BURBANK FOLLIES, PART IV

Over his sixty years, Luther Burbank likely never suffered a month as dreadful as those days spanning New Year 1910.

       
THE BURBANK FOLLIES SERIES

These articles cover Luther Burbank’s association with the Carnegie Institution, which awarded him a subsidy of $10,000 a year “for so long a time as may be mutually agreeable.” The grant began in 1905 and continued through 1909.

Part one explains the significance of the grant and why Burbank was such a controversial figure at the time. Also introduced here is Dr. George Shull, a noted botanist sent by the Institution to study and document Burbank’s methods.

Part two explores Dr. Shull’s relationship with Burbank, whom he found mostly uncooperative. Shull discovered his work was scientifically worthless as Burbank kept few notes – a failure that led to Burbank’s reputation being tarnished in the embarrassing “Wonderberry” dispute.

Part three describes Dr. Shull’s dismay in 1907 to find competition for Burbank’s attention with researchers from the Cree Publishing Company, which had contracted with Burbank to create a ten volume encyclopedia about his work. This section also covers the short-lived plans by Petaluma’s George P. McNear and others to create a Burbank Institute.

Events in 1909 that probably contributed to the termination of his grant are discussed in “Selling Luther Burbank“, including the appearance of Oscar Binner as his new publisher and publicist, plus the short-lived deal for distribution of Burbank products with the controversial brothers Herbert and Dr. Hartland Law.

The dark times began in mid-December of 1909 when his mother died. It was not unexpected – she was 96 and in failing health – but her passing was still a heavy blow; “she had been her son’s constant companion and throughout the years the devotion of one to the other was marked,” the Press Democrat noted in her obituary. She had lived with him or in a house next door his entire life, except for a brief period when he first moved to California. It must have been a lonely Christmas without her in his big house on Tupper street.

Barely a week after her funeral, Burbank found reporters on his doorstep. A San Francisco newspaper had published a rumor that Burbank had lost his $10,000 annuity from the Carnegie Institution. We don’t know which paper published the original story, but in wire service summaries it was stated that the Institution allegedly disliked his “commercialism,” and specifically didn’t approve of the deal he had made with the Law brothers to form a distribution company. The Santa Rosa Republican asked Burbank if any of this was true; “he replied that he had not heard of anything of the kind and felt certain there was nothing in the story published.”

Then on January 16, 1910 – a month and a day after the death of his beloved mother – the New York Times printed the most damning story on Burbank that had ever appeared in a major American newspaper. Headlined “Doubts Cast on Burbank Wizardry,” the article began,

Scientists and Government officials are beginning to examine with a good deal of attention the schemes to which the name of Luther Burbank, the so-called “plant wizard,” has been lent.

Mr. Burbank’s varieties of vegetable, plants and flowers have been exploited for years in the press as standing marvels. He has not hesitated to call them his creations and he has received scientific recognition of the highest character by an annual grant of $10,000 for ten years from the Carnegie Institution to enable him to continue his experiments.

But lately his claims have met with a good deal of criticism…

“Burbank, to my mind, is just a sharp Yankee seedsman,” the Times quoted Dr. B. T. Galloway, Chief of the Washington Bureau of Plant Industry. “Too many of the men who really made great discoveries in the horticultural world died in the poorhouse, for me to be willing to see a man get such renown with so little solid basis for it.”

The paper rehashed at some length a controversy from the previous summer when an English gardening magazine and The Rural New Yorker (“an agricultural publication of high standing”) declared Burbank’s “Wonderberry” was a variety of nightshade that most gardeners considered a weed. The NY Times also brought up Burbank’s non-creation of the thornless “Burbank Cactus” and cast doubt that it was the world-changing discovery Burbank claimed.

“But putting aside the question of the merit of Mr. Burbank’s plants,” the article continued, “scientists feel that of late he has permitted himself to be exploited commercially in a way contrary to scientific ethics.” The article denounced the “lurid advertising” of the New South Farm and Home Company, which was selling farmland in central Florida that Burbank had supposedly attested was perfect for growing his cactus at great profit. Burbank apparently had no connection at all with those land promoters, although their ads quoted letters he had written about general Florida agricultural conditions out of context and used his signature in the ad to make it appear he had endorsed this specific project. The Times apparently did not seek comment from Burbank, making their criticism about any ethical failures on his part less stabbing.

Burbank telegraphed his response to the Times the following day. “I am exploited, whether willing or not, and very much against my own wishes,” he wrote, curiously not denying an endorsement of New South Farm and Home. “Does it pay to exploit commercially a proposition which does not stand on a sound basis of character and value?” He also copied a description of the cactus from his catalog, pointing out that while non-prickly cacti existed in nature, his invention was “absolutely thornless.”

Burbank’s letter to the New York Times continued:

It was mutually agreed upon and fully understood, both by the Carnegie Institution and myself, that I should have the privilege of supplementing their inadequate annual aid towards the continuance of my experiments by the sale of my productions as before.

