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Music in San Francisco, From the Barbary Coast and Beyond

April 1, 2012

by James M. Keller

“San Francisco is naturally and temperamentally a musical city,” said the New York conductor Walter Damrosch in 1901, while serving a stint at a local opera house. He was right. From the days of the Forty-Niners to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which heralded the earthquake-ravaged city’s rebirth, San Francisco was filled with music. Here, James Keller explores early San Francisco’s musical nature and temperament, a legacy that in 1911 gave birth to the San Francisco Symphony. Next month, Michael Tilson Thomas and the Orchestra celebrate that legacy and the Symphony’s place in its city’s history. The Barbary Coast and Beyond: Music from the Gold Rush to the Panama-Pacific Exposition is a series of semi-staged performances scheduled for May 10-12, evenings of music and theater that promise to bring a bygone era to life.

The modern history of San Francisco began in January 1848, with the discovery of gold at Coloma, in the hills northeast of Sacramento. That took place some 110 miles from the Golden Gate as the crow flies, and considerably farther by any of the inconvenient modes of transportation available at the time. Nonetheless, gold was the catalyst for the growth of the small military garrison that only a year earlier had changed its name from Yerba Buena to San Francisco. As word of the discovery spread, interest surged throughout the country and on foreign shores. Beginning in 1849, California was engulfed by a tsunami of fortune-seekers. As the point of debarkation for adventurers arriving by sea and the port through which their supplies arrived, San Francisco emerged as the commercial hub of the Gold Rush, and practically overnight it transformed from a sleepy settlement into a bustling city. In 1847, its census showed 459 residents. In 1849, some 75,000 passed through San Francisco on their way to the inland gold fields. In 1850 the city’s permanent population surpassed 20,000.

Most of the new Californians brought little with them, and quite a few acquired disposable income with which to stock their newly displaced lives, either by finding fortune in the gold fields or by selling supplies to people who hoped to. One of the things the ’49ers were eager to consume was entertainment. As early as October 1849 a theater was erected in Sacramento, itself a boomtown of 10,000. The chronicler Hubert Howe Bancroft described the establishment: “Its performances, three times a week, were attended by crowds of the miners, and the owners realized a very handsome profit. The canvas building used for this purpose … would have been taken for an ordinary drinking-house, but for the sign: ‘Eagle Theatre,’ which was nailed to the top of the canvas frame. … The sides and roof of the theatre are canvas, which, when wet, effectually prevents ventilation, and renders the atmosphere hot and stifling.”

San Francisco wasn’t far behind Sacramento. In fact, one could argue that San Francisco was ahead, certainly in its concert life. On June 22, 1849, a portly, red-headed British opportunist named Stephen Massett rented the main hall of the Municipal Courthouse on San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square and produced his own concert. With tickets going for $3, it was the first professional cultural event ever given in San Francisco; and with 200 people purchasing tickets, it qualified as a great success. Massett ended the evening with a profit of $500, and the audience was enriched through his repertory of recitations, impersonations, and songs. The latter included the romantic ballad “When the Moon is on the Lake,” which would become one of Massett’s theme songs as he marched forward into local stardom. Makeshift theaters continued to spring up, housing a few enterprises intended to be ongoing—the 280-seat Dramatic Museum on California Street in 1850, the Adelphi Theatre and the Jenny Lind Theatre in 1851, the American Theatre in 1852—although such establishments showed an unerring propensity for burning down. In the course of 1851 alone, the Jenny Lind Theatre was twice decimated and rebuilt by emerging theatre mogul Tom Maguire, with the third Jenny Lind Theatre, wisely built of sandstone rather than wood, seating 2000 patrons and being proclaimed one of the most spectacular theaters in the whole United States (California having entered the Union in 1850).

By 1853, San Francisco could boast ten dedicated theaters. These would soon host many of the great names of the nineteenth-century stage, the likes of Dion Boucicault, Joseph Jefferson, Charles Kean, Edwin Forrest, and Edwin Booth. The city went mad for Shakespeare, and it cultivated a similar passion for opera. The first complete opera given in town was presented at the Adelphi Theatre in February 1851, a performance of La sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini, whose operas would remain immensely popular in San Francisco along with those of his compatriots Gaetano Donizetti and Giuseppe Verdi. Notable opera stars established themselves here, with partisans lining up behind their favorites of the triumvirate of divas who reigned in the 1850s: the Boston-born Eliza Biscaccianti (a.k.a. “The American Thrush”), the Irish Catherine Hayes (“The Swan of Erin”), and the British Anna Bishop, whom connoisseurs generally considered the finest of the three soprano songbirds, judged on strictly vocal merits.

