It’s Hallowe’en, that magical night when precious little children dress-up and… say, why are those kids carrying toolboxes and ropes?

As it turns out, trick or treaters today are pikers, compared to the hooligan that was your great-grandpa. A favorite prank in 1905 Santa Rosa was removing the gate from a house and hoisting it into a tree, but according to papers in other cities, bicycles and wagon wheels were also common. In Winnipeg, overachievers not only unloaded a wagon filled with grain and disassembled the vehicle, but put the wagon back together on top of a barn — and refilled it with the grain.

Wisconsin paper urged readers to tie down their gates and bring in their cabbage. Um, hide the cabbage? An item in the Nov. 1, 1901 Racine Daily Journal explained the local custom: “Crowds of boys and girls will supply themselves with cabbage stalks and start down any of the residence streets, and then the fun commences. The homes most conspicuous prove to be the targets, after the leader gives the signal to throw every person in the crowd hurls a cabbage stalk at the door. If cabbage stalks are not to be obtained it is a very easy matter to find a substitute. Dirt, old shoes, stones, or ‘any old thing’ will answer the purpose…”

Some newspapers in the early Twentieth Century even printed Hallowe’en death tolls, usually of pranksters shot to death after being mistaken for prowlers. Six were killed in 1904, including a “man mistaken for Hallowe’en dummy run down and killed by street car at Columbus, Ohio,” according to one casualty list.

Youths Taught a Lesson to be Less Reckless in Their Amusement

Almost a score of boys, some of them members of prominent families of this city, ended a Hallowe’en frolic by spending a few hours in jail at the city police station during Tuesday night. They were not content with the time honored frolic of removing gates but when they found one that did not come off its hinges readily it is charged that they just sawed it off and took a portion of the fence, too. They were very penitent when released from custody after confinement for a few hours and it is doubtful if they will ever do downright mischief on Hallow e’en [sic] and run too far away with the lenient view often taken that “boys will be boys.”

– Press Democrat, November 2, 1905

Chief of Police Gives Instruction to Enforce the Curfew Ordinance

Chief of Police Severson has given orders for the police to strictly enforce the curfew ordinance.

For some time the police have been a little lenient in this regard and boys have taken advantage of this and some damage to property has resulted. Now all minors who are caught out after the bell rings will be taken to the police station regardless of who they are or where they are going. Tuesday night about twenty offenders were locked up for several hours at the police station and before the matter is settled there will be a bill of damages to pay as the crowd destroyed a fence.

– Press Democrat, November 2, 1905

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Crime stories were the meat ‘n’ potatoes of old journalism, but newspapers in small quiet towns like Santa Rosa usually could only dish up leftovers reported on the wires from elsewhere. Thus it’s no surprise that the 1905 Press Democrat gave lots of ink and a hefty two-column headline to this ripping yarn of a local crime. Well, attempted crime.

As reported below, two strangers made a call on a Mrs. Dahlmier. While she was out of the room, the ladies snatched her jewelry (conveniently left in plain view). Discovering that her visitors were really thieves, the lady of the house brandished the family gun and demanded the crooks surrender the goods. A manhunt for the brigands followed, but was fruitless.

The crime described here was a bit unusual, but other forms of bunco — most often, fast-change trickery — were probably the second most common crimes of the day, just behind burglary. But mystery-story fans might be forgiven in thinking that many details in this story don’t ring true:

The callers arrive and leave in a rubber-tired cart with a particularly docile horse. It’s interesting that super-observant Mrs. Dahlmier noticed so many details about their ride, considering she was confronted on opening the door by two aggressive strangers speaking “in unison” while attempting to push their way inside. And about that getaway vehicle: The rubber tires are significant, given the poor state of both the 1905 roads and primitive tire technology; if the pair left town, they would have needed to stay on the main roads to Sebastopol, Healdsburg, or Sonoma, where police were undoubtedly on the lookout. Although the pair could have arrived in town on the train and rented the buggy locally, surely that stable owner would have provided more details about the mysterious women.

“Mrs. Mitchell” and “Mrs. Oliver” said they were from Hazel street, two short blocks away. Would real bunco artists have risked claiming that they lived so closely nearby? The maps of the day show that part of Santa Rosa was sparsely populated, with only about 25 houses in that immediate neighborhood (and curiously, only a single house with an address on Hazel street proper). It was great good luck for the con-artists to have targeted a woman who knew so little about her neighbors.

