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KPBS Commentaries

San Diego summertime brings the joy of both staying home and vacationing. And of taking a fresh look at the cultural luxuries of a San Diego that has grown far more interesting than that earlier city that bragged on its zoo and its Navy bases.

You can picnic with the San Diego Symphony by the bay, which with a bigger budget sounds even better, and this is shining time for those regional jewels the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse. Nature blessed San Diego. But it's the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse that provide the present models for molding San Diego.

You may recall when these two theaters weren't here. I remember how they happened, soon after World War II. The film actor Gregory Peck's father had been a druggist in La Jolla when he attended La Jolla High.

When he and Mel Ferrer decided the West Coast needed a drama tryout audience to train Hollywood stars, Peck thought first of his own town and his old auditorium. At both theaters, the amazing people we call ordinary citizens took hold. In La Jolla, it was the Kiwanis Club, which sent out community alerts that brought responses from local citizens with theatrical backgrounds and aspirations.

Good-faith donations came from the community. They were enough that Peck and Mel Ferrer went to producer David Selznick and offered a summer theater for film stars who might have everything but stage experience. The skimpy high school stage and dressing rooms didn't scare away the Jennifer Joneses of the movie world.

After opening nights, Peck and Ferrer and the film stars of each week's production gathered in the Whaling Bar at La Valencia Hotel and held post mortems. San Diego had never seen such star power. Playhouse shows began to lure national theater critics. San Diego audiences geared up. The names of La Jolla and its Playhouse went around the world, joining the Old Globe make a double draw for visitors.

At the Old Globe, the wonderful Shakespeare Festival has taken over. But other Globe stages offer less grand options. On lobby walls are plaques to founders, especially Lowell Davies, a San Diego lawyer born in Chula Vista who simply thought it would be a good idea for San Diego to revive the theater habit from a long past exposition. So he badgered friends and strangers for start-up money.

San Diego is far more prosperous today than then. The icon that we continuosly seek for San Diego might be a cultural structure, just as Seattle's stunning library, known now around the world. City Hall may be broke for a long time. But we're not. That's how the Playhouse and Old Globe were born.

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