Not all music making in San Francisco’s first few decades fell under the rubric of “high culture.” The city also possessed a vibrant underbelly. San Francisco was a dodgy town in general, but its toughest neighborhood was populated by ex-convicts released or escaped from British penal colonies in Australia, and most particularly by the gang known as the Sydney Ducks. They operated at the base of Telegraph Hill in a neighborhood called Sydney-Town, in a nine-block area that today overlaps the intersection of Chinatown, North Beach, Jackson Square, and the Financial District. Australia had its own gold rush in the 1850s, inspiring many of the Ducks to return to their homeland. As the Australian presence diminished, the neighborhood got a new name, around 1860: the Barbary Coast, an allusion meant to evoke the treacherous, pirate-infested waterfronts of the North African coast.

Colonel Albert S. Evans provided a colorful portrait of the Barbary Coast around 1871 in his book A la California. Sketch of Life in the Golden State, published posthumously two years later, shortly after he perished in a shipwreck:

Every city on earth has its special sink of vice, crime and degradation, its running ulcer or moral cancer, which it would fain hide from the gaze of mankind. ... San Franciscans will not yield the palm of superiority to anything to be found elsewhere in the world. Speak of the deeper depth, the lower hell, the maelstrom of vice and iniquity—from whence those who once fairly enter escape no more forever—and they will point triumphantly to the Barbary Coast, strewn from end to end with the wrecks of humanity, and challenge you to match it anywhere outside of the lake of fire and brimstone. … Stroll by daylight through the region bounded by Montgomery, Stockton, Washington and Broadway streets, and you will have but a faint idea, a very inadequate conception, of the real character of the locality. … Such is the “Barbary Coast” by daylight; but by gaslight or moonlight it is quite another thing, and you would find it difficult to realize that this was the sleepy, half-deserted locality you saw in the morning. … From the inner retreat comes strange, discordant—to our ears—and not over-attractive music…. Hand-organs, flutes, pianos, bagpipes, banjos, guitars, violins, brass instruments and accordeons [sic] mingle their notes and help to swell the discord. “Dixie” is being drummed out of a piano in one cellar; in the next they are singing “John Brown;” and in the next, “Clare’s Dragoons,” or “Wearing of the Green.”

The place was irresistible, of course. Over time, the city seems to have accepted even aspects of the district that fell woefully short of Victorian uprightness. An expansive headline in the Examiner in 1890 summed up the civic attitude with splendid equanimity: “Good or Bad? San Francisco’s Morals: They Might Be Better, but They Might Be a Great Deal Worse.” The neighborhood’s character certainly had staying power. It continued to be called the Barbary Coast through the time of the 1906 Earthquake, and even that catastrophe didn’t manage to put an end to the area’s flavor. Four years after the devastation, some 300 bars and dance halls were operating again along Pacific Street. The neighborhood met its match in the publisher William Randolph Hearst, who spearheaded a clean-up campaign shortly thereafter, but remnants of the Barbary Coast may still be spied in the more lurid enclaves of North Beach.

The Barbary Coast was nothing if not musical. A correspondent for Scribner’s Monthly observed that some of the salons “have organs that invite patrons to dally … [They] play overtures, marches and tasteful variations. Other bars have bands, still others pianos.” In fact, the entertainment scene in the Barbary Coast covered a considerable range. At the raunchier end of the spectrum were the gambling parlors and whorehouses. But comparatively legitimate theaters also crowded these blocks, including such renowned and relatively respectable variety halls as the long-lived Bella Union and Gilbert’s Melodeon. The melodeons were a subspecies of theater named after the reed organs often used to accompany singers. An old-time account of the melodeons (the theaters, not the instruments) offered a mixed review: “The form of the program was nearly identical in each, generally beginning with a minstrel first part, followed by an olio [a miscellany of selections] and concluding with an afterpiece, which all too often was based on an immoral story and its lines bristled with poorly concealed smut. … The quality of the performances was always excellent, for many of the country’s best stars have graduated from the old San Francisco melodeons and variety halls.”

