San Francisco History

The Gallery Gods of the Old California Theater

by Walter J. Thompson

I remember once hearing Manager Barton Hill say to George Barnes and Gilbert Densmore, well-known newspaper men, as they stepped out during an intermission at a first-night performance at the old California Theater:

“I don’t care much what you chaps say about the new show tomorrow. It has already made a hit with the gods.

“I have just been told,” he laughed, as the party strolled down to the Laurel Palace, “that the general exclamation is, ‘Gee! ain’t it great?’ I advise you gentlemen to abide by the dictum of the all powerful gods of the temple.”

“I don’t know yet whether it was the duel scene—some sparks in those blades, you know—or the way Mestayer got away with those title deeds to the heiress’ property.”

Whether the masterful critics heeded the warning, I do not recall, but Hill was more than half in earnest when he expressed his faith in the gods and their appreciation of the new play. Certain it is that John McCullough, the first manager, as well as his successor, Hill, believed in the potent influence of the critical judgement of these so-called gods.

It was Frank Mayo who said:

“McCullough thinks he runs that theater; but he doesn’t. The owners are those d——— little rascals in the gallery, of whom, however, I say not one derogatory word.”

Why should he? As “Davy Crockett” or “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” he was one of the darlings of those same gods.

“I am not going to describe a gallery god. It is not necessary. Staid citizens of San Francisco there are who were gallery gods then,” whose checks may glow and eyes wax watery at the rekindling of the campfires of memory I would hate to write reminiscences for any one who would deliberately deny having basked as a gallery god on the gaslit slope of Mount Olympus in the old California Theater at 25 cents a bask.

As there were brave men before Agamemnon, so there were gallery gods at the Metropolitan, Maguire’s Opera House, Alhambra and other places, before the California opened its doors, January 18, 1869. But they came to the California under peculiar conditions.

The new showhouse, erected at a cost of $350,000 by William C. Ralston, H. P. Wakelee, Colonel James, Charlie Peters and others, on the north side of Bush street between Kearny and Grant avenue, was the family home of all San Francisco, with a band of brilliant thespians as the talented branch of the family and the gallery gods as the assertive and irrepressible kiddies of the family.

What a keen-witted, versatile, precocious lot they were! They were full of streaks that made the elders gasp. Nothing escaped their eagle eyes, either on the stage, in the boxes or among the sitters in the dress circle and parquette and first gallery, as far as they could see them.

Outspoken were they, in a lingo all their own, in comments on passing events, and they had clarion voices.

At a certain matinee a lower stage box was occupied by the son of one of the wealthy families of Rincon Hill, and he was accompanied by a companion who looked as pretty as one of the colored fashion plates such as used to associate with the reading matter in Godey’s Lady’s Book. His hair was parted in the middle and he wore a monacle. It was bad enough then to be suspected of having copper cents in your pocket, but to wear a monacle! Whew!

The gallery had eyed him with suspicion ever since the pair came in. It knew young Will ——, but the other—well, they would wait. They were sure of the hair parting, but not quite sure of the singleness of the eye lamp.

When at the close of the scene, the “valentine” leaned forward and hurled a large bouquet of blossoms at Ellie Wilton—Ellie of the winsome smile—and there was the flash of crystal attached to a string as the monacle was forced from its perch, then came the climax in the gallery. From the upper right-hand corner, front bench:

“Git on to Mr. Three-eyes——three-eyes, three-eyes.” The truth was out.

From the left center, second bench row: “Play the hose on the masher, put him out.”

Sundry other calls of various kinds poured out from right centers, midway turns and other shots, expressive of the gallery’s disapproval of strange “lardy da’s” getting too fresh with the ladies of the family.

Ellie Wilton picked up her trophy and vanished, convulsed with laughter, and the parlor floor and first gallery forgot to applaud here as they laughed, while the bouquet-thrower, with a glance of defiance at the elements above, departed and did not return.

The ascent of the gods to Mount Olympus before each performance was an interesting ceremony in itself. It began about half an hour before curtain time. Like the actors, the gods had their special entrance. Up a long stairway—box office, half-way—they trooped uncomplainingly. The dispute as to how many thousand steps there were never was decided.

Inside, the process of distribution of that parliament of gods among the rows of wooden benches was equal to a Fourth of July celebration. There was the scramble for front seats, and, that over, after much wrangling and attacking and counter attacking, the second and third row contests followed. Then matters settled down to the formation of congenial groups. Friends recognized each other at distances in the dim light, for the big chandelier, with its flashing prisms, that hung in the gallery alcove was still dark. It was “Limpy” here, “Red” there, “Mike” and “Jake” and “Jim” on all sides, and invitations to “come over” were hurled and accepted. Leap-frogging the benches was usually the method of overcoming space.

Many an anxious, fearful glance was cast aloft by the occupants of the handsome, stiff-backed laurel wood chairs with the flea-proof leather seats, on the parlor floor. The mildest surmise among them was that a new roof was being put on the house.

As art connoisseurs, the California gods might be considered the forerunners of the cubist and futurist movements of today. They were firm for strong alignment in colorings, a practical grouping of objects and a sentiment that appealed directly to a live sense, say, a sneeze from a quickened nostril rather than a wail over a mummy. Artistic ideas collided over the drop curtain.

Now Artist C. J. Denny had produced a magnificent marinescape on that curtain. Who can ever forget the old California curtain, having once seen it? What a view of the Golden Gate, looking from North point! The ship Challenger is coming into port under full sail, the pilot boat Fanny going out; the ship Western Continent being towed to sea, and the Panama steamer, Golden City, churning her way in.

