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Close-up: Jacquelyn Littlefield

Steady hands at the helm of a historic theater and building

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Jacquelyn Littlefield

“Staying power” is the phrase that comes to mind when considering Jacquie Littlefield’s remarkable tenure at the Spreckels Theatre and Building in downtown San Diego, first as lease holder and then as owner.

She has run the theater since 1944 when she took over at the age of 22 after her father, Louis Metzger, died. After years of planning and persistence, she bought the building in 1962 and has owned it ever since.

Spreckels was built in 1912 and will be 100 years old next year. Littlefield will have owned the iconic property for 50 years and run the theater for 68 years. She is 89 years young.

She spoke with The Daily Transcript at her office, which still has 1940s-era furniture, dressed in a linen suit and pearls, perfectly coiffed and put together.

Littlefield continues to be actively involved in all aspects of the business and her artistic talent has left a stamp on the building in terms of interior design, from the chandeliers in the theater lobby to putting the concession stand at the entrance.

Spreckels is located on Broadway, next to NBC San Diego, and was designated a national historic site in 1972. It is also a mixed-use building.

Littlefield estimates the property is worth about $80 million. It has six floors with 250,000 square feet of space, which includes the theater and 130,000 square feet of office, restaurant and retail space.

It was built by sugar magnate John D. Spreckels to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal for the Pan American Exposition held in San Diego in 1915.

Since it was commissioned soon after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Spreckels hired Los Angeles architect Harrison Albright, who designed it to be earthquake and fire proof.

It was the first poured concrete theater and office structure west of the Mississippi River. The décor of the 1,400-seat theater invokes the style of the Baroque era.

The theater began with vaudeville shows, then silent movies and later, talking pictures. When motion pictures moved to multiplex theatres in the 1960s and 1970s, Littlefield converted it back to live theater and opera.

Back then, a ticket would cost a dime, but today theater-goers pay $30 to $50 for a show.

Littlefied’s father, Metzger, was a motion picture pioneer who worked for Universal Studios and later Columbia Pictures, in sales and distribution.

He was a Kansas City native and Littlefield’s mother hailed from a San Francisco family and was related to Jesse Lasky, a Hollywood pioneer and founder of Paramount Pictures.

Metzger proposed the idea of switching from showing the same movie at the same time at all locations to showing different movies at different times, a precursor to how multiplex theaters operate today.

Because of work pressures in New York City, Metzger decided to switch gears, so he uprooted the family from Park Avenue and moved to Mission Beach in San Diego in 1935, seeking a more serene lifestyle.

He assessed the local theater situation and decided to lease Spreckels and several other theaters with his uncle as partner.

Inexpensive entertainment was a big draw during the Great Depression, and Metzger brought first-run talking movies to the theater.

The Spreckels estate sold the building to the Star & Crescent Investment Company a year before Metzger died unexpectedly.

Littlefield stepped in and continued to operate the theater with the help of her grand-uncle and several capable managers.

“It wasn’t easy. It took me a while to realize there was a war going on,” she said of her first foray into business in the mid-1940s.

Until then, she’d attended art and drama school and worked behind the counter at the box office, candy and souvenir stands, but had to learn the ropes overnight.

Her mother passed away before her father did, and she is their only child. But she really wanted a legacy for her parents. Littlefield continued to renew the lease for the theater from the new owners until 1962, when she bought them out.

The new owners were not very helpful during times of trouble, according to Littlefield, but she persevered.

“It’s the story of David and Goliath. You never really overcome that struggle. I don’t know where I got the gumption from, but I wanted to continue my parents’ work and I had nowhere else to go,” she said.

With the aim of eventually owning the property, she “befriended the enemy,” she said, referring to the man who bought the building.

Littlefield said she would always jokingly ask him: “When are you going to sell me the building?”

She was visiting New York City once when he called and asked her what she was doing.

“I said ‘what’s it to you? I have other fish to fry.’”

He offered to sell, and she convinced her board of trustees to let her buy Spreckels with money from her father’s estate, her trust fund and a bank loan.

The asking price was $2.2 million but she offered $1.6 million and brought them to the table.

“Even today, it’s not a bad deal,” she laughed.

In the intervening years, while her managers ran the theater, she had gotten married, gone back to New York and focused her energies on designing clothes and interiors, her first love.

Carrie Neiman from Neiman Marcus heard about her talent and asked her to design a line of clothes for the store, she recalled with pride.

After moving to Beverly Hills, she remembers doing the interiors for Groucho Marx.

“He was intimidating but I didn’t let him overwhelm me. He’d call me up and discuss design decisions in detail. He was eccentric, but nothing compared to what people are today,” said Littlefield, who got invited to the same parties as Marx, Lauren Bacall and Charlie Chaplin.

A few years after she bought the Spreckels building, she returned to San Diego.

One of her first big challenges was that the building was one of the last of the old block left in the Horton Plaza area, which the city was redeveloping. She managed to avoid losing the building, only giving up the back parking lot

Also, getting a loan proved to be very tough. “I’m not sure how much of it was intended and how much of it was straight business,” she said, noting that her opponents wanted to take over the building.

Littlefield said she ran into quite a lot of gender discrimination. She described some mean incidents at which grown men would resort to petty schoolyard tactics.

But she never thought of selling and walking away.

“I’m a creature of habit. I also knew it would be worth a lot in the future. I was offered enormous amounts, it was tempting but I decided my children could sell if they wished, but I wouldn’t,” she said.

Littlefield has been married three times and has five children, 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. But until recently, no one in the family was involved in managing the property, which is her family’s biggest asset.

“Their lives took them in different directions. I believed in letting them do what they wanted,” she explained.

Only in the last year has she brought one of her sons, Geoffrey Shlaes, into the picture. He’s based in New York and has a background in managing theaters.

The building has a 75 percent occupancy rate, with a mix of long-standing and new tenants that range from law firms to entertainment companies, private investigators, dentists, restaurants and retail.

The property’s proximity to public transportation and the courthouse is a draw. Littlefield pointed out that she leases spaces that are less than 200 square feet, as well as large areas, which sets her apart as a landlord in prime downtown area.

The 300,000-square-foot basement parking garage, run by Central Parking, is the biggest tenant.

In the run-up to its centennial, phased renovations to the theater will focus on the lobby, the marquee sign and mezzanine seating.

Littlefield inspires loyalty and admiration in her employees, who anticipate her needs and take pride in Spreckels’ history.

Theater manager Shaun Davis, who has known her since the 1970s, is a staunch fan.

“I can only imagine the difficulties she faced as a business woman in a man’s world. It’s not easy to become successful and raise a family at the same time,” he said.

The grand old dame who turns 90 next year expects the building to be standing here 100 years from now.

“I think people will be possessive,” she said. “It’ll be a fight between money and aesthetics.”

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Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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