The Press Democrat described the Dahlmier home as a “cottage,” and the insurance maps show it was about 900 square feet. Even if it was decorated “too cute for any use,” as the visitors purred, it was still the modest home of a laborer and his wife, and thieves should have had low expectations of finding any valuable loot at all, much less a diamond ring lying in the open. The small scale of the place also meant that Mrs. Dahlmier was never more than a couple of steps away. Again, it was a lucky, lucky day for the robbers to find themselves alone in a room with expensive jewelry.

There are other nagging questions about Mrs. Dahlmier’s tale, including why she doffed her valuables in the first place. A piano player may take off loose-fitting bracelets or such, but rings don’t interfere with tickling the ivories, unless the jewelry is the size of a knuckle-busting Superbowl souvenir. It was also curious that the telephone operator failed to answer at that critical moment; how long did Dahlmier try to connect? Surely “Central” was taking a bathroom break or was otherwise briefly indisposed, and it would have been better to keep trying the phone than to dress and hike seven blocks to the place where her husband worked. This is not the same cool player who had gotten the drop on grifters a few moments before.

A few days later, a small item appeared in the Press Democrat reporting that there was nothing to report — no trace of the criminal pair was found. But even lacking a conclusion, there was an adventure (real or imagined) on that late summer’s day on the corner of Orange street and Sebastopol avenue. And the next day, Mrs. I-Have-No-First-Name Dahlmier got part of her name in the press, editor Finley filled a quarter-page of his newspaper with an original yarn, and readers were entertained with a tale of derring-do that sounded as if it was lifted from a dime novel, and probably was.

During Temporary Absence of Hostess They Steal Her Jewelry, But Are Made to Return Booty When She Holds Them Up Before They Leave the Parlor

After the experience she had on Thursday afternoon no one can charge Mrs. G. A. Dahlmier, wife of an electrician employed by the Santa Rosa Lighting Company, with being lacking in pluck and the possession of steady nerves when the demand is made.

At the Dahlmier residence, a pretty cottage at the corner of Orange street and Sebastopol avenue, on Thursday afternoon two women set the pace for a decided novelty in the etiquette of afternoon calls. In fact their exhibition of nerve was second only to that displayed by the lady who was their hostess for a few brief minutes. Here is the story in all its daring from the facts related by her:

About two o’clock in the afternoon Mrs. Dahlmier went to the front door in response to a ring of the bell. On opening the door she was confronted by two stylishly dressed, comely women, who had driven up to the house in a rubber-tired cart. They introduced themselves with the utmost affability, inquiring the name of the lady of the house, and in the same breath telling her that they were neighbors of hers, and that their names were “Mrs. Mitchell” and “Mrs. Oliver,” respectively.

“You know,” they said in unison, “we have been thinking of calling upon you for several days. We live on Hazel street, nearby, and as we are new arrivals here, we thought that we would get acquainted with our neighbors.”

Mrs. Dahlmier was pleased with the cordiality shown by her newly found neighbors, and hospitable woman that she is, she immediately invited her callers to come in. The invitation was accepted with apparent pleasure, and as the horse in the car was perfectly docile they did not tie him up.

The callers were shown into the best parlor and “Mrs. Mitchell” and “Mrs. Oliver” were soon complimenting the pretty furnishings of the room and the general appearance of the house. They thought everything was “too cute for any use.” Mrs. Dahlmier, who had been resting on the lounge before the ringing of the bell in another room, bethought herself that she should spruce up a bit, and excused herself for a few moments. Earlier in the day she had been playing the piano and had removed two valuable rings, one set in diamonds and the other an opal, and had laid them on a lace handkerchief on top of the instrument.

Before she retired to adjust her toilet she noticed that the rings and handkerchief were still where she had placed them. While in another room she heard one of the women walk over to the piano and run her hand idly up and down the keys. At the time she thought that evidently her guests were of the Bohemian cult and believed in making themselves perfectly at home even on the shortest of acquaintance. When she re-entered the parlor a glance at the piano showed her that rings and handkerchief were missing. Then the truth flashed upon her. Possibly she was entertaining not angels, but thieves, unawares.

“Why,” said she, with apparent concern, “I thought that I had left my rings and handkerchief on the piano. I must have been mistaken. Oh, yes, I know, I left them on a shelf in the china closet. Pray excuse me ladies just a moment.”

Mrs. Dahlmier says that her mission to the china closet was not with the idea of looking for her jewelry. It was to get the big pistol. It was unloaded ’tis true, but she thought that it would accomplish what she desired. It will be seen that it did.

