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LET’S GO DOWNTOWN AND SEE SOMETHING WEIRD

On any given Saturday around 1914, chances were you could pay a dime and watch performers do things on stage which demonstrated more self-delusion than discernible talent. To locals, Santa Rosa was a quiet little farmtown; to some vaudeville players it was another step towards a fantasy of theatrical glory.

That was the peak year for vaudeville in Santa Rosa with two stages downtown: The 700-seat Columbia at Third and B streets and the much smaller Rose Theater. With their big electrical marquees (lightbulbs, not neon) they were the brightest spots downtown after dark and the Rose drew particular attention with its animated lights, something never seen in town before.

Both presented shows with three or four vaudeville acts capped off with about a half hour of movies, such as a Bronco Billy western or a chapter from that wildly-popular new series with cliffhanger endings, “The Perils of Pauline.” Their playbills were also generally the same; someone sang popular songs, an acrobat or animal act performed stunts and a comedian barked out corny (and not infrequently, racist or ethnic) jokes. But there the similarity ended.

Whenever possible, the Columbia’s newspaper ad touted a performer’s popularity or that (s)he had just appeared at a San Francisco theater. All well and good until one looked closely; the acts who headlined here were usually near the bottom of a long bill when they played in the City, and “popular” was a tipoff that the act might be a Golden Oldie such as Harry Green, “the old man singer with the boy’s voice,” who had been trodding the boards for about forty years.

When they had no particular act to promote the Columbia ad would sometimes sniff, “No Amateurs Every Artist a Professional” which was a not-so-subtle dig at the Rose Theater, where nearly every evening was like an episode from The Gong Show. Mostly these were likely young people who were big hits at hometown parties where their friends told them, “oh, you should be on stage.” Well, sir, this was their shot at stardom.

One such act is seen at right: Alice Berry and Harry Wilhelm, “the doll comedienne and the Protean artist.” What the act consisted of is unclear; Alice was either a child or a little person, standing four feet tall. She sang while the tailcoatted Harry did…something. Every Friday the Press Democrat offered a little blurb about similar performers appearing at the theaters that week, and one can imagine the poor staff writer straining a muscle trying to say something nice about acts such as these:

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Gilbert Girard, “The World’s Greatest Animal and Instrumental Mimic”, will be heard in fifteen minutes of barnyard humor.
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The “Three Cycling Newmans”, featuring a boxing match on unicycles, will head the show.
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Biele & Girad, “The Englishman and the Swede,” have a great comedy act. There is nothing more comical than an ignorant Swede, and when they are ignorant, like the one in this case, it causes many comical situations, making the most solemn laugh.
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Madelyn Faye, violiniste, charmed everyone with her playing, which was much better than ordinary.
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This afternoon at one o’clock Dixon & Elliott’s hardware store on Fourth street will become the center of attraction when a subject will be hypnotized and started out riding a bicycle. He will continue riding until eight o’clock this evening, at which time he will be removed to the stage of the Columbia Theater, after having pedaled over five hundred miles.
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The Zimmerman Brothers, novelty whistlers, have an act that gives good variety to the bill and one that pleases the most critical.

The list of peculiarities goes on: Birdcallers, “rubber girl” contortionists, midget boxers and blackface “shouters,” plus a couple of acts which were apparently just young women doing calisthenics. A female comedy/musical sketch act called “the Seven Whitesides” made the front page of the Press Democrat not for its quality of entertainment but for the women soundly beating up their manager. Some performers had actual talent but were too unconventional for mainstream vaudeville; John C. Payne, “the double voiced man” was an African-American performing in an evening gown (“Mr. Payne’s natural voice is baritone, but he sings a beautiful soprano also and is considered a wonderful singer”).

Mainstays at the Rose were the animal acts. The theater hosted Miss Livingstone’s skating bear, Captain Webb’s seals, a steady procession of dog and bird acts plus two “goat circuses” – Ogle’s Goat Circus in January, 1913 and Sander’s Goat Circus at the end of the same year. Now, Gentle Reader is probably pondering deep questions such as, “how many damn goat circuses were there?” And, “who would pay to see a goat circus?” And, “what did the little theater smell like afterward?” Notable in the publicity photo for Ogle’s is that the name “Prof. Kershner” was inartfully scratched out – thus Ogle bought a used goat act (and of course, that’s probably not Mr. Ogle in the picture). My guess is that Sanders in turn purchased the act after Ogle had enough of traveling with a herd of stinky goats. As for why audiences would attend, the PD noted, “Before the matinee this afternoon, it is announced, Mr. Sanders will throw away ten dollars to the children in front of the theatre.” Sad!

