Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 220 – The New California Theatre

Part 220: The New California Theatre

Moses arrived in San Francisco on February 3, 1889. Moses rented a new house at 1715 Eddy Street. It was some distance out, but near a good school. He wrote, “Ella and the children were certainly glad to see me back and I was glad to get back. We were soon packed up and on our way to Frisco.” Loitz soon joined him and they started painting by February 21. Despite of the “knocking” he received from local artists, Moses had lot of newspaper publicity. He recorded that this put him “on the map in Frisco in big time.” The theatre opened in May and his East Indian Drop Curtain received some very good notice. Moses wrote, “my scenery was even praised by the previous knockers, so I must have done my best.”

He had been working on the remaining scenery for the New California Theatre. Here is the article in its entirety from the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune (Friday, April 19, 1889, page 3) as it is certainly worth the read!


The New California Theatre

“The New California theatre in San Francisco approaches completion so rapidly and systematically that it is safe to promise that the grand opening of the beautiful edifice by Messrs. Booth and Barrett will occur as announced, May 13th. There are so many new and striking departures in the plan and construction of Mr. Hayman’s new theater, all tending to the comfort and safety of actors, as well as patrons, that it will be, when finished, the only theater of its kind in the country.   The building itself is a massive fire proof structure, isolated entirely on three sides, and adjoining, by a brick wall without opening of any kind, the building of the City Fire Department, the wall of which is also a solid fireproof one. From the spacious and beautiful arched entrance on Bush street the floor rises by gradual ascent, without any break whatever until the auditorium is reached, the massive iron stairs leading to the balcony and upper circle rising without a curve from the extreme right of the vestibule. Owing to the very slight curve of the dress circle and balcony rail, there are no side seats, nearly every one presenting a full front to the stage, which by this arrangement is brought much nearer than is generally the case.

The absence of wood in the construction of the auditorium, which is iron-lathed throughout, and the iron rails and chairs, render protection from fire absolutely certain. Between the auditorium and the stage there rises from the foundation to the roof a massive brick wall in which the immense proscenium arch, 38 feet wide and 39 feet high, is backed y an absolutely fire-proof curtain, hung on a wire cable secured to the brick work by heavy iron rings. In the roof over the stage there are six large skylights that open automatically at a temperature of 150 degrees, allowing heat or smoke to escape instead of being carried over the house. The hose appliances and automatic sprinkling attachment will furnish abundant means for promptly extinguishing an incipient fire, and as the scenery is all chemically treated and prepared with an incombustible paint, another cause of danger is removed.

While every possible precaution had been taken to prevent cause for panic, ample means are provided for immediate egress by fourteen exits, fur on each upper floor and six downstairs, and it is believed that the house, which will seat 1800 persons can be emptied in three or four minutes if no rushing of crowding occurs. Incandescent electric lights alone will be used in the house, no arrangement being made for gas, either o the stage or in the auditorium. Three separate engines with dynamos are provided, two of which will be held in reserve in case of accident, and all the usual effects of colored lights on the stage will be given by a system of switches which will produce instantaneous changes.

As far as possible, drops only will be used on the stage, which has facilities for hanging sixty-two drops, thirty by forty-five feet in size. In case grooves are needed, an ingenious invention on the plan of the parallel ruler will be employed, which permits lifting the grooves out of the way when not in use. The largest and most varied stock of scenery ever is being furnished a new house is now being painted by Thomas Moses, the artist for Messrs. Sosman & Landis of Chicago, whose light embraces thirty-two full sets, requiring 7000 yards of linen. The feature of horizon settings is a semi-circle rod on which is hung by rings, dispensing entirely with wings and giving the effect of great distance. Five different street scenes, complete in every detail,; five Gothic interiors of entirely different character, French, modern, plain, and fancy chambers, palaces, prison, kitchen, and garret – each scene requiring fifteen to twenty pieces – are already finished or under way, besides a number of exteriors of great beauty and variety.

There are thirty dressing rooms, separated from the stage by brick, fireproof wall, and provided with hot and cold water, retiring rooms, and other comforts usually unknown to actors. The dressing rooms have windows looking out into the open court, and are provided with improved fire escapes. The chairs in the auditorium are of the latest style, and there are eight beautiful pagoda like proscenium boxes, decorated in the East Indian style, which, indeed, is the general style of the house decoration, the drop curtain representing a hunting scene in the Indies.

Every arrangement for the comfort and convenience of patrons has been made, including a comfortable smoking room for gentlemen and a luxurious and elegantly furnished parlor and retiring room absolutely sacred to the ladies. The hotel to which the new California Theater is an adjunct will not be finished until some time after the completion of the theater, which is already well booked for sterling attractions to follow the great Booth and Barrett season which opens it.”

There is so much to comment on, especially the fire prevention system and fire-proof paint on the scenery. This is fifteen years before the fire at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago. As usual, California is ahead of the game. But there also is conscious decision to not have grooves, yet make allowances for those who still want them. They are cutting edge and ahead of their time. What a great article for future analysis.

To be continued…

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