It might have been a Saturday afternoon, but Santa Barbara’s favorite music club, SOhO, was brimming with guests. There was no band playing. There wasn’t an open bar to be had. Nor was it a private company party. The event that inspired so many people to converge upon the downtown establishment while the sun was still high in the sky was a gathering to celebrate the life of Santa Barbara Bowl Operations Manager Rex Marchbanks, who succumbed to cancer April 15 at age 57. With video footage from a Bowl documentary featuring Rex beaming from the monitors and various offerings of his memorabilia scattered around the venue, people smiled and embraced as laughter filled the room.
Born and bred in Santa Barbara, Marchbanks was not only part of the Central Coast community — he was its very fabric. Some knew him from his days at the revered Montecito health food store the Settlement. Others knew him from his time managing a local video store, or as a result of the myriad other professional undertakings he pursued. As a musician, artist, tradesman and manager, Marchbanks wasn’t just a jack-of-all-trades; he was an ace.
But despite the renown that came from such vocational diversity, most people knew him through his 18-year tenure at the Santa Barbara Bowl.
Shortly after the Bowl was reclaimed by public control, Marchbanks joined the newly formed Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation as the facility’s operations manager. In this burgeoning cultural setting, Marchbanks’ varied skills and gregarious nature gave him the opportunity to exert a presence. He was involved in all facets of the Bowl’s operations, from playing a hand in the planning and restoration to the day-to-day operation of the facility.
“When the county took control of the Bowl in 1991 and brought me back, Rex was my first call,” says Santa Barbara Bowl General Manager Sam Scranton. “I needed an operations manager who would share in the dream that we had for this place. Everything he had done in his life up to that point made him the perfect person to lead the reformation of what was, at that time, an at-risk venue. And in the last 16 or 17 years, we have realized that dream. Now the Bowl is in its golden era, and Rex was a big part of that.”
While Marchbanks played a significant role in the physical transformation of the facility, he was also an essential component of creating its unique character. For many years the Santa Barbara Bowl endured its practical limitations through a steadfast commitment to providing a gracious performance experience. No matter if it was the front-person for one of the nation’s leading musical acts or the rigger charged with lashing cables around the stage’s towering scaffolding, Marchbanks never failed to ensure their needs were met.
“Whenever groups came to play at the Bowl, Rex was the first person they would encounter,” says local music patron and KTYD radio personality Hale Milgrim. “He would be there in the early hours of the morning to meet the trucks as they rolled in for a show, and he would be there late into the night as they rolled away. But, not only that, he took care of just about everything in between. He was the Bowl’s ombudsman.”
The Santa Barbara Bowl was Marchbanks’ home — literally. For a number of years he lived just a few hundred yards from the stage. On the evening of a performance, friends and guests would enjoy the show from the balcony of his house. Not that Marchbanks was usually there to share in the fun; he was typically preoccupied with the concerns of the event. In the Bowl’s off season, his art exerted its daily demands. Exuberant and colorful, Marchbanks channeled the same energy into his art that he did into his life.
On Saturday, a single wooden panel stood defiantly in the center of the room at SOhO. It was adorned with photographs from various stages of Marchbanks’ life; a selection of backstage passes represented his contributions to music here on the coast, and a portion of an Adirondack lay in testament to his art. As people wandered through the venue, they embraced the opportunity to not only reminisce but also to share in each other’s company. It wasn’t dissimilar from one of those evenings on the balcony at the Bowl. It was Marchbanks’ personality and generosity that brought everyone together back then — just like it was doing at SOhO.