Treading the Boards: The Temple/City Hall Theatre, Los Angeles, 1859-1868

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Yesterday I had the privilege of hearing a great presentation, given by Anthony Caldwell and David Saffer of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation, about some of the early theaters in the city. The focus was on venues that existed from the late 19th century onward, but there was some mention of earlier ones, including the Merced Theatre, the building of which still stands next to the Pico House just south of the Plaza and which was opened at the end of December 1870, and Stearns’ Hall and the Temple Theatre, these latter two opening a little more than a decade before. Hearing a little about the Temple got me looking back at some research material compiled about that venue, hence this evening’s post.

In 1859, Jonathan Temple, who, over the course of three decades in Los Angeles, starting in 1828 when he became the second American or European to settle in the Mexican pueblo, became one of the Angel City’s most prominent residents, built the Market House, designed and built by William Dearien and costing some $40,000. This two-story brick building, with a raised basement, was placed in an island between Main and Spring streets on the east and west and Temple and First streets on the north and south and was directly south of a large lot owned by Temple that included a two-story brick commercial building constructed by him two years prior and other buildings extending to the then-triple intersection of Main, Spring and Temple.

LA County Courthouse Temple
The photo, from the Homestead’s collection, has the wrong date of “1850,” given that the building was not built until almost a decade later and the image is almost certainly from another decade or more beyond that, probably about 1870.

The Market House was purportedly modeled after the famous Faneuil Hall in Boston, especially with the first floor’s central corridor lined with small market stalls, which was leased to the City, which in turn was to rent them to merchants. The second level, however, was fitted out to be a theater and community hall and, while it has often be referred to as the Temple Theatre, contemporary newspaper accounts invariably call it the City Hall Theatre or simply, the City Hall. Moreover, while some sources identify it as the first true theater, built specifically for the purpose, Abel Stearns, another Massachusetts native and long-time merchant and who came to Los Angeles the year after Temple, built a hall in his newly completed Arcadia Block, a long two-story brick structure behind his El Palacio adobe and situated on Los Angeles Street, and it, too, was used as a theater.

As for the Market House, it was built when the local economy was struggling, with the Gold Rush having petered out a few years prior and the effects of a national depression also being felt. The situation, though, would only become more dire in coming years, especially after the dual disaster of flooding in the winter of 1861-62 (when it was estimated that up to 50 inches of rain fell, most of it in just a matter of weeks at the end of the first year and through most of the succeeding January) and drought that wreaked havoc over the next couple of years. For a remote frontier town of about 5,000, trying to sustain elements of culture was difficult, as witnessed by the attempt, by Temple and others, to create a public library, also in 1859. Despite concerted efforts to raise funds and provide ample reading material, that venture failed and it was more than a dozen years before the current city library system was successfully launched.

TEmple Theatre Semi_Weekly_Southern_News_Wed__Feb_22__1860_
Los Angeles News, 22 February 1860.

The sole description of the theater was published in the Los Angeles Star of 18 February 1860 and it was noted that the stage was 900 square feet running forty-five feet across and twenty feet deep. There were single private boxes on either side. The scenery was painted by an unnamed artist imported from San Francisco, who was also to oversee the decoration of the entire space. The gallery was comprised of “two tiers of raised benches” while “the parquetted [portion was] to be furnished with arm chairs.” The paper approvingly ended its brief survey by stating “it will be a very neat and commodious theatre, creditable to the enterprising proprietor, John Temple, Esq.”

Four days later, the Los Angeles News reported that “the Theatrical Company, who will open and occupy the new theatre, which has been fitted up in the City Hall building, arrived by the steamer Senator.” The scenery was applauded as “magnificent, surpassing anything ever before exhibited in this city, and reflects the highest credit on the artist [again, not identified] employed.” It was added that “there is a full company of talented performers” and residents were encouraged to attend shows when the venue was opened—opening day was on 1 March.

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News, 31 October 1860.