I am now past sixty years of age, have done good work, and no one is dependent upon my efforts. The grant brought with it more care, responsibility, correspondence, and visitors and a full crop of envy and jealousy, and but for the advice of friends I should have dissolved my connection with the institution last year.

Those comments were remarkable because here was Burbank apparently confirming important news – that the rumors were true and he had lost the prestigious grant that served as the bedrock of his scientific legitimacy. The Times’ editor didn’t seem to know what to do with this admission; Burbank’s letter was published as a stand-alone article with the preface that “it was also noted that Mr. Burbank is in the receipt of an annual grant of $10,000 for ten years from the Carnegie Institution that he may pursue his scientific studies unhampered by lack of funds.”

In fact, Institution president Robert S. Woodward had sent Burbank a letter more than three weeks earlier, notifying him that the Board of Trustees had voted to “discontinue subsidies in aid of your horticultural work. It is unnecessary here to set forth the reasons which have led to this action…The probability of such action was also indicated to you in the summer of 1908 on the occasion of my last visit to you. While personally regretting the necessity for this termination of our relations, there appears to be no other course open to the Institution.”1

Thus Burbank’s endowment had ended exactly when the San Francisco paper had published its story about the rumored cancellation. Burbank had lied to the Republican reporter when he said it wasn’t true. Or maybe not; what he actually told the Santa Rosa paper was “he had not heard of anything of the kind.” The official letter from Washington D.C. could not have reached him by that time, and while presumably president Woodward would have telegraphed Burbank promptly after the decision had been made, we don’t know that. It’s certainly possible someone among the anti-Burbank faction on the Carnegie board rushed to leak the embarrassing news to the press before he actually received notice.

The day after Burbank’s letter to the New York Times was published, newspapers everywhere reported that his deal with the Carnegie Institution was terminated – again, this was over three weeks after the Board voted. Like other papers, the Press Democrat excerpted sections of his letter-to-the-editor as if it were Burbank’s press release (and he might well have distributed it as such). To its discredit, the San Francisco Call cut-and-pasted the letter to make it appear to be an interview under the headline “Burbank Discusses Institute’s Action.” Worse, the Call paired the “I am exploited” sentence with a reference to his deal with the Law brothers, removing it completely from the original NY Times context about land scammers in Florida. Not the golden age of journalism that was.

The churlishness apparent in Burbank’s comments must have shocked all but his most devoted admirers. What he dismissed as “their inadequate annual aid” works out to over a quarter million dollars in today’s money – hardly a trivial sum. For those in the public who revered him as a “wizard” here was another all-too-human Burbank, with self-pity and bitterness seeping from his words.

Burbank’s comments left the impression the grant requirements were a burden and great imposition, but we now know that he did little and was uncooperative, even sometimes hostile to researcher Shull (see parts 2 and 3 of this series). In the termination letter Woodward also wrote he expected Shull be able to wind up his report, and Burbank responded, “I shall try to aid Dr. Shull in recorrecting the dictation which I have been giving him the last five years.”2 When Shull returned to Santa Rosa, however, he found Burbank even more intractable‎ and insisting he was too busy. Shull wrote to Woodward, “He says he has no income now, and that his time is worth $500-$600 an hour.”3 In the end, Dr. Shull was able to complete only one small paper which described Burbank’s experiments with rhubarb.

It’s telling that Burbank called the Carnegie grant his lost “income.” He evidently misunderstood it to be an entitlement – a public benefactor’s thanks for years of good works and encouragement for him to continue doing what he was doing. It also seems he failed to understand the advancement-of-science mission of the Carnegie Institution. Asked to provide a summary of his work in 1908 for the Institution’s yearbook, Burbank submitted four pages of hyperbole and descriptions that were more appropriate for advertisement copy.4  His thornless cactus was really popular and yields were amazing; he gushed,  “it means more than the discovery of a New Continent!!” His work was “a heavy burden personally, but to the great world it means a revolution, a new birth in agriculture, horticulture and biological research.” Needless to say, none of that ballyhoo made its way into the dry two paragraphs that appeared in the yearbook.

In Burbank’s defense, it has to be said that there was also a great deal of miscommunication between him and the Institution’s president Woodward. In the summer of 1908 – about a year and a half before the grant would be terminated – Woodward wrote to him in alarm:5

…I deem it imperative to state that a halt must be called upon all these operations if your connection with the institution is to continue.

I wrote you in December, 1904, and it is still my desire, to give you a free hand in your horticultural work and in the expenditure of the subsidies grated you, but it was assumed, of course, that in so doing the good name of the institution would be in no sense jeopardized. Now, however, that the institution is put on the defensive with regard to your connection with it, it is essential for me to point out that your entrance into other fields than those of horticulture, however much this may be desired by the irresponsible public, raises serious doubts as to whether your connection with the institution should continue…

Woodward was particularly concerned because he had received “a large mass of correspondence with regard to the projected institute to be founded in your honor.” Burbank promptly replied that his information was far out of date; he had nothing to do with the proposed local “Burbank College” and anyway, the idea never went very far and had been abandoned months ago.

