by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As with so many elements of greater Los Angeles life during the Homestead’s interpretive period of 1830 to 1930, it is remarkable to see how dramatically (!) things transformed in the world of the theater. Though there were stagings of dramatic and comedic performances in private homes prior to 1860, the first purpose-built theater in the region was the Temple Theatre, which was situated on the upper floor of Jonathan Temple’s Market House, completed in 1859.
Some productions were held in the theater, but the timing for the structure was particularly problematic as the economy was in a doldrums and matters worsened considerably in the first half of the Sixties, principally due to the dual disaster of deluge and drought that wreaked havoc on the region. When the Market House was leased to the city and county, the theater was replaced by courtrooms.
About a decade later, William Abbott built, next door to the recently completed Pico House hotel, the Merced Theater, named for his wife. This establishment lasted longer than its predecessor, but not particularly long, though it did host many musical and theatrical offerings during the 1870s. By the 1880s, a new generation of theaters came into being in the growing city.
A major venue was what was referred to as both Childs’ Opera House and the Grand Opera House, opened on the east side of Main Street just south of First Street, by tin shop and nursery owner and real estate developer Ozro W. Childs. Childs, who has been featured on this blog before and who was a neighbor, several block south of Main, of Elijah H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, opened his theater in May 1884.
In its coverage of the opening of the venue, the Los Angeles Herald provided a wealth of detail. The paper observed that Colonel A.M. Gray was in Los Angeles the prior year while building a theater at San Bernardino and noted the lack of a quality venue in the City of the Angels. He was then introduced “to O.W. Childs, one of our leading and wealthiest citizens, who at once decided to dedicate a portion of his large means to providing his fellow citizens with an opera house . . .”
Childs and Gray teamed up to develop the $100,000 structure, of which the paper proclaimed “in line of sight, width of aisles and chairs, and facilities of egress in case of fire or panic, it is surpassed by no other theater in the American continent.” While online sources state that the architects were Ezra F. Kysor, the first trained member of his profession to practice in Los Angeles and who was said to be the designer of the remodeled Workman House in 1870, and partner Octavius Morgan, the Herald credited Gray with the design, adding that he “has built no less than eight well known places of amusement on this Coast.”
Gray, the article continued, was a carpenter and builder in San Francisco and Stockton for over thirty years and “while not technically an architect, experience has made him one in the best sense of the word, and he has done all his own designing.” Construction commenced in mid-September and Gray was assisted by A. F. Mackey who “superintended the mechanical details of the edifice,” while William Voegtlin was hired to embellish the interior.
Voegtlin was a Swiss-born artist who migrated to America before Civil War and worked in New York before settling in San Francisco, where he did interior design at the Third Street Opera House and the California Theatre. He designed theater sets in those cities, as well as Chicago, New Orleans and St. Louis. His later years were spent in New York as scenic artist at the Union Square and Globe theaters.
After his death in 1892, a son continued similar work in Big Apple venues like the Madison Square Theater. Among the highlights of Voegtlin’s work at Childs’ Opera House were embellishments in frescoed walls and ceiling (the latter with an image of a “sweet summer sky” including cherubs among clouds and images of Göethe, Schiller, Shakespeare and the Greek Muses at the ends) and scene-painting.
It was noted that a vestibule or front court was 24 feet deep and 64 feet wide with stairs of six feet width at each end and ascending to the balcony, also referred to as “the family circle.” Backstage were thirteen dressing rooms, including one known as the “Star’s room, which is provided with all modern elegancies and conveniences,” and there was direct communication with the prompter during performances. Plenty of doors and windows allowed for easy egress from the structure and fire hydrants and hoses were placed in locations to make firefighting easier.
The Herald added that “the auditorium of the building is one of the most perfect that has ever been made, with no pillars, pilasters or right angles to disturb views, while there were “no abortions in plaster of Paris of impossible and preposterous caryatids, and useless fretted arches, to arrest and demoralize the fine tones of music or of the human voice.” With regard to acoustics, it was proclaimed that the opera house had “due regard to the principles of acoustic science, so that the finest and most delicate tone that trembles along the air will reach the ear of the most remote auditor in the family circle [balcony].”
The total capacity was 1,500 with 700 in the auditorium, the like number in the balcony, and 100 in orchestra seats, though it was stated that several hundred more could be added “in area seats” and standing sections. Seats had hat racks beneath them and were not hemmed in close while india rubber matting was used to deaden the sound of footfalls. There were two proscenium boxes on either side of the stage with private entrances and lavish ornamentation in silk and crimson satin.
The stage curtain was accounted “the finest on the Pacific Coast” with a scene from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which Oberon finds Titania asleep painted in rich detail by Voegtlin. With this level of beauty, the paper averred that “a sight and study of this curtain is alone worth the price of admission to the opera house” and it was raised and lowered by machinery.
