By Lauren Bray
Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre celebrated its 150th anniversary last week and unveiled a historic golden eagle.
On February 22, the theatre welcomed a crowd of donors, historians, and longtime supporters to celebrate the historic birthday and unveil a refinished artifact.
Known as the oldest continiously operating theatre in California, the 604-seat venue has a storied past of hosting well known performers such as Carol Burnett, Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, Lucille Ball, Jeff Bridges, and Neil Young.
“As the 4th oldest performing arts theater in the nation, the Lobero Theatre tells the story of American entertainment from 1873 right up to today. There are few places in the U.S., let alone on the west coast, that better embody the changing tastes and interests of American audiences. Our 150th Anniversary is a wonderful opportunity to remember that history and to consider the possibilities that the future holds,” said Executive Director David Asbell.
What many don’t know about the Lobero Theatre is the story of the 1880s wooden eagle that traveled all over the world, survived a shipwreck and arrow shooting, was traded for whiskey, and went “missing,” only to be discovered and rediscovered yet again.
In 1853 the Yankee Blade side-steamer ship was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt (yes that Vanderbilt) as the fastest boat to get gold-seeking fortyniners from Panama port to San Francisco.The luxurious boat featured gold leafed everything, including an eagle carved from white oak and redwood hanging in the captain’s wheelhouse.
Sacramento Daily Union news clipping of the Yankee Blade crash from October 1854 (Public Domain)
The ship had only made a handful of trips when in October of 1854 it crashed north of Santa Barbara off Point Pedernales killing approximately 40 of the 1,200 passengers. The boat sunk a few hundred yards off shore burying a fortune of gold coins with it.
The golden eagle was discovered by a local boy a few months later on the beach of Santa Rosa Island. It was then traded for a bottle of whiskey and landed at Jose Lobero’s saloon in downtown Santa Barbara.
Lobero then hung the eagle over the stage of his opera house theatre when it opened in 1873. It lived there for 40 years until the Lobero Theatre closed in 1917.
Lobero Opera House (Photo: Santa Barbara Historical Museum)
The Lobero Opera House was eventually torn down. The new Lobero theatre, as we know it today, was built in 1924 and designed by designs by architects George Washington Smith and Lutah Maria Riggs. The latter being the first licensed female architect in Santa Barbara, and the first woman in California to be named a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.
The eagle went missing and wasn’t rediscovered until the 1960s when amateur historian Ike Bonilla had a dream the eagle was on the San Marcos Pass. Legend has it, he went driving and discovered the eagle perched on top of the entrance to a local ranch. Bonilla informed historian Walker Tompkins, who had been searching for it since 1948.
It was discovered that local turkey farmer Mary Kinevan purchased the eagle for $5 at a storage unit auction in 1929. It was placed on top of the entrance gate to her ranch where it survived various weather conditions and was shot at with an arrow. The Kinevan family donated the eagle to the Santa Barbara Historical Museum in 1961.
Brett Hodges, both a board member of the Lobero Theatre and the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, rediscovered the worn eagle covered in layers of brown paint in the museum collection. Hodges and the museum’s executive director Dacia Harwood began planning a restoration project.
Historic eagle found on top of a local ranch in the 1960s (Photo: Santa Barbara Historical Museum)
It took over nine months for restorer Chris Bailey to sand the globs of brown paint from its 40 years of being hung in the old opera house. Each carved feather was carefully restored to its original golden glory.
During the 150th celebration of the Lobero Theatre last week, the fully restored golden eagle was unveiled to the crowd with glasses of champagne in hand. It now hangs on display in the lobby of the Lobero, front and center for each guest to admire it upon entrance.
After the champagne toast, guests were treated to dinner and drinks across the street at the historic El Paseo Restaurant to celebrate the theatre’s anniversary and the return of its iconic relic.
The Santa Barbara Historical Museum and Lobero Theatre put together a short film about the eagle’s history which is available to watch below:
[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Walker Tompkins as having a dream about the eagle. That was Ike Bonilla.]