A look back ‘Sherwood’ be nice: Remembering La Jolla’s former hall of fame

Knocking down the walls of the old Sherwood Hall (top: as it looked in 1960 and bottom: as it looks today) will make room for a new, glass-encased lobby and exhibit hall for the La Jolla campus of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, which is scheduled to reopen in 2021.

The expansion of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD)’s La Jolla campus — a quadrupling of its exhibit space set to open in 2021 — means that the former Sherwood Auditorium is currently being reduced to rubble.

If those four barely standing outside walls could talk, they would recount all the astounding classical-music, jazz and dance performances that once unfolded inside of them, in addition to film festivals and bizarre performance-art pieces.

“I saw so many memorable concerts at Sherwood,” said San Diego Union-Tribune music critic George Varga. When pressed to list three of his favorites, he cited Diamanda Galas’ 1983 solo appearance (“a stunning display of her remarkable musical talents just as they began to blossom”), Henry Threadgill’s solo sax performance during the 2001 edition of the Quincy Troupe-curated “Cross Fertilizations: Artists on the Cutting Edge IX,” (“a rare opportunity to hear Threadgill’s rarified musical mind at work up close and very personal”) and the inaugural San Diego Music Awards in 1991 (“a testament to our rich diversity of homegrown talents”).

Other music highlights hosted by the Sherwood include performances by jazz legends Ornette Coleman, Carla Bley, Jimmy Witherspoon and Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. A Nov. 14, 1984 concert by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax saw 600 people turned away at the door.

Among the luminaries who have graced the Sherwood stage are actor Burt Lancaster, musicians Ornette Coleman and Yo-Yo Ma, and actress Annette Bening.

Designed by Mosher Drew in 1960, the Sherwood began life as a 492-seat addition to a museum then called The Art Center in La Jolla. It was at first named Sherwood Hall, after late Art Center co-founder Franklin P. Sherwood.

“If the nature of the new facilities tends to encourage our creative growth and help us better understand and enjoy our human capabilities, then the building will have a measure of success,” read the original architect’s statement from Robert Mosher and Roy Drew.

From 1960 to 1965, the Sherwood featured an in-house orchestra fully funded by the museum that housed it.

“All Sherwood Hall Orchestra performances were billed as museum programming,” said San Diego-born artist and historian Yve Laris Cohen in an interview published on MCASD’s website. “I can think of no other U.S. visual-arts institution, let alone a museum, that has ever birthed and fully underwritten a performing-arts ensemble.” (The Sherwood’s stature among classical-music enthusiasts was re-cemented from 1986 to 2016, when the La Jolla Music Society rented the auditorium every August for its acclaimed SummerFest chamber-music extravaganza.)

The Sherwood was also quite a magnet for movie stars. According to the U-T, Burt Lancaster conducted a Q&A here after a screening of Luchino Visconti’s “Conversation Piece” in 1974. When an audience member asked him to please extinguish his cigar — the Sherwood was no-smoking even back then — the actor paused, stared at his cigar and said: “I’m Burt Lancaster.” (As recently as 2016, Oscar-nominated actress and native San Diegan Annette Bening accepted the Gregory Peck Award for Excellence in Cinema on the Sherwood’s stage at the San Diego International Film Festival — as her husband, Warren Beatty, looked on from the audience.)

On March 9, 1985, the Sherwood stage was occupied by 35 animals including a horse, a python, two boas, a pair of doves, a rat, a goat and a turkey. The occasion was an animal rights-inspired piece by L.A. performance artist Rachel Rosenthal.

Arguably even more animalistic were the recurring midnight screenings of Spike & Mike’s “Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation.” Launched by Craig “Spike” Decker and & Mike Gribble in 1987, they featured short films of such vulgarity and revulsion, many of their titles cannot be published here. And they introduced Mike Judge Beavis and Butthead”) and Trey Parker and Matt Stone (“South Park”) — among many others — to their first audiences.

“It had beautiful acoustics, a large screen and 35mm projection capability,” Decker said of the Sherwood. “Also, it was very prestigious and it fit well to bring in a lot of guests — from John Lasseter to Tim Burton to Nick Park. But, most importantly, they would rent to us. I still can’t believe they let us do midnight shows there!”

In 1980, Sherwood Hall changed its name to Sherwood Auditorium, a decision whose motivation is lost to time.

“I imagine the shift to ‘auditorium’ had much to do with clarifying programmatic goals — de-emphasizing music performances and amplifying museum lectures,” Cohen said. “But its timing at the onset of the Reagan era also suggests a distancing from the politicized connotations of ‘hall.’”

In 1996, a $9 million expansion by respected architecture firm Venturi Scott Brown hid the Sherwood’s façade from street view, enclosing its courtyard with an entryway (called Axline Court after a benefactor). Somewhat cruelly, the covered front of the Sherwood would be exposed to the street one last time — as part of its demolition process. (Knocking down the Sherwood will make room for an entirely new, glass-encased lobby and exhibit hall.)

In the end, the Sherwood’s replacement by The Conrad, the new home of the La Jolla Music Society, does not represent a net loss to San Diego culture. In addition to MCASD getting a serious upgrade, Varga said, The Conrad is already a serious upgrade to the Sherwood.

“While I have many fond memories of my time in Sherwood Auditorium, its acoustics — while not awful — were merely adequate in most instances,” Varga said. “The Conrad is an infinitely better venue.”

But the loss of the Sherwood will continue to be felt by local residents who remember the extraordinary things that happened there. For instance, former La Jolla resident Diane Tourell, who lives in Canada now, attended a showing of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” just a few days before Christmas 1967, that she will never forget.

“It was a free screening for the children of La Jolla,” Tourell said, “I was 12, and in my own considered opinion, far too cool to be caught dead at a children’s event. But my mother somehow persuaded me to accompany my younger sister, Barbara, and I’m glad because it turned out to be magical.”

The screening was hosted by Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel himself, who introduced the film.

— While Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla remains closed during its expansion project until 2021, the other MCASD location at 1100 Kettner Blvd., downtown San Diego, remains open. (858) 454-3541.