Returning to the parlor she did not address her newly-made friends with the same gentleness of bearing and voice. She just said this:

“One of you women has taken my rings and handkerchief, and you have got to give them up before you leave here.” At the same moment she leveled the dangerous looking revolver at her guests.

“Mrs. Mitchell” and “Mrs. Oliver” at once rose to the occasion and essayed to back away from the range of this pistol.

“Don’t move a step. If you do, I will kill you. I mean it,” said the plucky little woman. “You just give me back my rings and handkerchief.”

At this she toyed with the trigger as if she meant business. Without further parleying one of the women, cute “Mrs. Oliver” slipped her hand into her shirtwaist and produced the rings and handkerchief. Mrs. Dahlmier grabbed her property and the women dashed out of the house and jumped nimbly into the cart and drove away.

For some moments Mrs. Dahlmier says that she was so scared she did not know what to do. When she recovered her composure she ran to the telephone to call the police, but for some reason could not get an answer from “central” at the time. She dressed herself and came up town to tell her husband and her mother. When the officers were informed no trace of the well-dressed strangers could be found. All night a close watch was kept for women answering the description of Mrs. Dahlmier’s callers. She says the women were elegantly dressed. One wore a blue silk dress and the other a plaid silk. Both wore big, black hats and veils.

Whether these woman thieves made other calls Thursday afternoon was not ascertained. During their conversation with Mrs. Dahlmier they asked her the names of other “neighbors” and evinced a desire to avail themselves of the pleasure of making themselves known to them also. The plan of campaign they adopt in the role of the light-fingered is certainly a neat one. But they had better cut their calling list short in the City of Roses now. They won’t be admitted into other houses on any such pretenses as the one that gained for them a short welcome at the corner of Orange street and Sebastopol avenue. Future callers, in the guise of “neighbors” will be more closely scrutinized by Mrs. Dahlmier than were Madames Mitchell and Oliver on Thursday afternoon.

– Press Democrat, September 22, 1905

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Like most things nostalgic, vaudeville in the earliest part of the 20th century has an undeserved glamor. Being a performer at that time was almost exactly like being a traveling salesman, endlessly trudging from town to town — but instead of selling nostrums and notions, you peddled songs, dances, recitations, or acrobatic dogs. It was a life of mostly tedium, enduring hours (or days) passing from place to place on a train (or wagon). But for anyone who could tell a good joke, whistle, or otherwise had a pinch of talent, it offered a chance to get away from the farm and see a little bit of the world.

Vaudeville was very much an industry. While the “industrial product” was entertainment, there was a broad — and often, dysfunctional — network of support services to aid in distributing the goods. Performers relied upon special travel guides to help them survive on the road. Here’s a 1907 guide (don’t miss the commentaries often found with town listings, such as Elsinore Utah: “Do not play, except when compelled”), but later versions of these books provided far more practical detail about the towns, and included ads for friendly hotels, places to send their dirty laundry, and where to find cheap eats. Ads in these early equivalent to the “Lonely Planet” guides also promised to make beautiful costumes, wigs, electrical gizmos, or obtain a better agent than the son-of-a-bitch who booked your current tour of forlorn theatres, such as the Novelty in Santa Rosa where half the keys on the piano didn’t work.

Particularly in the first years of the Twentieth Century, the guidebooks also offered essential information about the feifdoms of vaudeville itself. It was a world in crazy transition; as discussed here earlier, the little circuits in Northern California that served a half-dozen local communities steadily were being gobbled up by outfits based out of San Francisco, and eventually those regional companies would likewise become sucked into the maw of the nationwide entertainment empires. The insecurity of this universe can be seen in a pair of 1905 Press Democrat articles, published just three days apart, about competing vaudeville companies. Like two prehistoric warring tribes, there was no lack of chest-thumping: “We of the Empire Amusement Co. have many nearby fields of battle” vs. “We of the Novelty Theatre Co. draw upon powerful warriors from the East.” Can’t we all just get along and go fight Beowulf?

(RIGHT: All you ever need to know about the low-end vaudeville acts that usually played Santa Rosa is summed up in the novelty act of Mr. and Mrs. Duke Melburn. He pounded the piano with his feet, as shown in this publicity photo that appeared in the Press Democrat, November 11, 1905, as she yodeled and sang “coon songs.” The Melburns might well have been popular entertainers at hometown parties, but their showbiz career apparently only lasted a few months. Click on image to enlarge)

Much otherwise is revealed about life in the trenches of vaudeville in this two-week sample of Press Democrat articles. With much hoopla, it was announced that nightly shows would be offered at the old, cavernous Athenaeum theatre. But only a few days later, the promoter abruptly backed out, citing low attendance. The PD was caught by surprise and printed a news story with the headline, “ATHENAEUM DARK: NO MORE VAUDEVILLE,” apparently forgetting that on Wednesdays, a different vaudeville troupe (and one which ran regular ads in their newspaper) still appeared. It should go without saying that the following day, editor Ernest L. Finley offered a rare correction for the premature death announcement of an advertiser.

