Pretend that you live in a town – say, 1906 Santa Rosa – that suffered a major disaster – say, an earthquake that killed scores of people and left the downtown in rubble. A few weeks pass and you’re worn down by mourning and stress and just plain bored. So what could you do for fun?
The town went roller skate crazy when a very nice skating rink opened that summer, and seemingly everyone in town turned out to whirl around the rink or to watch experts perform (there was a gallery that could seat a thousand, and professionals appeared regularly). But there’s not much variety to the sport, and Santa Rosans were accustomed to being entertained. Before the quake, there were two theaters: The cavernous Athenaeum, where plays and stage shows were performed, and the Novelty Theatre, which presented Gong-Show quality vaudeville acts. Both were destroyed in the disaster.
The first post-quake playhouse was The Hub Theatre, which apparently opened its doors in September with an address of simply, “Main st.” It’s difficult to determine where it was, because the two blocks of Main between Courthouse Square and Sonoma avenue were almost completely flattened; it was probably in a long, narrow building that had been used to store buggies, and is now part of the site of the Roxy Stadium 14 movie theater (quite a nice coincidence, that).
At first, The Hub offered more cheesy vaudeville acts such as “Marco the Boy Magician,” and “Flood and Hayes, Renowned Trick Jumpers.” But it wasn’t long before the shtick variety programs were replaced by plays performed by the Columbia Stock Company, Al Richter, manager. They offered a new play every week, with three evening shows and a matinee. By early 1907, the ensemble had become the Al Richter Stock Company, with performances seven evenings a week plus a Sunday matinee, which was probably more of a dress rehearsal.
It’s no small feat to assemble an acting troupe, and Mr. Richter must have been an interesting character with boundless energy. But Orson Welles he was not, and the plays he presented were hardly cutting edge Ibsen. The newest play I can find advertised was about 8 years old at the time, and the oldest predated the Civil War. These were farces and potboilers, with titles such as, “The Moonshiners”, “Wanted, A Baby!”, “Too Much Mother-In-Law”, and “Nugget Nell, or the Pet of Poker Flat.” These early-to-mid Victorian era plays often leaned heavily on ugly racial cliches; villains or comic characters might include a “drunken Indian,” a “giddy Celestial,” a “lazy Colored servant,” which meant that the Richter Stock Company made heavy use of burnt cork, yellow and red paint along with demeaning and crude dialect. One week Mr. Orrin Shear was playing “Johnson, Colored Gentlemen” in their production of “Little Alabama,” and a few weeks later portraying “Ratts, the slave auctioneer” in “The Octoroon.”
Entertainment options bloomed in 1907, with vaudeville acts at the new Empire Theatre on Third street, a few doors down from the ruined courthouse. There was also the Star Nickelodeon at 414 Fourth street showing continuous motion pictures. And just before Thanksgiving, Al Richter opened his new Richter Theatre on the
northwest southwest corner of B and Third street (currently a pitiful grassy knoll outside the mall, across from Wells Fargo). On the first anniversary of the Richter Stock Company that autumn, Press Democrat editor Earnest Finley wrote an approving commentary: “Nearly all of [the productions] were good, and some indeed excellent. The players as well as the plays have been of superior character, and the prices have been much less than were formerly paid for entertainment not so good.”
But all was not sunny that year for Al Richter. Theodore (T. T.) Overton, brother and business partner of Santa Rosa’s mayor and one of the town’s movers and shakers, announced that he was going to build an even bigger theater and organize his own company of actors. The Press Democrat featured a drawing of “Santa Rosa’s New Theatre” (not reproduced here because of poor microfilm quality, but it can be found in the Feb. 26, 1907 edition) that would seat 700 and have a state-of-the-art design by architect Victor Dunkerley, who had just designed the jewel of the new Santa Rosa downtown, the Overton Hotel. The cathedral-like playhouse would have 10 exits that could be opened “with the throwing of a single lever in the box office, which would be a safeguard in case of fire or other cause which might induce a panic,” according to the announcement in The Republican. Surely the spectacle of ten doors flipping open at once would have been a powerful temptation for scalliwags to cry “fire” in a crowded theater.
That would have been intimidating competition for Richter, whose operation was showing signs it might be having money troubles. Attendance was apparently off; while still in the smaller Hub Theatre, the stage manager came out and urged the audience to patronize their homegrown productions because it was, after all, a local business, and everyone in town was doing their darndest to shop locally. Another hint at desperation was that Al Richter rented space for building and painting new sets “to give the people a new set of scenery each week as the bill changes at the theater.” Read between the lines and it appears that he was making copies of stage sets from a theatrical service in San Francisco in order to save rental costs.
It seems that this era of local theater ended in the spring of 1908, when it was announced that the Richter Theatre was henceforth a vaudeville house. “From the large and appreciative audience it would seem that the change was to the liking of the patrons,” The Press Democrat snarked on May 15. In the following months it would also serve as a movie house/nickelodeon and a week-long rental theater for traveling acting companies. Ads announced in September that there was a new manager at the theater, and it followed soon that it had been sold.
The new owner was Mr. Overton, who somehow had never gotten around to building his expensive and extravagant playhouse, although Santa Rosa was promised more than a year before that “the building [was] practically assured.” He hadn’t gotten around to founding his own acting company, either; maybe he was disappointed that he couldn’t get the Richter Stock Company as part of the deal.
