People stroll by the Balboa Performing Arts Theater on Friday, June 25, 2010. (Scott Smeltzer)

People stroll by the Balboa Performing Arts Theater on Friday, June 25, 2010. (Scott Smeltzer)

It took 16 years for Frank Gehry to finish the Walt Disney Concert Hall, so 14 years to renovate Newport Beach's historic Balboa Theater may be a little too much suspense.

Just ask taxpayers, who gave the theater's foundation $175,000 Tuesday when the City Council voted to revive long-stalled renovation work.

Arts-minded donors have also given $3 million since 1996. They dream of professional theater in their hometown and of a classy Balboa Peninsula. But with all this money and a list of wealthy backers, the foundation hasn't finished the job. Some wonder when, if ever, the curtain will rise again.

"I think people are leery; people want to see if it will actually happen," said Seth Siegel, chairman of the foundation board. His group plans to funnel the city's grant to theater architect John Fisher of John Sergio Fisher and Associates, who will then finish the design work.

Over years, the vision of the theater has grown into an ambitious multi-use space with a rooftop deck and art deco accents. Its stage would accommodate live plays, operas and after-school arts programming. Its 300 telescoping seats would collapse to make room for banquets and dinner-theater cabaret.

And, of course, it would show films.

The Balboa Theater has screened everything from art films to classics revivals, pornography and, on a weekly basis, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" for many years before it closed in 1992. In the early years, from 1928 to 1939, the theater hosted vaudeville and other small, live productions.

But by the 1990s, tourists and locals alike had many other entertainment options. The theater's operator couldn't make enough to cover rising rent, and the owner couldn't find a replacement. Then, in 1996, activists formed a group to save the building. They convinced the city of Newport Beach to purchase the building for $480,000 and lease it to the foundation for 25 years at no charge.

Since then, a series of setbacks and accomplishments have caused the project to drag on.

Perhaps the biggest challenge was winning approval from the California Coastal Commission. After two years of modifying parking and other aspects of the plan, the notoriously hard-to-please agency gave the foundation its permit in 2008.

By then, the project had lost some momentum. Construction costs had skyrocketed. Negotiations to buy or lease an adjacent building for dressing rooms and an office collapsed in 2002. That was after the City Council had committed $1.4 million for the purchase.

"It came screeching to a halt," said Nancy Gardner, a city councilwoman and former member of the theater board. "People lost faith."

Their faith had already been tried after a long-delayed groundbreaking came and went in 2001. Young dancers performed a "bulldozer ballet" choreographed with heavy equipment to herald the renovation.

Years later, then with its Coastal Commission permit, a gutted interior and seismically retrofitted walls, the theater project was still stalled.

"It's not unusual," said Carollyn Lobell, an Irvine attorney who specializes in historic restoration and other types of sensitive development. "Any kind of project where you're redeveloping an existing site, there are always a lot of hurdles."

Some have compared the Balboa's plight to the Fox Theatre renovation in Fullerton. There, the Fullerton City Council approved a $6 million loan to move the process along — 22 years after its theater closed.

"Sometimes the trick is to hang on long enough until you gather some resources," said Betsy Vigus, a curator at the Orange County Historical Society.

Many donors have tentatively committed to contribute the Balboa Theater construction funds, said Siegel, the board chairman.

His group estimates it will take an additional $4.5 million. Before they give, donors first want to see finished plans and building permits from the city, he said.

"This is the line in the sand," Siegel said.