The Institution was also greatly concerned about the ongoing work for a series of Burbank books supposedly being produced by Cree Publishing, then later Cree-Binner. Burbank repeatedly assured him it was apples and oranges; the other books were intended to be lightweight reading for the general public. When Burbank griped, “I have long been pained, surprised and disappointed that the Carnegie Institution has made no move” to present his work to “the clamoring public,” Woodward replied they had always planned to publish the “popular aspects of your work,” but were scared off when the guys from Cree showed up.6 This was news to Burbank; demerits to the Carnegie Institution for not making that clear way back in 1904, when the terms of the grant was negotiated.

Once the money was cancelled, Burbank did not comment upon it directly, aside from his disjointed letter to the New York Times with its odd swipe that the undoing was to be blamed on the “full crop of envy and jealousy” against him. But he was not quite ready to let the matter go.

Edward F. Bigelow, editor of “The Guide to Nature,” a monthly magazine published by a naturalist society based in Connecticut, inserted himself in the summer of 1910 between Burbank, “the grand, kindly-hearted man, beloved by all who knew him and especially by the school children of Santa Rosa” and “iron-hearted” Woodward (not that Bigelow had any bias). The published article offers snippets from letters written to him by both. Burbank seemed to be on a rampage to find out who was responsible for pulling the plug:

I would ask you plainly why do the Carnegie people refuse to give the full facts, I DEMAND them… I have never desired any publicity, and would always have greatly preferred private life except that it was necessary to mention my new creations in order to sell them to keep the work going; but I now desire publicity and lots of it. the more the better. I wish this thing dug to the very earth and the guilty parties exhibited to the light.

Woodward’s response was measured and polite (at least, until Bigelow apparently became strident). “You are certainly unaware of the thousand pages or more of history bearing on this subject filed in our office,” he replied, but declined to explain the reasons for the termination, “out of consideration for [Burbank] especially. [T]he history of our attempt to cooperate with him in his work should not be given to the public until after his death.” Nothing about it was further said, however, when Burbank died sixteen years later.

But the basis can be found in the minutes of the December, 1908 Board of Trustees meeting, when Burbank’s final year of financial support was approved. Andrew Carnegie spoke in support of Burbank, saying he wanted to “sustain Mr. Burbank in his work” for the benefit of mankind, not the advancement of science, and would even approve in an increase in the amount. Woodward agreed, but pointed out he was often asked “why we, as an institution, are subsidizing a faker.”  The Board resolved “it was desirous of seeing the work brought to an end.”7

While unlikely, it’s possible that Burbank could have stayed on the grant payroll for another few years, given his personal backing from Mr. Carnegie. But it is probably revealing the first reports of the cancellation mentioned Burbank’s association with the Law brothers; given Woodward was already concerned Burbank might be harming the “good name of the institution,” there was no way he could remain part of the Carnegie family if he had been associated with the scabrous Laws. In the end, Luther Burbank lost his lucrative deal with the Carnegie Institution not because of a cabal of enemies, but because of bad decisions by the guy he saw every morning in the mirror.

NOTES:

1Unpublished correspondence December 27, 1909; archives of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA
2Unpublished correspondence January 12, 1910; archives of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA
3Peter Dreyer, A Gardener Touched With Genius (Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA), 1985, pg. 180
4Unpublished correspondence September 29, 1909; archives of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA
5Unpublished correspondence August 4, 1908; archives of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA
6Unpublished correspondence August 15 and September 22, 1908; archives of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA
7Dreyer, pg. 173

LUTHER BURBANK’S MOTHER DIES HERE LAST NIGHT
The woman who gave Luther Burbank to the world is dead.

Deeply loved and revered by the immediate members of her family and highly esteemed by a large circle of friends, Mrs. Olive Ross Burbank entered into rest at a quarter past five o’clock Wednesday evening at her son’s residence on Santa Rosa avenue. Her life span lacked but three years and four months of being one hundred years.

The end came so peacefully that it was just a lengthening of the unconsciousness into which she had fallen some days previously and an awakening again in a land where time is not measured by years and where people never grow old or infirm.

Almost up to a week ago Mrs. Burbank was able to take some walking exercise in the garden about the house. She had commenced to show signs of failing, some eight or ten years ago, however. At the close of life came the final breakdown of the system and accompanying pain and suffering, which was relieved by the coming of the silent messenger and the touch that brought peace, winging the spirit of the loved mother and friend to the realms above.

Born in Massachusetts

Mrs. Olive Ross Burbank was born in Sterling, Mass., on April 7, 1813. She came of rugged scotch ancestry. In 1845 she was married to Samuel Walter Burbank and they lived at Lancaster, Mass. Her husband died in 1868. Of the union five children were born, three of whom survive. The latter are Luther Burbank of this city, Alfred Burbank of Riverside county, and Mrs. Emma Burbank Beeson, recently of this city, and Healdsburg, and now of Point Richmond. A stepson is Daniel Burbank of Petaluma.