As a drop-curtain, the gods admired it. In moments of impatience, when it flirted with procrastination in defiance of programme specifications, they denounced it as a “rag,” and insisted that its only mission in life was to be “h’isted.” They knew better, and seriously debated its artistic qualities, good and bad. The coloring should have been more pronounced in that the bay should have been layered off with strong blue and heavy green streaks, to show the contrast between the inside and the outside tides.

As to groups of objects, Denny had shown little imagination, and cast sentiment to the winds. The Challenger was all right—fine old ship—out there should have been half-a-dozen shot holes in her bulging sails, and the Western Continent should have been turned around and coming full head-on the other with puffs of white smoke pouring from a Long Tom mounted on her bow, and her sides swarming with swarthy Malays or some other dark-skinned tropical gentleman who are marked as pirates from their birth; the tug should have been a felucca or a sampan (opinion was divided), filled with more of the pirates carrying corkscrew kreeses, driving up to the ill-fated Challenger.

As for the Golden City, she did not belong there at all. Denny should have put in the old picnic boat Contra Costa, laden to the guards with goodies and good fellows, slowing up on her excursion voyage to the Marin shore to see the outcome of the brush with the pirates. A latent impression existed that Meiggs wharf should have played a conspicuous part in the scene.

The ruling spirit of the gallery gods was shown strongest in their attitude toward the members of that dear stock band of artists who will live in local artistic annals forever and aye as the old California company, and whose record twinkles fixedly and brightly in the theatrical firmament. The talented men and women whom John McCullough assembled around him formed the nucleus of the company. In the few years of its glory the California had within its walls the greatest and best of the world’s players. They all had to reckon with the Olympian gods, and exacting and aggravating little critics they were at times.

Regarding the stock company, the gods, as the kiddies of the family, were often impudent and irreverent toward their elders if those elders didn’t toe the mark. The ladies came in for big-sister treatment—you know—a “bawling out” if they got haughty. Stars that flashed in and out during the seasons were treated according to their actions and their talents.

As to the women, Mrs. Saunders and Mrs. Judah were exceptions, they always getting respectful deference. Mrs. Judah, especially, was an ideal mother. Remember that opening scene in Mayo’s “Davy Crockett”? The snug little cabin with Davy’s mother frying doughnuts or something, and Davy, coonskin cap on head and rifle on shoulder, stepping blithely over the log bridge; the sweet, endearing tremor in Mrs. Judah’s voice as she spoke of Davy. Oh, it gripped a fellow’s heartstrings, and made him think of pantries full of freshly baked apples, jars full of crisp crullers and luscious cookies! How the thrills were enhanced when in the same mellow voice of affection she said: “Davy, be sure you’re right; then go ahead.” It was a direct invitation to swoop down on the pie pantries.

Something happened to the ghost of Hamlet’s father one night. Nobody will ever know whether it was because he was a novice placed temporarily or whether it was the regular spook who was trying to “get by” after having a prolonged bout with John Barleycorn. But when Hamlet’s father entered with a blithe, tripping-down-the-garden-path movement instead of an undertaker’s glide, and accompanied by a rumble that may have been “Hamlet, I am thy father,” etc., or “Set ‘em up again,” it was time to gasp. The gallery gasped; so did Tom Keene, who, I think, was Hamlet that night, and everybody else. When was heard the frantic efforts of Prompter Charlie Tibbetts, striving to pump intelligible articulation into Hamlet senior’s spirit, it was time for action.

“Shoot the ghost!” roared the gallery. “Shoot the ghost.”

This summary demand did not mean that a fusillade of bullets should immediately be poured into the giddy ghost. It was only a slang expression calling for the removal of an objectionable object. The shooting of the ghost took place, a victory for the gallery gods.

Among the big sisters, the best liked appeared to be Ellie Wilton, Annette Ince, Emelie Melville and Bella Pateman.

At the head of the big-brother class stood Charles Mestayer as the heavy villain. He looked his parts so well and carried them off so naturally that the gods themselves revelled in his villainies. There were always seat riots when McCullough played. Other favorites were Harry Edwards, Walter Leman, E. J. Buckely, Lawrence Barrett, Tom Keene, John T. Raymond and—but the roll of fame is long.

The peerless Adelaide Neilson, who once played to a $16,000 house, did not at first appeal to the gods. Her classically beautiful face and head and graceful poise lacked warmth. But Adelaide had a smile that took a strangle-hold on her chiseled lips and brought flashes from beneath the long fringe of her beautiful limpid eyes, and when she smiled as Rosalind in “As You Like It,” attired in buskin and hose, and the gods saw she had limbs like other women and as not a marble bust surmounting a trailing robe, their enthusiasm made the crystals of the huge chandelier sway and flash like a sea of diamonds. Adelaide was thereafter their queen of beauty.

No ceremony attended the descent of the gods from Olympus. The quickest way to empty a barrel is to knock out the head and kick it over. So the portals of the theater were opened and the stream of gods poured down the stairway with a force that carried it into the middle of Bush street.

So that body of sturdy young blood later poured itself into the life of the city, and among those keen-witted, eagle-eyed and energetic spirits were many who cut out notable careers in professional and business life.

Many yet remain who can at the end of a hard day’s labor close their eyes to surrounding and their cars to the wearisome noise of the city traffic and see that magic stage arch and those talented masters and mistresses of the art of mimicry disporting in the glory of their genius, and who can hear the captivating strains of Director George Evans orchestra playing that winning waltz air, “Leaves in the Wind.”

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 13 August 1916. 28.

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