After 13 years of dreams and hard work and two theaters, the South Coast Repertory broke ground at the site of the 2.5 million facility on the 1.65 acres site donated by Orange County’s prominent Segerstrom family. The architectural firm of Ladd, Kelsey, Woodard of Newport Beach designed one of the first of the several performing arts facilities, the theatre. A four-level structure with 28,000 square feet of working space, the main theater had 506 seats and a large rehearsal hall that would eventually be converted into a smaller, 10-seat experimental theater.
In 1972, Thomas Peckenpaug and Herbert Kendall, who represented the board of the South Coast Repertory Theatre Company, visited Henry Segerstrom to discuss their needs for an expanding their theater facility. The representatives of the South Coast Repertory Theatre Company asked Henry if he would consider donating land in South Coast Plaza Town Center, an area across the Bristol Street from the retail center, that would provide a location for their dream of a modern facility for the renowned repertory company. With the development of the Westin South Coast Plaza Hotel, and the creation of a park in front of the hotel, a one-acre site had previously been formed. Henry discussed the proposal with his mother and his uncle Harold and they all agreed to donate the one-acre of land adjacent to the Westin South Coast Plaza Hotel.
The South Coast Repertory Theater opened in 1978, and as Henry Segerstrom described the company, ‘They just took off like a rocket.’ Ten years later, the South Coast Repertory Theater was named the outstanding repertory theater in America and received a Tony Award in 1988. The plan for the expansion of the South Coast Repertory Theater was also advanced. In 2002, the Theater opened in a newly expanded facility in the area to be called the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, with the Folino Theater Center, encompassing the 507-seat Segerstrom Stage, the 336-seat Julianne Argyros Stage, and the Nicholas Studio.
From the first study made in 1988 until the mid-1990s, Cesar Pelli was the architect engaged with the master plan for the development of Segerstrom Center for the Arts. As various studies ensued during these years, the South Coast Repertory Theater expansion and the art museum locations were being considered. The creative team of architect Cesar Pelli, acousticians Russell Johnson and Damian Doria of Artec Consultants, Inc., and landscape architect Peter Walker were engaged to design the new performing arts projects and the expansions.
During Henry Segerstrom’s term as chairman of the board of the Orange County Performing Arts Center in the late 1980s, ideas for building a smaller theater of 800 to 1,200 seats were considered so that the South Coast Repertory Theater could use this smaller auditorium for extended runs of its most popular plays. A feasibility study was commissioned to determine community interest. Beyond expectations, the results of the study showed that the performing arts had become a vital and essential activity for Orange County and an even larger facility was actually desired. Several years later, the Segerstrom family would pledge $200,000 for THIS expansion of the theater. This later pledge would prove to be the catalyst for a successful $3.5 million fund-raising effort.
The formation of the South Coast Repertory Theater Company began in 1964 with two graduates from the University of San Francisco, David Emmes and Martin Benson, together with a band of hopeful actors. Initially, the company toured rented stages. Oddly enough, the company’s first production in 1964 opened at the Newport Beach Ebell Club where Henry had performed as a child. After this first production, the South Coast Repertory Theater Company decided to remain permanently in Orange County.
The company’s first theater was established in 1965 and located on the peninsula in Newport Beach, in a converted marine hardware store. Two years later, with many successes behind it and considerable community support, the company took over a converted variety store in Newport Beach, adapting it to provide 217 seats. This move proved to be very successful, and in less than a decade, the company had received numerous awards. It had an annual budget of more than $250,000 and more than 9,400 subscribers. But with regular capacity attendance of 99 percent, by 1975 the company had outgrown this 217-seat theater. With ambitions of becoming an international theater force, The South Coast Repertory Theater Company again needed a larger space.
It was at this point that Emmes and Benson had their representatives approach Henry and the Segerstrom family. Not only did the family agree to donate an acre of their land but they also pledged $50,000 in cash to the construction fund. Additionally Henry and his family provided parking facilities and initiated the planning of the new building.