14 Fabulous Performance Spaces in California

California’s elegant, historic, and beautiful stages are ready for their close-up

California virtually invented the movie business, so it knows a thing or two about putting on a show. Discover more about the state’s most remarkable performance spaces, many of them worth a visit on their own (check websites for details on behind-the-scenes tours).

Theaters for design buffs
Many of the state’s performing arts venues are so architecturally stunning that it can be hard to keep your eyes on the stage. And when it comes to architectural spectacles, L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall , home of the L.A. Philharmonic, is truly unforgettable. Designed by internationally acclaimed architect Frank Gehry, the building’s swooping, stainless steel shell has become an icon for L.A. Inside, the soaring 2,265-seat concert hall is a visual delight—and acoustically brilliant. Audio and guided tours are available on most days.

At the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts , a decade-long renovation transformed the 1930s-era Italianate post office in Beverly Hills into a dazzling arts complex with two intimate theaters, a sculpture garden, and a copper-colored concrete and glass annex of educational classrooms.

It’s no surprise that one of the country’s most cutting-edge acoustic venues, Bing Concert Hall , calls innovative Silicon Valley home. Designed for Stanford University by the architect/acoustician dream team of Richard Olcott and Dr. Yasuhisa Toyota, the dramatic oval hall has 842 terraced seats that put you incredibly close to the musicians—a truly thrilling experience. See the venue on this virtual tour .

San Francisco’s Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall , designed by Pietro Belluschi, is a master do-over of the city’s original symphony hall. This time around, it’s built as a building within a building to insulate against exterior noise and vibration. Take a tour (offered on Mondays; small fee) to learn about unique features, like the individually tunable acrylic sound reflectors suspended above the orchestra.

Another performance gem built on a university campus is the Mondavi Center at UC Davis, where a boxy sandstone exterior conceals a stunning glass lobby and the 1,800-seat Jackson Theater, paneled from floor to ceiling in virgin Douglas fir originally logged in the late 1800s.

Stages under the stars
No place does indoor/outdoor design better than California, and that goes for its performance spaces, too. An excellent example is the ultra-modern Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. Four performance halls and an outdoor arts plaza, all spread out over 8½ acres, stage every kind of live event you can imagine. Plus, you can enjoy free concerts, movies, and dance performances at the outdoor plaza. Learn more on free, docent-led tours (Wednesdays and Saturdays).

At the Redlands Bowl , in the Inland Empire city of Redlands, a gracefully curved amphitheater flanked by cypress trees houses California’s oldest free concert series, which runs all summer long and showcases everything from classical music to foot-thumping bluegrass bands. Bring a picnic to enjoy on Redlands Bowl’s sloping lawns, then relax and enjoy the show.

One of the state’s best-known open-air stages is the Hollywood Bowl , Tinseltown’s larger-than-life band shell showcasing classical greats like Yo Yo Ma and flavor-of-the-month bands like Vampire Weekend. An onsite museum is a great place for visitors (especially families) to learn more about the Bowl, with music-making exhibits, slideshows, and movies. Follow the self-guided Bowl Walk to see historic photos and exhibits. In summer, families can bring kids to (respectfully) listen to rehearsals .

Magnificent Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall , on the campus of CSU Sonoma, in rolling wine country, is patterned after the world-renowned Tanglewood Music Center near Boston. Like Tanglewood, Weill Hall has a back wall that, for warm-weather concerts, can be opened to reveal a lush expanse of terraced lawn, where patrons can spread out a blanket and listen to world-class music.

A sense of history
Some of California’s grand old dames are still going strong, thanks to a commitment to preserve a slice of history. In San Francisco, the War Memorial Opera House , a Beaux-Arts beauty opened in 1932, is the home of the city’s opera and ballet companies. Tours are offered 10 to 2 Mondays except holidays (a small fee is charged).

From the towering mosaics on the building’s façade to golden reliefs decorating the interior walls, every Art Deco detail of Oakland’s Paramount Theatre has been exquisitely refurbished. Home to the Oakland East Bay Symphony and the Oakland Ballet, the theater also presents variety shows, theater, and other live acts.

The United Artists Theatre, an early movie palace first opened in 1927, is being reincarnated as the heart of L.A.’s Ace , a boutique hotel slated to open in early 2014. In addition to the swanky guest rooms, the hotel will include the original 2,214-seat theater, now reincarnated as a luxurious, 1,600-seat performance space.

A handful of the historic Fox Theaters that dotted the state during Hollywood’s Golden Age have been brought back to life after years of standing empty. The cities of Oakland , Pomona , Riverside and Visalia all boast a restored movie palace that hosts a variety of performing arts.

Also restored to its former glory is the spectacular Warnors Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Fresno. The ornately embellished 2,104-seat venue, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and showcased here on a virtual tour , features a pipe organ designed to replicate the sound of a full orchestra, and interior light displays choreographed to music.

BONUS: Big Stages For Big Names
Want to catch a blockbuster act like Lady Gaga? Many of California’s sports arenas also double as performance spaces for mega-stars. One of the biggest is the 20,000-seat Staples Center in downtown L.A. Other locations include Oracle Arena in Oakland, SAP Center at San Jose , Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Honda Center in Anaheim, San Diego’s Valley View Casino Center , and Fresno’s SaveMart Center on the campus of CSU Fresno.