Makes Home With Son

It was in 1877 that Mrs. Burbank came to Santa Rosa, two years after her son, Luther Burbank, had made his home here. Since that time she had been her son’s constant companion and throughout the years the devotion of one to the other was marked. She was deeply interested in his work in the creation of new fruits and flowers and each of his successes meant just so much joy for her. She used to smile as she related how when he was a mere baby Luther had a love for flowers, even to the extent that his tears would turn to laughter if a flower was pressed into his baby hands.

Mrs. Burbank was a remarkably active woman. She has friends here who remember when she first moved to Santa Rosa. Then despite the fact that she was seventy-five years of age, by her looks and actions she could easily have passed for fifty. She was always kind and solicitous for others. “Mother’s Birthday” will no longer be celebrated as it has been for many years at the Burbank home on each recurring April 7. They were red letter days in the Burbank household. Her room in the Burbank household was where the summer’s sun lingered longest, and where through the open window the sweet perfume of the Santa Rosa rose and the other of her son’s flower creations could come.

Some Reminiscences

In the little school Mrs. Burbank attended in Massachusetts she had as a classmate the little girl who was the “Mary” giving the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” It was to that school that the lamb followed Mary.

Mrs. Burbank was over six years old and attending school when the late Queen Victoria was born.

Interment at Sebastopol

The funeral will most likely take place on Friday afternoon at one o’clock from the residence and the interment will be in the family plot in Sebastopol cemetery. The funeral will be strictly private.

– Press Democrat, December 16, 1909

NOTHING TO WIERD STORY
Frisco Paper Says Support is Withdrawn

A San Francisco paper of Wednesday has a long rambling story purporting to give the action of the trustees of the Carnegie Institute, in which it is declared the institute has decided to withdraw the financial support guaranteed to Luther Burbank of this city.

Mr. Burbank has never heard of such a matter, and it is hardly probably that there is anything to such a wierd [sic] story. When asked by a REPUBLICAN representative concerning the matter Wednesday afternoon, he replied that he had not heard of anything of the kind and felt certain there was nothing in the story published.

The work which Mr. Burbank  is doing is far too important to humanity for the Carnegie Institute to withdraw its support, especially as it was pledged for a specific number of years. This institute does not do things in that manner, and it is an improbable story given to the public.

The cause assigned for the withdrawal of the support of the institute was the commercialism of the work carried on by Mr. Burbank. It is a well known fact that the amount of financial aid which the institute has given him annually is more than expended in carrying on the thousands of experiments which he has underway. For this reason Mr. Burbank sells the rights to new species which he creates. It is declared in the article published that the company formed by the Law Brothers for the exploitation of Mr. Burbank’s works is responsible for the alleged withdrawal.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 29, 1909

CARNEGIE AID HAS BEEN WITHDRAWN
Luther Burbank Confirms the Report–Idea of “Commercialism” Old Not Exist in Understanding

Some time ago the report was mentioned that the Carnegie Institution has withdrawn its financial aid towards the development of Luther Burbank’s experiments. The appropriation was $10,000 a year. Mr. Burbank has confirmed the withdrawal of the support and in an interview wired to the New York Times on Monday had this to say of the matter, regarding the announcement that the withdrawal had been because of “commercialism” in the disposal of products:

“It was mutually agreed upon and fully understood, both by the Carnegie Institution and myself, that I should have the privilege of supplementing their inadequate annual aid towards the continuance of my experiments by the sale of my productions as before.

“Am now past sixty years of age, have done good work, and no one is dependent upon my efforts.

“The grant brought with it more care, responsibility, correspondence, and visitors and a full crop of envy and jealousy, and but for the advice of friends I should have dissolved my connection with the institution last year.

“Personally, I have no desire for wealth or fame, a thirst for these is the root of may evils. My ambition has been to leave the world better for having passed this way. To be misjudged is a passing trifle, to have lost a life of honest, earnest labor is a tragedy.”

– Press Democrat, January 19, 1910

CARNEGIE SURPRISED AT WITHDRAWAL OF AID

The newspaper interviews at Del Monte on Thursday Andrew Carnegie stated that he was surprised at the announcement some time since that the Carnegie Institution had withdrawn its financial aid to the research work done by Luther Burbank. He said that while he did not usually interfere in the conduct of the business of the Institution he would inquire into the Burbank matter.

– Press Democrat, March 12, 1910

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WHEN THE MOVIES CAME TO SANTA ROSA

Want to take the pulse of a town in the early 20th century? Just look at its movie theaters. The more the theaters, the greater the population; the better the theaters, the greater the investment in the community’s future. You can guess the hour most residents got up in the morning by when the marquee lights were turned off at night, and the people in matinee seats revealed much about who was idle during the day. In Santa Rosa, improvements in movie theaters also neatly followed the arc of the downtown’s evolution; what was before 1906 mostly men’s territory (via the shoulder-to-shoulder saloons, cigar stores, and the two block red light district) was yielding to businesses more welcoming to women and families.