Uses of the theater were varied, which is not to be surprising for a small town lacking large venues for events beyond performances. For example, in late June 1860, the News reported that Lodge 42 of the Free and Associated Masons, of which Temple’s brother, F.P.F., and William Workman were charter members, celebrated the St. John the Baptist anniversary by gathering at their lodge, which was next to where the Merced Theatre was built a decade later, and “marched through several streets to the City Hall, where an oration was delivered.” Presumably, this was in the theater space.

By October, however, the theatre was managed by James Stark and George Reyer, who had eight other members with them and “composing a full and powerful DRAMATIC COMPANY, of the BEST PERFORMERS IN THE STATE” ready to present to the public “a Grand and varied entertainment, consisting of DRAMA, MUSIC AND COMEDY” starting on Halloween evening and continuing nightly. On 7 November, the News reported that the troupe was “performing to delighted audiences, at the City Hall” and that, each night, “the house has been crowded, and all were pleased, and satisfied that the time had been well spent.” The paper added that this was the first theatrical company resident in Los Angeles and those who had not availed themselves of the opportunity to attend a show were encouraged to do so “as the stay of the company will be short.”

Temple Theatre The_Los_Angeles_Semi_Weekly_News_Wed__Nov_12__1862_
News, 12 November 1862.

The final performances of the Stark and Reyer company was the following week and the News reported hat a recent rendering of Macbeth was particularly strong, while the singing of the Mandeville sisters was “unequalled.” A common occurrence when locals were pleased with the companies who entertained them was to hold a “benefit,” and one was tendered to Mrs. Stark, who appeared in Camille followed by another for A.R. Phelps, “an actor of a high order of talents” and who was “advancing bravely in his profession.” As the company headed for San Francisco, it was lauded by the paper, which said “a more agreeable and gentlemanly troupe has never before visited our city.”

A review of articles and advertisements in the early years of the venue showed that there were solo dramatic readings, such as that of Mrs. C. Wellington in June 1861 and she was lionized as “high accomplished” and someone who “well deserves the attention of a patronizing public;” concerts, including the April 1862 performance by Charles Stadtfeld and the Teutonia Singing Society “and a number of amateurs” and the June 1862 show by the King’s Minstrels; and the unusual appearance at the end of October of that year by S.K.G. Nellis. Born without arms, Nellis used his feet to write; fold paper; clean, load and fire a pistol; shoot a bow and arrow; and play the violin and accordion and the News proclaimed that he was “truly astonishing, amusing and highly instructive,” while Bruno Liebert gave a “rarely equaled” performance on the violin. Nellis was popular enough to return with Liebert for three more engagements. In May 1863, Professor Courtier, the “Wizard of the West” who purportedly entertained kings and heads of state and audiences at large theaters in Paris and London, delivered an impressive magic show “to the delight and general satisfaction of a full house; far exceeding all that was expected.”

Temple Theatre Magician ad The_Los_Angeles_Tri_Weekly_News_Wed__May_27__1863_
News, 27 May 1863.

Community events were also held in the venue, including another celebration of the St. John the Baptist anniversary in 1862, two fairs for orphans with a concert in November 1863 for a “Hall [that] was filled to overflowing by a quiet and attentive audience” and that was “the finest entertainment of the season.” Benefits for local churches and synagogues included ones for the Protestant (May 1865), Episcopal (April 1866), the “Hebrew Association of the Bnai Berith [B’nai B’rith] (December 1867), and Congregational (February 1868). Lectures and orations were also held, including a talk by the State Superintendent of Education, John Swett, in February 1865 “upon the duties of parents, in aid and support of public schools;” and the 47th anniversary of the International Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization that counted Elijah H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, as an active member and officer, and which had noted attorney and orator E.J.C. Kewen as its featured speaker in April 1866.

In July 1866, the Foster sisters, who opened their private girls’ school the prior year, held an exhibition at the venue for some 500 persons (this was a rare instance when the attendance was given) at which “the exercises consisted of reading well selected poems, and other pieces, together with original compositions, instrumental and vocal music, in which many of the young ladies displayed great natural talent, and a degree of cultivation that evinced the care and ability of their teachers.” The same month there was a concert “for the benefit of the college now in the course of erection in this city,” perhaps St. Vincent’s College, which also opened the previous year, and it was stated by the News that “the music, both instrumental and vocal, executed by the ladies and gentlemen who liberally volunteered their services, displayed good taste and no small amount of talent.”

