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Balboa Park Centennial Celebration rooted in spirit of 1915

The Balboa Park 2015 Centennial Celebration will be rooted in the original spirit of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, said Phil Green, partner at Los Angeles-based production company Autonomy, which was chosen to develop the programming for the year-long celebration.

The 1915 Panama-California Exposition celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and transformed Balboa Park from mostly open space to a cultural area with new buildings, landscaping and eventually the San Diego Zoo.

“It’s important that whatever wears the badge of the centennial lives to that standard … as being the spirit of the guys of 1915 — the group that organized that exposition,” said Adam Burke, partner at Autonomy. “It’s the real spirit of, ‘We’re doing something special, no one is stopping us, we have something of value here in the city, we’re putting it on display — watch us.’ And that worked. Back then, the legacy was a lot to do with the buildings. We’re not going to build a bunch of new buildings, there’s no space and it doesn’t make any sense. So we’re going for more of an intellectual legacy and a cultural legacy and a community legacy.”

The 1915 exposition resulted in the creation of the Cabrillo Bridge, the California Bell Tower, the California State Building and Quadrangle and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, according to the Balboa Park 2015 Centennial Celebration report. There were 2,050,030 guests for the 1915 event, when San Diego’s population was only 50,000.

The Balboa Park Celebration Inc., a non-profit group responsible for producing the 2015 celebration, is working to find a new CEO after Mike McDowell resigned from the position effective March 1, according to a release. Board member Patti Roscoe and communications director Gerry Braun will share the CEO responsibilities until a replacement is named.

The theme of the Centennial Celebration will be “Create the Extraordinary,” according to the report.

Burke and Green are working to put together the vision, framework and scheme as part of the creative development process. Autonomy was hired in December and began working in January. Details of the planning are scheduled to be unveiled in the spring, when a funding round will also be announced.

Balboa Park has received $450,000 in funds from the city, a $40,000 grant from the county of San Diego, a $300,000 grant from the Tourism Marketing District, $100,000 from San Diego Gas & Electric to support sustainability and diversity programming, and $315,000 in grants from private foundations and charitable funds, according to a release.

Autonomy has divided the celebration into four elements. The first element is four regional shows, which could include a Fourth of July show, events on the Cabrillo Bridge or an event working with the military on the bay, Burke said.

“They’re big, public spectacles that a large number of the public can attend and that also draw the eyes of the country, and potentially the world, to San Diego. They’re sort of the big milestone markers of the occasion,” Green said.

Another element will be programming three zones within the park: innovation and thought, celebrating international communities and a San Diego lifestyle zone. The zones represent the different aspects of the park — the learning function of the museums; the international relations function of the cottages, the United Nations Association, the House of Pacific Relations and the history of the Panama Canal; and the recreational function of the park.

The third element of the celebration is park-wide programming, which will include a centennial stage.

“The stage could have anything from a president to a school graduation taking place,” Burke said. “And it’s just a place where anything that’s special happening that year can be on the Centennial Stage. … It sort of elevates the occasion and gives everyone a chance to participate.”

Park-wide programming could also include events such as 365 days of music or Shakespeare in the park, Green said. And the fourth element is city-wide programming — to “take the park to the streets of San Diego.” This could include a visual display of a new museum exhibit out on the streets, “creating a spectacle and some buzz.”

“It’s our challenge to make sure everybody feels invested and as hosts for this moment. What comes across in 1915, it seems like every resident here felt a sort of pride of ownership, so we want to make sure that is conveyed in 2015,” Green said.

“I’d love to start seeing San Diego look at this as a moment to start really putting on display how it views itself beyond 2015 and see as much of a renewal as we can inspire,” Burke said.

Autonomy, which develops and produces entertainment projects, worked on the Mexico Bicentennial in 2010, which included a 2-kilometer parade, concerts and an Olympic ceremonies-style show, where the president gave Mexico’s 200th traditional charge of independence before a fireworks show, according to Autonomy’s website. More than 1 million people attended the event.

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