At the time of the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake, there was only one place showing movies: The Novelty Theatre, which used the short, clumsy films (read a sample description) as a break from the  low-rent vaudeville acts that appeared on its dinky stage. After the disaster more than a year passed before Santa Rosa had another place showing moving pictures, which is a bit surprising, considering the barrer to entry was so low – little more was needed to set up business than a projector, a whitewashed wall, and optional piano player.

In mid-1907 the Empire Theatre opened but despite its grand name, it was just another storefront converted into a vaudeville/moving pictures theater. The place almost crashed and burned immediately – literally – in Santa Rosa’s most horrific moment since the earthquake.

On its second night of business, a movie was being shown when the projectionist dropped the hot tip of a carbon lamp onto the pile of highly flammable celluloid film. It burst into flame with a terrifying flash, instantly setting the projector aflame and burning the projectionist. The audience panicked and rushed for the single exit. “Women screamed and one fainted and narrowly escaped being trampled underfoot,” reported the Press Democrat. “Several boys were knocked down and more or less bruised.” Except for the fright, it was a small blaze that the fire department put out with a “few bucketfuls of water.” As the shaken audience milled outside, one of the owners appealed for their sympathy: “You people have all been through an earthquake and fire and know what it means. We put everything we had into this little venture, and now the most of it has gone up in smoke. We propose to stay right here, though, and will have things running again tomorrow night just as if nothing had happened.” He was heartily cheered, according to the PD, but the place was jinxed; it did reopen but soon faded (judging by the disappearance of newspaper ads).

In its stead a few months later arose the Star Nickelodeon, a couple of blocks down at 414 Fourth Street. No vaudeville stage this time; it boasted only “continuous performance” of moving pictures and admission for 5¢ in keeping with its name. There was also no piano; as the Press Democrat described, “Its music is ‘canned music’ it is true, but that gigantic phonograph and its horn as big as all the horns in a big brass band, can give the finest sort of music in the finest sort of style.”

Also in flux were the live entertainment offerings at this time. Before the earthquake, the cavernous Athenaeum, which could seat up to 2,500, was rented out to touring companies and vaudeville bills. After it was quake-flattened in 1906, the Hub Theatre opened a few months later and offered the same sort of terrible vaudeville acts as had played earlier at the Novelty (also destroyed by the quake). Soon the Hub was offering plays performed by the homegrown Al Richter stock company, and it wasn’t long before Richter opened his own Richter Theatre on the corner of B and Third street, where his troupe offered a new play every week (see earlier article). That lasted about a year, and the Richter became a vaudeville house just as the Santa Rosa entertainment scene was about to undergo a turnaround. 

If you were reading the Santa Rosa papers from out of town – or, say, from more than a hundred years in the future – there was little clue that something unusual happened in June, 1908. Okay, another movie house, the Theaterette, opened at 507 Fourth street; just another pop-up in a storefront, probably, like the late, lamentably flammable Empire. But a couple of months later the trade newspaper Billboard flagged much was different:


The writer was in Santa Rosa this week and was positively surprised to note that this pretty city of only 10,000 inhabitants supports two handsome nickelodeons. Both are under the same management, the Columbia Amusement Co. composed of J. R. Crone, E. Crone and F. T. Martins. These enterprising men came from San Francisco and established their first one and were so successful that they opened the second one called Theaterette, which is second to none in this state. It is a beautiful affair with art glass, onyx mirrors and beautiful paintings to make an attractive front.

In short, it was the opposite from the Empire Theatre situation in every way. Instead of newbies taking a fling at running a movie house, it was an already-established business expanding and spending coin to make the place appealing. And all of this was possible because the theaters were now controlled by the Columbia Amusement Company, one of the largest theater chains in the nation. In the East and Midwest, Columbia used their theaters to present their own traveling programs of “clean-enough” burlesque; in the West, they staked out their territory by controlling vaudeville theaters and movie houses. (Since nickelodeon programs changed several times a week, they also probably managed film distribution, but that’s a guess – not much has been written about Columbia’s activities in the West.)

Columbia’s investment in Santa Rosa extended to its own print advertising, stepping on toes of the newspapers. Each Friday a four-page “Weekly Show News” appeared in local mailboxes, giving the upcoming weekly program for the two theaters along with blurbs for the films and other entertainment news.

With the Nickelodeon and Theaterette changing their hour-long programs every two days (sometimes a special show on Sunday), Santa Rosans could now catch up to 24 short moving pictures a week. When the silver-coated curtains parted, the screens would glow with overacted melodramas (including the first films from legendary director D. W. Griffith), riotous comedies, and sometime in the months around Easter, always a somber Passion Play for which they charged extra. They presented a three-part version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with two of the chapters flipped, so Santa Rosa audiences watched Tom die followed by the events leading up to his demise. Think of it as the Pulp Fiction version of the story.