San Francisco was indeed a breeding ground for musical-theatrical talent. At a time when the bizarrely stylized world of the minstrel show held sway on national stages, the Christy-Backus Minstrels—which later evolved into the San Francisco Minstrels—were considered among the elect of the genre. Lotta Crabtree, the child-star songstress of the mining camps and the San Francisco stage, went on to clinch stardom in Boston and New York—and famously financed a fountain at the intersection of Market, Geary, and Kearny Streets to repay the kindness the city had shown her. Before the nineteenth century was over, San Francisco’s theater scene would unleash on the world such forceful talents as David Belasco, the playwright-producer who brought both Madame Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West to the stage and the opera house; Isadora Duncan, the doyenne of modern dance; and Bert Williams, one of vaudeville’s elite and among the first African-American performers to push back against racial stereotyping. By the time minstrel shows and variety acts of the nineteenth century evolved into vaudeville, with its well-organized national circuits of theatrical presenters, San Francisco had earned a reputation as the best show-business destination apart from New York.

Classical music was developing parallel to the popular-music scene in nineteenth-century San Francisco. Opera never relinquished its early toehold, and by the time of the 1906 earthquake the city had hosted about 5000 operatic performances—an astonishing achievement. Instrumental music was thriving, too. Among the first international virtuosos to capitalize on Gold Rush concert opportunities was the Viennese pianist Henri Herz. He worked the mining camps relentlessly, became an early hero of musical San Franciscans, and returned the favor by composing a sparkling “grande polka brillante” titled La Californienne. Miska Hauser, a Hungarian violinist, arrived in his wake, supplying the city with up-to-date fiddle wizardry and conducting ad hoc orchestras. Indeed, quite a few classical orchestras took form in nineteenth-century San Francisco, though none showed much staying power until the San Francisco Symphony began its run in 1911.

Nineteenth-century San Francisco was also building up a commercial infrastructure to support the ongoing musical interests of its citizens. Already in January 1850 the city could boast a local music retailer, Andrew Kohler, who had brought along a supply of musical instruments when he set out from the East as a ’49er. Kohler moved from shop to shop, enlarging at every turn, and before the 1850s were done he was advertising that his firm offered the largest musical inventory in the state. Another ’49er, Joseph Atwill, was quickly disillusioned in the gold fields and followed Kohler into the music business in September 1850. The Pacific News, a newspaper of the period, described Atwill’s establishment as a “snug, cosy [sic] looking bijou of a house, armed to the teeth with pianos, accordions, guitars, wind and string instruments, and other similar deadly weapons, calculated to disturb the peace and quiet of our community.” Others followed in short order. By 1864 no fewer than seventeen music dealerships had appeared in San Francisco. Quite a few of them took up publishing.

With a single exception, the music dealerships that persevered were gradually transformed through mergers with competitors, their early identities finally slipping away entirely. The exception was the brainchild of Leander S. Sherman, who arrived from Boston in 1861 at the age of fourteen and got a job repairing music boxes at a local music shop. In 1870 he established his own music store; and a year later, finding himself in need of capital, he entered into a partnership. Sherman’s banker, Clement Clay, was so struck by the income generated by this business that in 1876 he bought out Sherman’s partner. Thus was born Sherman, Clay & Company, which would become the dominant music store of the city and of the entire West Coast, eventually opening branches throughout California as well as in Oregon and Washington, and continuing to operate to this day.

The 1906 earthquake was a setback to San Francisco’s flourishing musical culture, but in its aftermath the city actually expanded its performing-arts scene. The San Francisco City Directory of 1906 lists sixteen theaters; the 1910 Directory lists nineteen, all but one of which was newly built after the earthquake. The first major commercial property to complete construction following the earthquake was Sherman, Clay’s eight-story emporium at the corner of Kearney and Sutter Streets, which opened its doors in late 1907 to offer a full array of instruments, sheet music, piano rolls, and newfangled talking machines.

That the San Francisco Symphony should have similarly arisen out of the rubble is not surprising. The pump had already been primed with musical passion, and San Francisco was ready to march into the future to the sounds of a great orchestra.

James M. Keller, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator, is curator of the exhibition Singing the Golden State, a multimedia celebration of early California through pictorial sheet music and vintage sound recordings, on display through December 7 at the Society of California Pioneers, 300 Fourth Street. For more information, visit californiapioneers.org.

The Barbary Coast & Beyond: Music from the Gold Rush to the Panama-Pacific Exposition

May 10-12 at 8:00, Davies Symphony Hall

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor  |  Laura Claycomb, soprano  |  Vadim Gluzman, violin  |  Anton Nel, piano  |  Cameron Carpenter, organ  |  James Robinson, producer and director

Music from the stages of opera, concert hall, and popular theater.