And then there was Roy Crone and his grizzly bear. Roy is high on the list of people from those days I would have liked to meet (he was introduced here earlier) because he went to Hollywood and eventually worked with Fred Astaire and Orson Welles on their most classic films. Back in 1913, however, he was manager of the Columbia Theater and taking a few weeks off to roam the low-rent vaudeville circuit with his 780-pound pet. Trouble was, he and his bear kept getting arrested.

Crone drove between gigs with the uncaged bear sitting in the backseat of his (presumably, large and sturdy) car. At least twice he was pulled over by cops for speeding and totally not because he was driving around with a seven-foot bear. Stopped outside of Merced, Deputy Sheriff Nicewonger was walking around to the passenger side of the car to write the ticket when the bear reached out and whacked him with a paw, knocking the officer down. “Rising to his feet. Nicewonger was about to commit bloody murder when Crone quieted the angry beast and pulled the deputy out of the danger zone,” reported The Stockton Mall. “The bear actually stood on his hind feet a few moments later and roared at the deputy sheriff.” A few weeks later the pair were in trouble again, this time in Chico both for speeding and “occupying an automobile in a street exhibition,” which probably meant the sight of a bear sitting in a car was stopping traffic.

The vaudeville scene in Santa Rosa slowly faded away after 1914. The Columbia mostly dropped it the following year and by 1916 the Rose was offering vaudeville only every other week. What happened to the performers?

A search of the old newspapers finds that most of the amateur wanna-be’s who played the Rose only lasted that season. Some of the has-been professionals who were at the Columbia continued drifting around small Bay Area theaters for awhile and a few can be spotted trying to reinvent themselves far away in the frontiers of Australia or British Columbia. Otherwise, if you weren’t good enough to be booked on a traveling circuit, what probably awaited you beyond Santa Rosa was Old West music halls in backwater towns, mining and logging camps without electricity and saloons with a small raised stage. Resorts like Fetter’s Hot Springs sometimes advertised they had vaudeville without naming any acts.

What killed vaudeville was the explosive growth of celebrity motion pictures. Now all that was needed to pack a theater was showing the latest movie by Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Ethel Barrymore and other stars; miss seeing the picture and miss out on part of the shared social experience – and not only with family and friends here, but with people you knew in distant towns.

As awful as it sometimes was, vaudeville was still live theater and it’s a shame it’s completely gone; lost was the tolerance for everyday people to entertain each other for an evening without expecting perfection. After all, if the novelty whistlers weren’t to your taste all you had to do and wait a few minutes until their act was over, and then out would come the violinist whose playing was much better than ordinary. Maybe you’d like that better.

Ogle’s Goat Circus

The Seven Whitesides present an office scene play, which leads into some good singing and dancing. All of the 875 people who attended last night’s entertainment were well pleased with the high class show.

– Press Democrat, November 22 1912
CHORUS GIRLS DO UP THE MANAGER
Lively Fracas When Soubrettes Think Their Cash is Likely to Go Aglooming

The fair members of a theatrical troupe, appearing In “vodvlll” in a local theatre Saturday night, were fearful, so they said, that their manager, a man, was not going to make a cash settlement with them and suspicious that possibly he might take an earlier train from town than they, made up their minds that they would have nothing of it. In consequence they demanded their pay. When their requests were met with refusal they started to take the law into their own hands, and goodness knows what they would have done to that manager had not the commotion in a down town apartment house, and a hasty call for a policeman, sent Police Officer I. N. Lindley hurrying to the scene. And “Ike” made some dash, too. At the time the officer came upon the scene, one of the girls was making a punching bag out of the manager, where another girl had left off. The girls of the troupe took all the money he had, fourteen dollars. He should have had much more, as the girls say they had a salary roll of eighteen dollars apiece coming to them. The manager was allowed to retire to his room for the night, and at an early hour Sunday morning the chorus girls were wondering how to divide up the fourteen dollars.

– Press Democrat, November 24 1912

 

SKATING BEAR IN ROSE VAUDEVILLE TONIGHT

Miss Livingstone and her trained bear will appear in tonight’s vaudeville at the Rose. This animal act, as previous ones, will win the favor of the Santa Rosa public. This performing bear waltzed, when seen by the management, which brought many rounds of applause.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 3, 1913

 

STRONG VAUDEVILLE BILL AT THE ROSE THEATER TONIGHT

A strong vaudeville bill of high class acts will be presented to the public at the Rose theater tonight, headed by Ogle’s Goat Circus. These goats are very highly valued, partly because there are very few performing goats in the state and through the long time patient training which has made them the greatest of all goat acts. The management announces this one of the highest salaried acts that they have ever secured. The children will be invited on the stage after the matinee tomorrow, to learn something of the training of goats and have a chance to pet their favorites.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 24, 1913
SANTA ROSAN IS ON VAUDEVILLE
Ray Crone Making Tour of Circuit With Tame Bear Act Which Has Taken Well

Ray Crone, the well known manager of the Columbia Amusement Co.’s local interests, is taking a few weeks off duty and touring the vaudeville circuit with an animal act of his own. Reports from points he has visited speak of the success of his work.