Columbia Amusement completed its monopoly on Santa Rosa’s entertainment when it took over the Richter a year later, renaming it the Columbia Theater. Again they spent heavily on showy improvements aimed at drawing ever larger audiences: “The entire front of the building is outlined with electric bulbs,” reported the PD, “and a real electric sign will extend out over the corner walk so as to show on Third, Fourth, and Fifth streets for blocks in either direction.”

With its big hall that could seat about 700 – as many people as the Nickelodeon and Theaterette combined – the Columbia Theater could be used for anything: vaudeville, lectures and speeches by famous people, featured movies, traveling stage shows (charging up to $1.50 for the best seats), even amateur talent dramatic productions of the sort Al Richter used to present. As this wasn’t Columbia’s only venue in town, they wouldn’t lose money by letting the theater remain idle for weeks if there was nothing in the offing. But usually they could find someone who wanted to put on a show. For local singers they charged a dime admission, or free with a coupon from a sister movie house. Among the warblers who performed on their stage was Olney Pedigo; I’ll bet his odd name caused some childhood misery – although none were probably still snickering years later when he became the Sonoma County Auditor.

Thus marks the end of the first chapter of Santa Rosa’s movie history (with the footnote that in 1910 The Elite Theater operated briefly on Fourth Street, “Pictures Changed Daily,” which reeks of desperation). Chapter two begins with the 1916 opening of The Cline, the most famous of early Santa Rosa movie palaces.

Gentle Reader may be bored to yoinks by some of this minutiae (hey, did you know that the Theatrette walls and ceiling were pressed steel?) but it has real purpose. First, all local histories garble these names and/or dates, and the latter particularly needs to be accurate if movie house evolution can be viewed as a barometer for a community’s overall prosperity. Second, the continuing investment into Santa Rosa by Columbia Amusement, a non-local company, cannot be understated; over three years they continued acquiring and improving their holdings because they obviously believed there was growing potential for profit. That leads to the big question: Does the era of Columbia’s expansion also mark the turning point where the town finally lost its feral Wild West temperament and emerged as a housebroken 20th century metropolis? It may be significant to note that Columbia’s second wave of investment soon followed the 1908 repeal of legal prostitution in Santa Rosa and the third (and largest) investment came in 1909 shortly after the town finally closed the red light district just a couple of blocks from the Columbia Theater.

But as always, there’s a believe-it-or-not angle. The secretary of the Columbia Amusement Company here in Santa Rosa was one J. R. (“Raymond”) Crone. He moved to Hollywood sometime around 1916, and years later, climbed the ladder to become the top production manager at RKO. There he was the studio’s final authority on the schedules and budgets for most of the great 1930s Fred Astaire classics, Bringing Up Baby, and a little film called Citizen Kane. There’s an anecdote passed down about his early involvement with Orson Welles, who originally planned to develop Heart of Darkness as his first screenplay. Welles’ script called for the characters to ride a train through the jungle. “Do you know what it would cost us to build a locomotive for that purpose?” Asked Raymond Crone. When told of the incredible expense, the unfazed Welles agreed to compromise: “We’ll make it a hand cart.”

WILL REMODEL THE THEATER
Will Have New Front and a Larger Stage

The Columbia Amusement Company, the new proprietors of the Richter theater, will shortly begin the remodeling of that play house. They expect to spend the sum of $50000 in making the theater modern and up-to-date and will arrange the same so it will be far superior to its present condition.

Among the improvements contemplated is a large stage, so large traveling road shows can be better accommodated on their trips to this city, and so extravaganzas and companies carrying a good many people can put on their shows without hindrance or being overly crowded. A new entrance is to be constructed, an entirely new front will be placed in the theater, and a new gallery will be built.

When these contemplated improvements have been carried out Santa Rosa will have a modern and up-to-date theater.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 7, 1909

RICHTER’S CURTAIN RISES NEVERMORE
Popular Playhouse, Now a Thing of the Past, Closes with the Latest New York Sensation, “The Devil”

No more will Virtue and Vice contend in the footlight’s glare at the Richter theatre. The villain will no longer pursue the helpless damsel to the edge of the paper precipice in that temple of Thespis; and the hero, accustomed to step from behind a set tree and perform his work of rescue to the applause of appreciative gallery gods, will no longer delight his admirers at the Richter. For the Richter theatre is to be closed today, and completely remodeled. When it is rebuilt it will be finer and large, and it will be named “The Columbia.” Until we have the Columbia we must go without the drama, or we must go elsewhere to be thrilled…

– Press Democrat, April 20, 1909


NEW COLUMBIA THEATRE WILL OPEN ON THURSDAY
Many Improvements in Santa Rosa’s Playhouse

Work has progressed so far in the rehabilitation of the old Richter Theater that the Columbia Amusement Co., which now has the lease, announces that it will be reopened as the Columbia next Thursday evening. It is one of the neatest play houses north of San Francisco. The entire inside has been remodeled and handsomely decorated and new opera chairs are being installed.