Finley may have inadvertently played a role in manager Wolff’s abrupt cancellation after a single week. The same day that it was announced that Empire Amusement would be presenting shows here, a Press Democrat item reported that painters were busy touching up the “dingy woodwork” at the Athenaeum, “to keep everything as clean as possible.” And the day before the cancellation, Finley wrote an unusual op/ed where he mused about how poorly Santa Rosa’s main theatre had been managed. While he didn’t exactly say that it was smelly and wharf rats were running down the aisles, it was hardly an incitement to drop by the rickety old place. And to follow up that sideways compliment, he offered the same day another op/ed, basically declaring, “vaudeville sucks.” (Hmmm…maybe that “Athenaeum Dark: No More Vaudeville” item wasn’t a headline writer’s mistake, but Finley’s editorial imperative.)

And truthfully, the 21 year-old Athenaeum probably was a bit of a dump by then, as well as a vaudevillian nightmare. Built in 1884 to be Santa Rosa’s “opera house,” it looked more like a fortified brick warehouse, stretching between 4th and 5th along D Street. (The theatre was lost in the 1906 quake and fire, and today the 1911 Doyle Building, a white stone and masonry retail and office building, stands exactly in the same footprint, with the current stairs on 4th Street in the same location as the ones that once led to the box office.) With a single steam heater under stage right, the theatre that could seat up to 2,500 must have been frigid in the winter, just as it must have been stifling in summer with its small vent on the roof. For traveling plays and other shows with scenery, it was the only venue in town — but most vaudeville performers probably seemed tiny and lost on its 50-foot wide stage. As for conditions at Santa Rosa’s other vaudeville house, see above, re: piano.

This posting ends with a rare critical review of a show at the Novelty Theatre. Normally in 1905, the Press Democrat ran an advance blurb (“the Novelty has a good bill this week…”) and followed up with a few perfunctory comments on the opening night (“the Southern Quartette made a hit and were several times encored”). The review here includes details of the acts and even a glimpse of heckling from the audience. It’s also revealing that there was obviously no proofreading on this review; although typesetting errors are almost never found in this era of the Press Democrat, the original article had no less than three whoppers: a line of type missing, another in the wrong place, and another inserted backward — evidence that Ernest Finley’s didn’t care anything about vaudeville, even when it appeared in his own paper.


The second vaudeville theatre is to open in Santa Rosa Monday evening, March 6. The Empire Amusement Co., which has a circuit of theatres including San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Fresno, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego, Pasadena, Bakersfield, Portland, Seattle, Salem, Astoria, and Tacoma, recently leased the Athenaeum and will give two performances nightly of high class vaudeville…there will be a show every evening except when the Athenaeum is in use by a traveling company, or on Wednesday nights, when the big playhouse is leased by the Great Western Vaudeville company.

– Press Democrat, March 4, 1905
Interesting Interview With Theo. Rothschild, Who Tells Growth Being Made by the Novelty Theatre Company

Theo. Rothschild, Secretary and Treasurer of the Novelty Theatre Company, is in town and will remain a few days. Mr. Rothschild says he has some great surprises in store for the Santa Rosa patrons of the Novelty. “From now on we are going to put in shows direct from Fischer’s Theatre,” said Mr. Rothschild yesterday. “You will have feature acts that command from $150 to $300 per week for one act alone. This is more than many competitors pay for their entire show.”

“Very few theatres can obtain the top notch talent we now handle,” said Mr. Rothschild. “They have to pick up an act here and there and are glad to get anything that comes along — acts that have played around the bay for years. Our acts come direct from the East and Europe and are the cream of vaudeville features. We book them for fifty-two consecutive weeks and pay them the highest salaries according to their ability.

“I have lately returned from the north and we have affiliated with the S. Morten Cohn circuit, making an addition of the following houses…Small store shows are now out of date and all our new houses are modern theatres, suitable for any combination that may come along.

“The Novelty Theatre’s circuit, The Tony Lubelski’s circuit and the S. Morten Cohn circuit, have affiliated and are now one, making the largest and strongest circuit in the U.S.,” continued Mr. Rothschild…The shows we will put on in Santa Rosa from week to week from now on will be a revelation to the Novelty patrons; each week will excel the other.”