Mr. Crone is one of the best known young men of Santa Rosa owing to his work in connection with the Nickelodeon moving picture show house first, and afterwards with the Columbia theater and Theaterette, which were added one after the other to the activities of the firm, of which he is a part.

The success of the young man will be pleasing to his many friends here and in the bay cities. He has a trained bear, known as “John L. Sullivan,” which does a number of remarkable feature tricks which Mr. Crone has trained him to do. Animal feature in vaudeville always proves attractive to young and old and are in great demand by the booking agents. Frank Weston is here from San Francisco looking after the Amusement Company’s interest in the absence of Mr. Crone.

– Press Democrat, April 27 1913
CRONE AND BEAR CAUSE TROUBLE
Well Known Santa Rosan and His Trained Animal Arouse Much Interest at Stockton

Roy Crone, the well known Santa Rosan who Is making a tour of the vaudeville circuit with a large trained bear, is receiving some very flattering press notices. The Stockton Mail In speaking of his first performance In that city, says:

Bear Is Almost Human

Five bright new acts greeted the large Sunday crowds at the Garrick yesterday, and the show from start to finish was excellent in every respect. A remarkable exhibition of animal intelligence was displayed by John L. Sullivan, the world-famous educated bear. This is the largest bear ever seen on the stage and one of the largest in captivity. It stands over seven feet tall and weighs 780 pounds. The bear is well trained, and his trainer has complete control over him at all times. He performs a number of clever and amusing antics, the climax coming when some small boys attempt to ride him. One little chap succeeded in riding him, but the others were politely unseated by Mr. Bruin.

In an issue several days before he opened in Stockton the papers published a good story relative to Crone and his bear. The story in the Mall was as follows:

Bear Defends Master

To be knocked down by a blow from the paw of a big black bear which was sitting in the rear seat of an automobile, is the curious accident which happened to Deputy Sheriff Nicewonger yesterday afternoon. And, as a result of the collision with the hoof of Bruin, Deputy Nicewonger narrowly escaped serious injury. The blow, which was a glancing one, caught him on the right side of the neck, and was delivered with so much force that it unceremoniously floored the county official.

J. R. Crone, who is the owner of the bear, was en route from Merced with his hairy passenger in an automobile. Crone left Merced yesterday morning. As he was speeding along the highway between Rippon and Calla, Deputy Nicewonger happened to discover that Crone was exceeding the speed limit. He immediately hailed the man and his curious cargo. Crone stopped at once. Deputy Nicewonger read the ruling of the county ordinance and informed Crone that he was under arrest. Crone was about to give his name and address when Nicewonger, in order to secure the data, chased around to the right side of the machine. Just as the county highway guard was passing the rear seat the bear, with one vicious swoop, let fly with his paw. Deputy Nicewonger heeled over instantly. Rising to his feet. Nicewonger was about to commit bloody murder when Crone quieted the angry beast and pulled the deputy out of the danger zone. The bear actually stood on his hind feet a few moments later and roared at the deputy sheriff. This morning the deputy appeared before Justice Parker and secured a warrant for the arrest of Crone for encroaching upon the speed ordinance of the county. The bear, says Crone, is tame.

– Press Democrat, May 16 1913

 

CRONE AND HIS BEAR ARRESTED ONCE MORE

Friends of Ray Crone, former manager of the Columbia Theater will read the following with much amusement. Although the dispatch does not give Crone’s name he is known to be on the circuit through Chico and his bear was dubbed “John L.” The dispatch follows:

CHICO, July 13.–John L. Sullivan, a big grizzly bear used in a local theatre, was arrested last night by Policeman Field and booked with its owner on a charge of violating the city’s traffic ordinance. In police court the owner put up $20 bail to appear with the bear tomorrow. They were occupying an automobile in a street exhibition and the machine went too fast to suit the police. When the arrest was made the grizzly tried to escape, but was induced by the owner to go along to the police judge’s court.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 15, 1913

 

One thought on “LET’S GO DOWNTOWN AND SEE SOMETHING WEIRD

  1. Wow, this was so interesting! I love learning local history, and especially relating to performing arts. It seems the tradition has continued today, as Sonoma County has such a great comedy and arts scene, with many talented performers.

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