THE DRAMA IN SANTA ROSA
Although Santa Rosa no longer has the good theater building that it had before the fire, the people who go to plays have been better entertained within the last year than ever before in the city’s history. Occasionally there was a good play at the Athenaeum; but, depending entirely upon road companies, that playhouse often billed shows that sounded the depths of inferiority. Since the Richter Stock Company has held the Hub theatre, to which little playhouse local theatre-goers have been compelled to journey by reason of the lack of a bigger and better one, fifty-two different productions have been presented, nearly all of which were good, and some indeed excellent. The players as well as the plays have been of superior character, and the prices have been much less than were formerly paid for entertainment not so good.
There have been no grand stage settings, no large orchestras, no spectacular extravaganzas. The entertainment has been chiefly light melodrama, considerably below the highest form of dramatic art, but far above the childish humor of the comedies so popular in even the “dramatic centers,” and even further still removed from the vulgar indecencies of suggestive pruriency idocy [sic] of the “slap-stick” variety.
The theatre is supposed to represent Art. The greatest critics lay down the law that poor art is also poor morals; and there can be no doubt that coon songs [sic], rag-time, slap-sticks and like abominations have an influence directly opposed to all that is best in both art and morals.
It is pleasing to know that before many months Santa Rosa will have a theatre better adapted to its purpose than is the Hub, and that the Hub’s company will tread the boards there with much better accessories for creditable productions. The old company in its new home should be one of the town’s “institutions.”– Press Democrat editorial, October 29, 1907
TOOK PROPERTY FROM THEATRE
Some time ago five pistols, part of the property of the stage manager of the Hub theatre, were stolen. Yesterday Chief of Police Rushmore and Police Officer Boyes placed a youth under arrest and charged with the theft. It seems that there is another youth concerned in the robbery, and he will be arrested today.– Press Democrat, January 23, 1907
THEATER FOR SANTA ROSA NOW PRACTICALLY ASSURED
Will Have Seating Capacity of Seven Hundred And Be Modern
Santa Rosa is practically assured of a handsome theater in the near future. Arrangements are now being made for the structure, which is to be constructed on Fifth street, opposite the Republican office. The news that T. T. Overton was contemplating the matter of providing an up-to-date playhouse for the City of Roses was recently given to the public in the columns of this paper and was pleasing news. The necessity for an opera house here is apparent to the most casual observer and the long time that has elapsed since the traveling companies from the east have visited this city makes people hunger for the good old times gone by when theatrical attractions in large numbers visited the city.
The theater planned for Mr. Overton by Architect Victor Dunkerley will have a seating capacity of seven hundred and five. Of this number four hundred will be accommodated in the main auditorium and three hundred and five in the balcony which is included in the plan.
Ten exits have been provided for the structure and all can be opened with the throwing of a single lever in the box office, which would be a safeguard in case of fire or other cause which might induce a panic. In construction and appurtenances the new structure will be up-to-date in every respect and fire escapes will be provided for the outside of the structure. The perspective is quite a handsome one, and on one side of the building will be the work “Music,” and on the other “Drama.”
Mr. Overton is organizing a stock company at present to handle the project with him and there has been a liberal response to the invitation to invest in the enterprise. Estimates of the cost of the structure prove that a liberal interest can be gained on the amount of coin to be invested and the building is practically assured.– Santa Rosa Republican, February 23, 1907
“THE OCTOROON” ALL RIGHT
Another Good Attraction Being Presented at the Hub Theatre
“The Octoroon,” which constitutes the attraction at the Hub Theatre this week is a strong play, and in the hands of the Al Richter Stock Company furnishes a fine evening’s entertainment. Not many patrons of the house will be apt to miss this week’s bill.
In his curtain announcement Monday evening, Stage Manager Harries made a point that seemed to find much favor with the local business men present. He called attention to the fact that while a traveling company might at times take a good deal of money out of town, a stock company such as that playing at the Hub was an entirely different proposition, practically all the money remaining here, and being spent each week among the local merchants. He urged a liberal patronage upon the part of the Santa Rosa business men for this reason.– Press Democrat, April 9, 1907
RUSHING WORK ON “THE RICHTER”
Carpenters are rapidly rushing the work on “The Richter,” Santa Rosa’s new theater, and Manager Al Richter declared he will have the prettiest and cozziest [sic] little playhouse that Santa Rosa has ever seen. It will be neat in the extreme, and seat about 550 people…– Santa Rosa Republican, December 11, 1907
RICHTER IS MAKING SCENERY
Opens Special Paintshop for Benefit of Local Theatre
Manager Al Richter of the Richter theater is going into the scenery painting business on a large scale for the next few months. He has leased the room formerly occupied by Davis drug store on Fifth street and has transferred the place into a veritable paint shop, where he can work on the scenery for the theater. He expects to be very busy for the next three months and until such time as he can get stocked up with scenery.
It is Mr. Richter’s plan to give the people a new set of scenery each week as the bill changes at the theater, and to do this he will have considerable of a task as well as heavy expense. In order to hasten matters for the present he sent to the metropolis, where he secured a number of exterior sets and these are already on hand. Mr. Richter is an enterprising man and is determined to make the productions at the Richter equal to the best there are.– Santa Rosa Republican, January 17, 1908