Part 288: Grace N. Wishaar at Ye Liberty Playhouse
Grace N. Wishaar was listed as the scenic artist at Harry W. Bishop’s Ye Liberty Playhouse in Oakland when it opened to the public in 1904. That was ten years after her scenic art career began and forty years before she would win the Ladies World Championship for chess.
Ye Liberty Playhouse was located at 1424 Broadway in a portion of the Realty Syndicate Building. Twin arched entrances at the front led to the Syndicate Realty offices (left) and the theatre (right).
“Henry’s Official Western Theatre Guide” (1907-1908) listed the seating capacity for the venue as 1,980.
It was a sizable house for Oakland and the space was illuminated with both gas and electric lights. The proscenium opening measured 36’ wide by 36’ high. The depth of the stage was 80’ with a 75’ revolve conceived by Harry W. Bishop. The height to the gridiron was 65’-0.” Ye Liberty was also considered to also possess an extremely fine stock company and present remarkable productions.
Ye Liberty later became a movie theatre in 1917 and was renamed the Hippodrome. At this time, the venue advertised “High-Class Vaudeville Feature Photo Plays and Animated Weeklys.” Then the venue became known as the MacArthur Theatre before briefly reverting to its original name. By 1930 the space was renamed – again – the Century Theatre, and then finally became the Central Theatre. Sadly, the section of the Syndicate Realty Building that held Ye Liberty Playhouse was torn down and rebuilt into a retail space during 1961. A southern entrance to a Footlocker Store now marks the original site.
Some of Wishaar’s 1904 productions at Ye Liberty included “Frou Frou,” “Hamlet,” “A Gentleman of France,” “Merchant of Venice,” “Pudd’nhead Wilson” and “Held the Enemy.” Newspaper articles mentioned the combined efforts of the scenic artist Miss Grace Wishaar and Ye Liberty’s stage carpenter Walter Woener (Woerner). Woerner was also in charge of the mechanical department and later worked at the Fulton Theatre.
In 1905, Wishaar painted scenery at Ye Liberty for “Juanita of San Juan” and “The Light Eternal.” Grace Wishaar’s sets for “Juanita of San Juan” (Oakland Tribune, Oct 17, 1935) were held up with high acclaim. This same year, she was featured across the country in the article “Clever Woman Invades Scene Painting Field” (Albuquerque Citizen, 21 July 1905, page 3). The article reported “A woman sitting on a bridge at a dizzying height in the rear of the stage in an Oakland theatre, painting in with bold strokes skies and trees and castles, proves the ability of her sex to keep pace with the masculine gender in the following of any profession.”
The article continued, “While Miss Wishaar has gained fame and a good living from her scene painting, she is devoting herself to a branch of art that no doubt in time will bring her fame of the highest type. Her miniature painting shows the most exquisite appreciation of the value of colors. A rare skill in catching her subjects likeness, combined with a most subtle blending of tones make her miniature work worthy of the praise of the most critical of critics.” Wishaar’s miniature portraits included the young daughters of author Jack London (1876-1916). London was an American novelist, journalist, and social activist. He is considered to be a pioneer in the world of commercial magazine fiction and became quite a celebrity.
Wishaar’s relationship with London and other California socialites would provide a variety of future opportunities. As in New York, she remained a curiosity to many who met her, captivating people with both her talent and intelligence. Wishaar also exhibited and won awards many art exhibitions, chairing a variety of artistic clubs.
By 1906, Wishaar was again featured in the Oakland Tribune with a lovely illustration of her straddling a beam and painting scenery in bloomers – attire that she did not paint in. By 1907, Wishaar painted the elaborate scenery for “Cleopatra” at Ye Liberty and “The Toy Maker” at the Idora Park Opera House, resulting in rave reviews. For “Cleopatra,” an article described her stage settings in detail: “The play opened with the meeting of the beautiful queen of Egypt and the Roman conqueror at Tarsus. This scene was gorgeously set. Cleopatra entered in her brilliantly decorated barge seated beneath a canopy of gold. But this first scene was no more splendid than the other five that followed” (San Francisco Call, 31 December 1907, page 4). Wishaar’s career continued to soar in California, recognizing her artistic achievements on both the stage and in fine art galleries. Three failed marriages were behind her and Wishaar’s future looked bright. It was at this point that tragedy struck the Wishaar home, but once again life would provide new opportunities.
The San Francisco Call (3 July 1909, page 12) reported that Miss Grace Wishaar “narrowly escaped death” when her home at Piedmont Heights was burned to the ground. This was the same area where Harry W. Bishop also lived in his famous home. Wishaar’s home at Folkers and Lake Shore Avenue was burned to the ground. Piedmont had no fire protection, so the Oakland fire department was called to battle the blaze. However, the Oakland fire department was already responding to a small fire at the Empire foundry on Third and Broadway.
Wishaar’s fire was attributed to a defective grate, but she lost everything; her home valued at $5,000, all of her furniture and prized collection of paintings. Inhabitants of the Wishaar home were listed as Grace’s mother Mrs. M. I. Wishaar, her brother Louis Wishaar, and her son Carroll Peeke.
Despite the tragedy, Wishaar persisted with work for a variety of venues. On Oct. 10, 1909, she created a float “Where Rail and Water Meet” to represent Oakland in the grand Portola pageant in San Francisco. The float was 27 feet long by 14 feet wide and 9 feet tall, drawn by six dapple-gray horses in white harnesses.
But the fire, debts from her third failed marriage and loss of her home proved to take its toll on the young scenic artist. That following month, the “San Francisco Call” (6 Nov. 1909, page 9) reported that Wishaar “collapsed from overwork.” The article noted that she was compelled to take a “rest cure.” Enter the California socialite and ward of the “Borax King” who was also battling ill health and prescribed a “rest cure.” Ahhhh. To have permission to escape everything. With a doctor’s orders for rest and a wealthy friend to foot the bill, extended travel plans were in Wishaar’s future. This is when the already interesting life of Grace N. Wishaar becomes REALLY interesting.
To be continued…