– Press Democrat, March 7, 1905

The only reason the Athenaeum playhouse did not pay under the old management was because it was not managed. It just ran itself. When a company came along and wanted to play here, somebody could usually be found who had the authority to sign up a contract, though not always, but the other fellow had to furnish his own contract and generally his own ink. This was nobody’s fault, particularly, because the gentlemen entrusted with handling such matters had their own affairs to look out for, and with them theatricals were merely a side issue. A good man, paid for it and with nothing else to do, could have gone after money-making attractions, and owing to our location on the map practically everything that goes to Sacramento could have been secured for this city. Nobody can point to the time where a first-class attraction came here and did not have a good house. But the show business is like everything else — one has to rustle to make it a success, and that is why the present management will probably be able to make the thing “go,” where the old company could not. And happily we are to get something besides vaudeville once in a while under the present arrangement, for when a traveling aggregation wants the boards, the local stars will allow themselves to temporarily go into eclipse.

– Press Democrat editorial, March 12, 1905
Santa Rosa seems destined to “get her fill” of vaudeville from this time on. With three shows every night of the week, to say nothing of those given on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and an occasional holiday thrown in, the public craving for that sort of thing certainly ought to be satisfied in time. The whole country seems to be going vaudeville crazy. As for me, give me a good old-fashioned “show” every time, with a “change of bill” whenever it strikes the fancy of some advance man to bring a new company to town and a repertoire running all the way from “Yon Yonson” to Robert Downing or to Ward, Kidder & James, as fate and the weather permit.

– Press Democrat editorial, March 12, 1905

William Wolfe, who leased the Athenaeum for a year and last week began a series of vaudeville entertainments, has discontinued the latter owing to lack of patronage. Last night the place was dark. There are two stories out regarding Mr. Wolfe’s intentions for the future, one being to the effect that he will retain the lease and seek to bring legitimate attractions here about twice a week, and the other that he will throw up his lease and retire from the local theatrical field at once. When he leased the big local playhouse, Mr. Wolfe paid the first month’s rent in advance, and paid all salaries in full Saturday night. Mr. Wolfe is the lessee of the Hill Opera House at Petaluma, and was formerly in the business at Sacramento, where he is said to have been very successful.

– Press Democrat, March 14, 1905

The headline used in connection with an article published in these columns yesterday morning and which stated that there would be no more vaudeville at the Athenaeum, may have created a wrong impression with some. While Mr. Wolfe has discontinued his every night show, the Great Western Vaudeville company will appear as usual every Wednesday evening, and will continue to give a first-class performance with a complete change of bill weekly.


– Press Democrat, March 15, 1905

Brief Resume of What That Popular Playhouse Offers This Week

In spite of the free Tyndall lecture at the Athenaeum, there was a large attendance at the Novelty theatre last evening.

One of the features of the new bill was a performance by Frederic La Delie, fantastic wonder worker. As Frederic stepped on the stage he was greeted with a number of jocular remarks, such as “Aaint he a rare old bird?” etc., but he didn’t mind a bit. He filled the bill and among other things produced pink rabbits, guinea pigs, pigeons and all kinds of poultry in regulation style. His make-up may have been a bit fantastic, but his stunts were good.

W. Ed Woodward’s illustrated song, “The Voice of the Hudson,” was well rendered, and received with the usual hearty round of applause.

The Adams Brothers, billed as comedy acrobats, singers and dancers, are acrobats without the singing and dancing — at least they gave none last night. One Adams appeared in a tomato red uniform — part drum major and part bell boy. The other appeared as a Mongolian, in a suit of blue [line missing] and in the rough-and-tumble the Adams Brothers got very careless with each other. The act ended with a free-for-all game of leap frog over, under, and all around each other, much to the amusement of the audience.

After Mrs. Lansing’s overture Annie Abbott, the little Georgia Magnet, or lady of mystery, gave a very clever performance. Her feats of magnetism are well done and mystify everybody. She brought down more than her share of applause, from an audience that was at first skeptical, then interested, and finally enthusiastic.

The moving pictures by Toby Yost were good. The first series, “The Joys of Matrimony,” depicted a domestic scene of tranquility; a family row; the ejection of the mother-in-law by [line of type inserted backwards] wife revived by a shower from a seltzer bottle. The second depicted a steeple chase, and a very realistic one it was, with accidents and an exciting finish.

– Press Democrat, September 26, 1905

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