While three hundred gas jets were installed for illumination, it was expected that soon “an incandescent electric light will be placed in the ceiling that will make the colors of the curtain, drapery and frescoing perfectly gorgeous.” Stained glass windows, and “elegant and tasty” upholstery and carpets from the local business, Dotter and Bradley, were also given accolades.
The stage was given a good deal of description with four cuts to allow for moving scenery and effects and trap doors allowing for actors to vanish “in a seemingly miraculous manner, while others allowed for further handling of sets. Bridges and platforms at the rear allowed for further flexibility with elaborate set pieces. Grooves in the floor for the smooth adding and removing of sets, large borders and lights, a frame for backdrops and amply sized fly galleries, the rigging loft, and water storage to fight fires were also approvingly noted. The cellar beneath the stage was some 2,200 square feet, as well.
The Figaro playbill for the venue and highlighted here is an early example of a theatrical publication in Los Angeles and the city and region were in the full throes of the famed Boom of the 1880s at the time. The performance that evening was of Nanon, the Hostess of the Golden Lamb, a comic operetta by Richard Genée which premiered a decade earlier, and which concerned the romantic adventures of the titular figure, owner of the Golden Lamb inn near Paris.
The performance was conducted by the Carleton Opera Company, launched in 1884 by British-born vocalist William T. Carleton, who first sang in America in the early Seventies with a grand opera company. Later, recognizing the shift in popular taste to light opera, especially with Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, Carleton turned to that genre with his own company.
For the week of 4 April, the company, which included some sixty-five entertainers, performed six times including two matinees and the repertoire also included Erminie (a new piece which premiered the prior year), Mikado, and Drum Major’s Daughter. Carleton targeted the growing middle class as a prime demographic, but also professed not to sacrifice quality for broad comedic effect like burlesque and slapstick and prized excellent music in his productions. Carleton’s company lasted thirteen years, an unusual example of longevity, and, after 1897, he turned to vaudeville while not having the burden of managing a large enterprise like his own company. He died in 1922 at age 74.
The next week’s attraction was the company of Joseph Grismer and Phoebe Davis, who formed their San Francisco-based company not long after their marriage in 1882 with its five pieces offered over six days. Grismer acted, produced, directed and wrote in pieces and also managed the company and his adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo as well as another of a novel, Called Back, were mainstays of the repertoire.
The playbill contains something unusual compared to later examples, a humor section on the last of the four pages, with dialogue jokes and four or six-line verses of reflections on life on offer. One of the latter has to do with the railroad magnate and financier Jay Gould, one of the infamous “robber barons” of the day:
“The gold enslaves me that I make,”
Jay Gould, ’tis said, has stated;
We’ll tear his fetters so he may
As would be expected, most of the space in the publication is taken up with advertising from local businesses of a wide variety. Most are stores and restaurants, though there is an ad for notary public Thomas E. Rowan, a former county treasurer who campaigned against F.P.F. Temple in 1873 and 1875, winning the former and losing the latter to him, and who was mayor of Los Angeles from 1892 to 1894.
The Washington Gardens, a popular place for amusement and outdoor activities, also advertised including its ostrich farm and zoological gardens. A space was reserved for wine and liquor dealer Henry J. Woollacott, though competitors Baer & Germain promoted their wholesale and retail wine and liquor business. The Los Angeles Furniture Company, successor to the Dotter and Bradley that furnished material for the opera house, also had its ad with the name of its four officers, including vice-president Charles Bradley and president Henry H. Markham, who served as governor of California from 1891 to 1895.
It is hard to find any publication without its quack medicine ad and this one had the “Carbolic Smoke Ball,” a contraption purported to ease all manner of lung diseases and issues offered by the company of that name located on Spring Street near the Main and Temple triple intersection of that era. The ad, which had a helpful graphic as demonstration of the device, proclaimed that there would be “no more gagging, hawking, spitting, snuffing, bad breath, no more catarrh!” with the product and its package with a “debellator,” which cost just $5 with two postage stamps for mailing. In addition to standard office hours, there were special ones with “separate apartments for ladies” who were asked to call during those times “to avoid the rush.”
The Carbolic Smoke Ball Company, based in London, later promised money for those who found the device, specifically said to be remedy for the flu, ineffective and was sued in 1892 by a woman who made just such a claim and demanded her money. The firm claimed the ad was not to be taken seriously, but lost the case at the British Court of Appeal, which found that all significant elements of contract law applied. Undaunted, the owner of the firm formed another, but as a limited liability company, to avoid personal financial risk, though he died soon after of, ironically, tuberculosis. The plaintiff, however, lived to her mid-nineties. The main defense attorney at the lower court, H.H. Asquith, went on to be Britain’s prime minister.
Though in ragged shape, this playbill is a rare and early example of its type in Los Angeles and reflective of the dramatic growth of the city during its remarkable Boom of the Eighties, as well as its connection to one of the first large-scale theaters in the community.