The new front is practically completed and presents a very showy and inviting appearance. The entire front of the building is outlined with electric bulbs, with several clusters, and a real electric sign will extend out over the corner walk so as to show on Third, Fourth, and Fifth streets for blocks in either direction. There is a double front entrance with the ticket window between, while separate entrances are provided on each side for the gallery.

The gallery has been extended forward into a semicircle and the ceiling angled so as to give good ventilation. The changes here are marked and will grow very popular to all who sit with the “gods.”

The stage has been deepened six feet and the “fly gallery” added so that none of the scenery will be in the way on the stage floor. A new drop curtain is being painted, while entire new scenery is being made ready for the opening next week.

The companies playing in the Columbia will be provided with new and commodious dressing rooms under the stage. The stage entrance from Fifth street is so arranged that trunks and baggage can be dropped down into the dressing rooms or taken right on the stage, if desired, with little difficulty. The stage door from the auditorium has been done away with, and the only entrance to the stage is from Fifth street.

Musical comedy will be placed on the boards for four nights in the week for a run of twenty weeks, with a change of program twice a week. There will also be some vaudeville and road shows booked whenever good ones can be secured. It is the purpose of the management to conduct a first-rate play house at popular prices.

– Press Democrat, June 18, 1909

“The Nickelodeon”

“The Nickelodeon,” which is the new hall of entertainment on Fourth street, has opened to a good business, and the large crowds in attendance have departed well pleased with a nickel’s worth of fun that overflows the measure. The moving picture machine works well and its views are good ones, well selected. Its music is “canned music” it is true, but that gigantic phonograph and its horn as big as all the horns in a big brass band, can give the finest sort of music in the finest sort of style. Children, especially, find the Nickelodeon a delight, and there are matinees for them today, tomorrow and next day. But there are many children larger grown in the audiences, and they, too, are pleased with the performances.

– Press Democrat, September 5, 1907

FIRE CAUSES PANIC AT THE EMPIRE THEATRE LAST NIGHT
People Make a Lively Scramble for Exits

The second performance at the Empire Theatre in the Ridgway block of Third street had just commenced last night when a fire scare threw the audience into a wild panic. There was a mad scramble for the doors, chairs and benches were smashed, women screamed and one fainted and narrowly escaped being trampled underfoot. Several boys were knocked down and more or less bruised. The theatre was crowded, and above the din arose the shouts of the cooler ones telling people to sit down and be quiet, that there was no danger. But few heeded the advice, and not until they found themselves out in the open air and gazing up at the small blaze that had broken out in the front of the building just to the right of the entrance did those present realize that their excitements had been all unnecessary.

The panic started when a sudden flash of flame shot out from the moving picture gallery in the rear of the auditorium above and just to the right of the entrance. The fire was caused by the operator of the picture machine accidentally dropping a hot carbon point into the box of films under the machine. These firms are made of celluloid and are almost as inflammable as powder. The flash which followed completely destroyed the machine, consumed the films, singed the hair and clothing of the operator and set fire to the woodwork of the office and the small gallery above from which it was finally communicated to the window frames outside. When the fire department arrived, the flames were quickly extinguished with a few bucketfuls of water.

In the excitement a number of ladies dropped their purses, wraps, etc. These were recovered by the management as quickly as possible, and returned to the owners, one of the men in charge mounting a box outside and announcing a list of articles found. When he had finished the distribution, he made an impromptu address which went something like this:

“You people have all been through an earthquake and fire and know what it means. We put everything we had into this little venture, and now the most of it has gone up in smoke. We propose to stay right here, though, and will have things running again tomorrow night just as if nothing had happened. If you wil give us a helping hand we will come out all right.” He was heartily cheered when he finished his few remarks and stepped down from his improvised platform.

One of the women patrons and quietly removed her shoe after being seated on account of a corn. When the excitement began she did not stop to recover it and when she started home it was with one shoe on and one shoe off.

The damage to the theatre proper was trivial. The loss to the Empire management will amount to several hundred dollars.

– Press Democrat, June 16, 1907

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1908 WRAPUP

This survey of the 1908 Santa Rosa newspapers concludes with 94 articles, a tie with the momentous year of 1906 when the town struggled back to its feet after the great earthquake and fire. That’s no surprise because In some ways, 1908 was a more notable year; the immolation of the “hoodoo” car received greater national media attention than the disaster had two years before, and judging by search engine hits today, more people are interested in the 1908 tomfoolery of the squeedunks than the scandal of Santa Rosa’s shenanigans with cash and food donations after the quake.

Most significantly, 1908 was the year that Santa Rosa’s future was cast. It was Teddy Roosevelt’s last year as president, and a wave of political activism swept over America with cities such as San Francisco seeking to root out corruption and improve conditions. Here the local municipal elections became a referendum on whether Santa Rosa would maintain its status quo – as a town awash in saloons with a thriving underground economy of gambling and prostitution – or whether it would aspire to evolve into a more cosmopolitan Bay Area community.

