What you see above is the ruins of the Orpheum Theatre in the aftermath of the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which happened on April 18 of that year. The Orpheum was the birthplace of the great west coast Orpheum vaudeville circuit founded by Martin Beck and Morris Meyerfeld, and whose name comes down to us in the form of Radio-Keith-Orpheum…RKO.
Every theatre in town was destroyed that day, including several owned by Sid Grauman. Several performers from these annals happened to be in town that day, as well. Blackface** performer Artie Hall was killed in a collapsed theatre. Others who were there but escaped unscathed included Blossom Seeley (a San Francisco native who was discovered by Grauman) Enrico Caruso, John Barrymore, Fatty Arbuckle (then working the Pantages), Leon Errol (who’d only gotten to town the day before and was playing in a burlesque operetta), Joe E. Brown (then playing at the Haymarket Theatre with the Five Marvelous Ashtons), and, a few days later, Al Jolson. Jolson remained in the city for months, entertaining as many of the displaced, traumatized citizens as he could, often for free. Here is where Jolson’s legendary dynamism first made itself manifest, honing the act for which he would become famous. It was here that he first uttered the words “you ain’t seen nothing yet” – a ritual at every performance for the next 44 years.
To experience the Hollywood version of what those performers went through that awful day, you might want to watch the 1936 MGM film San Francisco which takes us in and out of the Barbary Coast saloon world (and its variety entertainment) as well as the Nob Hill opera world. Among the vaudevillian treats in the film are a group of African-American performers doing a period-accurate cakewalk (for some background on that dance go here), as well as cast members Edgar Kennedy (a San Francisco native who’d actually been in San Francisco on the day of the real life quake), Al Shean of Gallagher and Shean (and the Marx Bros.’ uncle) as a German orchestra conductor, and Ted Healy, the Three Stooges’ old boss, as a vaudeville performer. The film contains some hair-raising action sequences, many of which were directed by D.W. Griffith. Star Jeanette MacDonald got her start as a child singing in Ned Wayburn revues.
The requisite soap opera plot preceding the disaster concerns the struggle of three men for the heart (and immortal soul) of MacDonald: saloon-keeper Clark Gable, Catholic priest Spencer Tracy; and old time Western star Jack Holt as an opera impresario. In the end the entire cast, arm-in-arm, cheerfully sings “Glory, Glory Halleluiah” as the city burns to ashes in front of them. I know that’s just what I’d do!
ALSO! Very interesting addendum: our new friend David Kiehn of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum made history a few years back when he properly identified the Miles Brothers’ 1906 film A Trip Down Market Street as having been shot in San Francisco FOUR DAYS PRIOR to the catastrophe, making it a priceless record of the old city before it was destroyed. View it at the Library of Congress site here.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.