Temple Theatre Polyorama ad The_Los_Angeles_Tri_Weekly_News_Fri__Mar_4__1864_
News, 4 March 1864.

Towards the end of the venue’s existence there were some other notable programs. In February 1867, Miss E.L. Perkins, “an experienced reader,” gave dramatic renditions of works “from the best authors” and this was considered “something new to the citizens of this place.” That April, there was a performance by the Swiss Bell Ringers, whose “entertainments are highly interesting” and which were enjoyed by “large and fashionable audiences.” The following month, “the finest collection of musical talent ever assembled in this city” gave a benefit concert for “the Relief Fund of the suffering people of the South,” with the post-Civil War environment being enormously challenging for the former Confederate states.

A couple of unusual presentations included J.W. Wilder and Company’s “Gigantic Polyorama of the Present War” shown at the theater in March 1864. It showed “a vast and comprehensive view of The Terrible Rebellion” through renderings “by a corps of eminent artists” from “authentic sketches” on battlefields. In all, there were some 1,000 such views “together with a grand Moving Diorama of the Great Naval Combat” involving the Monitor (the Union’s “ironclad” ship) and the Merrimac (the Confederate counterpart) in the historic battle of March 1862 off the coast of Virginia. In Civil War-era Los Angeles, there was a significant proportion of the population that were Confederate supporters and “Chivalry” Democrats, but the News was a pro-Union, Republican paper, so it not only had rave reviews for the exhibition, saying that “all is truthful and beautiful” and that visiting the City Hall venue “is equal in experience to an active campaign,” but it implored that “every one whose heart pulsates with one throb of interest in the present struggle, should visit it.”

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News, 22 April 1865.

Yet, there were problems with agitators, as the paper reported that “it is to be regretted that better order could not be preserved in the house during the lecture and passage of the scenes; at times the lecturer could not be heard” and it wondered “where are the officers on such occasions?” A subsequent editorial about issues of (dis)order in the city pointed out that during both showings, “silence was a stranger; the noise and confusion had on that occasion could only be equaled at a ‘bull-fight’ and caused a restraint; constant fear that something would ‘turn up’ which would cause the sudden exit of the spectators.” The behavior “prevented a large number of our citizens from visiting City Hall during the stay of the exhibition here.” It was added that “the political character” of the display was known, but it was issues like this that demonstrated why “Los Angeles has earned a well merited unenviable reputation abroad.”

A little over a year later came the stunning report that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and, while there were some who openly celebrated, and in some cases arrested for so doing, the murder of the chief executive, just after the end of the horrific conflict, a funeral procession was held for the president in the city. The program was organized by the Union League and a large congregation formed in front of Stearns’ Arcadia Block, including the masonic and fraternal orders; the B’nai B’rith members; Spanish, German and French benevolent societies; city, county and state officers; and military personnel. After a march through the streets of town, the assemblage gathered at “City Hall, which had been selected on account of its capacity, for the performance of the funeral services.”

Temple Theatre 4th of July The_Los_Angeles_Tri_Weekly_News_Sat__Jul_8__1865_
News, 8 July 1865.

The News reported that “the large hall was crowded, and a great many were obliged to go away.” The sermon was delivered by Reverend Elias Birdsall, the newly installed minister of St. Athanasius’ Episcopal Church, and his eulogy was so impressive that it was said that it “drew tears from eyes all unused to weep.” The effect was such that the speech was printed in full later and Birdsall was invited to give a lecture series and became the city’s superintendent of education. After some years in San Francisco and Stockton, he returned to St. Athanasius in 1880 and became rector of its successor, St. Paul’s before his retirement at the end of the decade, soon after which he died.