One side of the ballot represented the Old Guard – primarily bankers and the men who owned most of the prime downtown real estate – who were being challenged by a coalition of reformers: Prohibitionists, voters deeply upset that the City Council recently had legalized Nevada-style prostitution, and progressives seeking to rid the city of political “bosses.” The reformers lost, but only after the town’s Democratic and Republican parties united to create a keep-the-status-quo “fusion” ticket, and after the fusion’s mayoral candidate played a political dirty trick on the morning of the election, promising something he wouldn’t (and couldn’t) deliver. And it didn’t help that the reformers were hammered ceaselessly in the Press Democrat by PD editor and Chamber of Commerce president Ernest L. Finley.

As both sides had vowed, the new City Council struck down the ordinance that had legalized prostitution, but with enforcement under the Old Guard’s control, the repeal had little teeth; only two brothels closed in the red light district. The trade just resumed operating as it had for the forty years prior to its brief legalization, again outlawed but sanctioned and hidden in the open, just two blocks from the courthouse. And the city was again raking in fines from illegal sales of liquor in the houses, and presumably resuming the monthly de facto arrests of the women for vagrancy to collect a steady income in fines.

Second place for the story with the most coverage in the 1908 Santa Rosa newspapers was the squeedunks’ preparation for the Rose Carnival. It was reported as a series of running gags that had a new development almost every day, such as the competition over which of the guys would be crowned “queen.” But the top story of the year in both papers was the construction of the Saturday Afternoon Clubhouse. It was newsworthy because it was so unusual in that era for a woman’s group anywhere to incorporate, purchase land and build a clubhouse, and important to local social scene because it provided the town with a meeting hall that could be rented by the public. Every detail of the planning and construction was reported in detail, and once it was finished, little items kept dribbling out that mentioned who had plastered the walls or wired the place for electricity.

For Mattie and James Wyatt Oates, 1908 was a year likely filled with melancholy and gratification. There was the wedding of Anna May Bell, the young woman whom the Oates’ clearly cherished as if she were their own daughter. In a string of blowout engagement parties in Santa Rosa, 200 guests crowded into (what would become known as) Comstock House, making it probably the largest party ever held here. That year Wyatt’s famed Civil War vet brother William C. Oates visited his baby brother for the last time. And Wyatt and Mattie together were instrumental in the building of the Saturday Afternoon Clubhouse, he incorporating the group and she as chairman of the building committee. Wyatt, who had developed an obsession for automobiles, purchased his first car, and the garage at Comstock House was surely built soon after. Other than that, it was a quiet year; they were rarely mentioned in the newspapers. Mattie visited a couple of friends and held a card party for the Married Ladies’ Club at her home. A small item on the front page of the Santa Rosa Republican that July read, “Judge James W. Oates has a neat little sign on his door, which reads: ‘Gone fishing: back Tuesday.'”

And finally, this was the year the Comstock family arrived, which could make my 374 blog posts preceding that announcement one of the most long-winded intros to a story since Wagner’s operas.

It has taken me a calendar year to cover a historic year (once again), but I’m not as chagrined by this fact as before. My 1908 articles are generally longer and more deeply researched than previous years, thanks in part to the greater availability of online newspaper archives. I’ve also wandered farther afield to explore national issues that may not have much local significance for 1908, but will have growing importance in the times that followed, such as the xenophobic worry about Japanese spies preparing for a U.S. invasion and the beginnings of the “Red Scare” mania with false reports about terrorist attacks committed by anarchists and organized labor.

Having already read through the 1909 newspapers, I’ve encountered a couple of stories that present ethical challenges. It’s been my policy to not write about suicides; the papers at the time usually provided lurid details about that person’s death, and no one Googling Great-Grandma Gertie’s name should have to stumble upon an item describing her agonizing last minutes from having swallowed carbolic acid. But there are lots of other kinds of skeletons in closets hidden.

One concerns a local woman who died of an illegal abortion. This was more common in that era than you might think; when paging through the 1906 Register of Deaths looking for additional earthquake casualties, I came across another one in Santa Rosa. I feel it’s an important historical story to retell – particularly given the present debate over the issue – but would it would be appropriate to republish her name as it appeared in the papers, abbreviate it to her initials, or use a pseudonym? Complicating the issue further, her tombstone in the Rural Cemetery has an epitaph that takes on a new poignant meaning, knowing how she died.

The other case involves a revered family that has a direct ancestor convicted of murder. Apparently this deed was long ago scrubbed from family histories, and I believe the only way anyone could know about it is by stumbling across it as I did, reading scratched unindexed microfilm. There’s nothing newsworthy about the murder itself, aside from the genealogical significance of the murderer. Do I not write about it, deciding that the story falls under the “Googling Granny” rule? Or do I first ask the family for permission? The latter may seem like the high road, but it’s now a large clan, and I doubt there would be consensus. And that route crashes into establishing an absurd precedent of expecting to obtain a family or institutional O.K. before writing about any type of controversial historical material.

What would you do? Comments most welcome.

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