-1950s it was forced to close after the Village Theatre opened and offered air conditioning. After “The Strand” closed, the space housed various businesses from an auto repair shop (the Lamb’s construction crew found half of a VW Bug while doing the excavation for what’s now the orchestra pit) to a print shop (The Coronado Journal was once printed there) to retail stores. Said Smyth, “It was so amazing to discover this space that had been sitting here for 40 years, not being used for what it was built for.”
Robert and his wife Deborah knew they’d found a gem. “We decided to be adventurous,” he said. “We wanted to restore the space to its original intention of use and began a major capital campaign to do so.” Lamb’s began construction in 1994, and opened six months later in December with their Festival of Christmas production, which still runs today. The Smyths even rented out an apartment in the building above where the Lamb’s marquee is now, planning to live there for only a year while they oversaw the project. They never left!
Smyth reminisced about how different the building and the blocks around it looked when they first set up shop. “Across the street, the historic La Avenida restaurant was boarded up, the medians were bare besides grass and some trees, and you couldn’t walk from the Del to the village without passing a number of closed-up stores. But what we did by bringing a nightly audience of 250 people to that space — both locals and people from all over the county—” he continued, “was show business owners the value of that area.” Since Lamb’s Players opened, he noted, 43 restaurants have opened within walking distance of the theater and that block has blossomed into a lively, charming area of town.
In a time when the arts have to struggle to stay afloat, Smyth explained how Lamb’s has managed to make it work all these years. “The recession beat us up badly,” he said. “We lost some major theater companies in San Diego and we had a point we weren’t sure we’d survive — but we got through it and stabilized.” One of the things that contribute to Lamb’s success is that they’re “very relational,” he said. “We maintain relationships with our donors, our ticket holders, and the community — and those personal relationships are what kept us going then and continue to do so.” The theater is dedicated to fulfilling three adjectives: personal, crafted and intimate. Smyth explained, “Lamb’s is a personalized experience — from the relationships we build to the fact that patrons buy their tickets from actors they may see in the play later. We are passionate about our craft, putting on consistently high quality productions. And our theater provides such an intimate space to enjoy a show.” Further, the theater has done well because of the dichotomy of its dedicated staff. Smyth explained, “five of our staff have worked together for 30 years, but the other half of our staff wasn’t born when we first opened. Their youthful energy keeps us balanced.”
That youthful energy will come in handy this May 8 through 12 when the theater attempts to break the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest running live theater performance. The fundraising effort will bring together more than 100 artists and musicians to put on 100 hours of stories performed for at least 20 audience members at all hours — which will far exceed the current record held by a group in India who performed Bible stories for 72 hours.
In addition to this unique fundraising and record-breaking attempt, Lamb’s is commemorating its 20-year anniversary this year by embarking on a “20 Acts of Service” endeavor. Colleen Smith, who is heading up the project, explains that when the theater company looked for ways to better engage with the Coronado community, it found that service was a core value to residents. “The number of volunteer and service hours among residents was amazing — and unique to the island. You don’t find that everywhere,” she said. This idea of service resonated with the theater: “We’ve always had a sense of service in what we do. We are servants to the stories and the playwrights and the artists,” said Smith. “When the economy suffered, we went into survival mode,” she continued. “Now that we are coming out of that, we have the opportunity to give back to the community.” As such, the theater has pledged to commit 20 acts of service to Coronado in the coming year. Outreach will include educational workshops for CoSA students, a performance where all proceeds will benefit PAWS of Coronado, and providing live entertainment for the Coronado Hospital Foundation Gala. “We want to connect with as many of our neighbors as possible,” she said.