A happier occasion a few months later was the Fourth of July celebration, taking place despite an unusually heavy summer downpour in the Angel City. Celebrants slogged through the rain and mud and, with the remembrance that “a gigantic and most wicked rebellion has just closed,” attendees “repaired to City Hall” which was “crowded to overflowing” to hear an oration by W.E. Lovett (preceded by a prayer by Birdsall), singing by the German Glee Club and music by the city band. Birdsall then impressively intoned the Declaration of Independence, followed by a rendering in Spanish by Pedro Ybarra, president of the Junta Patriotica, who also linked the democratic struggle of Mexico to that of the United States to general applause, and the minister also read the Emancipation Proclamation (there was no reporting as to the attendance of black members of the community.) Other parts of the program, including more addresses by Californios, such as former newspaper publisher Francisco P. Ramirez and others from the city, El Monte and San Gabriel, were left out due to time and the inclement weather, though a dinner, prepared by the Lafayette Hotel, was held at the “Los Angeles Garden.” After a sunset salute, some participants headed to El Monte for a “patriotic ball.”

Temple Theatre Castillo performances The_Los_Angeles_Semi_Weekly_News_Fri__Jan_26__1866_
News, 26 January 1866.

At the end of 1865 and for the first several months of the following year, a notable shift in use of the theater took place with the extended engagement of the troupe of Gerardo del Castillo, which was formed in the northern Mexican state Sonora and which included his acclaimed wife Amelia, who appears to have won the hearts of a great many Angelenos, Spanish-speaking or otherwise. The News in late January 1866 wrote that the couple “rank with the best performers in the State” and detailed Amelia’s attractiveness and talent, being “alone, well worthy of the price of admission.” Later, she was lionized for the fact that she “exhibited genuine talent in all parts of the play (La Gracia de Dios [The Grace of God]” which earned her a benefit in early March in which she performed in La Hija de los Flores [The Daughter of the Flowers].

About two weeks later, a benefit was tendered to Gerardo, who was praised in his “untiring exertions to amuse the public” and for the fact that he “spared no pains or expense, to make the City Hall an attractive place of amusement this winter.” A diverse conclave of citizens, including Ignacio Garcia (Temple’s former store manager), Alejandro Rendón (a barber who later opened a branch at the Workman Mill property), French artist Henri Penelon, Jewish merchant Samuel Prager, and future mayor Thomas Rowan, wrote a letter of praise to Gerardo, who responded with gratitude for the planning of the benefit tendered to him. A few weeks later, the company ended its lengthy and very well-received run.

Temple Theatre Congregational Church festival The_Los_Angeles_Semi_Weekly_News_Tue__Feb_4__1868_
News, 4 February 1868.

The last located example of a troupe performing at the venue was the McGinley company, which arrived from Arizona in May 1867 and then did a charity performance for the Southern Relief Fund at Wilmington. A benefit was tendered to Sarah McGinley “the deservedly popular danseuse and comic vocalist” on the 12th, followed by the Southern Relief Fund benefit show mentioned above, presumably with the company joining in the program. At the end of the year, Professor Charles Breton, a music teacher in the city, then in the early stages of its first significant period of growth, after years of stagnation or decline, that continued into the middle of the Seventies, organized a concert by his students. It was reported in the News that “the audience was so numerous that a large number was forced to stand up.” Highlighted among Breton’s students was Kate Hammel, daughter of Dr. William Hammel, and who was praised for having “a peculiarly rich and melodious voice.” Two other young women, the misses Edelman and Levy from well-known Jewish families, were given kudos for their singing, while two other girls were singled out for the pianistic talents.

The day after Christmas 1867, there was a “Grand Challenge Dance” at the theater between Johnny Diamond and Dan Taylor with “TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS aside and the Championship of California” at stake. A little over a month later, there was a concert by a Mr. Britton and Mr. Potter which “all lovers of good music should attend,” followed by the Congregational Church benefit noted earlier. With that, there was no further material found concerning the theater. Jonathan Temple died in late May 1866, having left Los Angeles for San Francisco, and the building was sold by the estate’s executor for $14,000 to Dr. John S. Griffin and Benjamin D. Wilson (the Temple Block to the north was purchased by F.P.F. Temple for $10,000) and the two quickly sold it to the county, which expanded the courtrooms where the theater space had been. The structure stood until the 1890s when it was razed for the construction of the Bullard Block, several years after a new Romanesque Court House was built nearby.

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