Dear PG&E: We need to talk. I think you’re aware (dimly, maybe?) everybody hates you. It’s not just because of the deaths and the places that burned up, or even how the recent shutoffs revealed you can’t even keep a website running, much less handle the power grid. No, it’s not just neglecting to do your job properly; you’ve been behaving badly for over a century including a hot mess of corporate malfeasance. Maybe you’re hoping we’ll patch things up after your bankruptcy and jury trial over the Tubbs Fire, but not this time – we want you to get out. Let someone else run the show. Sincerely, Northern California.

Pacific Gas & Electric has a history that deserves a spot in the Hall of Infamy somewhere between the tobacco companies and the railroads. The next time you’re hanging with friends, ask each to crawl down memory lane and recall a news story about the company. Someone will surely bring up when eight were killed in the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion; auditors found PG&E had slashed the pipeline maintenance budget in order to award fat bonuses to the CEO and executives. (Afterwards, they spent tens of million$ on ads touting the company’s high commitment to safety.) An older friend might remember their mad plan to build a nuclear power plant at Bodega Head which they were determined to do even after it was discovered the San Andreas Fault ran directly through the site. There’s plenty more stories to share because the list of outrages goes on and on and on. Okay, one more: PG&E used a loophole to siphon over a billion dollars from a state fund for affordable housing. And on and on. Okay, one more: Diablo Canyon was the only nuclear power plant which generated electricity not with fuel rods, but by throwing dollars down a black hole. (And by the way, PG&E will soon sock customers with a $1.6 billion bill to pay for decommissioning the place, despite repeated promises that it was paid for in advance.) And on.

Aside from rage against dumb schemes like Bodega Head, most pushback against PG&E over the last 75 years has concerned rate increases, and came from the same pocketbook protectors who regularly manned the ramparts against taxes. But in 1952 there was a one-of-a-kind presentation given in Santa Rosa that exposed doings that the company did not want known. The Press Democrat and Argus-Courier offered more fact-filled editorials, letters and columns, and as a result the Sonoma county newspaper readers were likely the best informed people in the state that year.

The setting was a January 8 meeting at Santa Rosa’s Bellevue Grange Hall, in those years a popular place for holding meetings, monthly dances and other shindigs. Discussed that evening was PG&E’s proposed $37.6 million annual rate hike. (Inflation has gone up almost exactly 10x since then, so just add another zero on any dollar amounts discussed below.)

The speakers were Joe C. Lewis and Oliver O. Rands, both experts on hydroelectric power who knew how PG&E was making huge profits by reselling energy from the federal Central Valley system at a jaw-dropping 1,500 percent markup, buying it for only 0.4¢ per KWH and reselling it in Santa Rosa and elsewhere for about 6.5¢ per KWH. Yet the company still wanted a hefty rate hike.

Lewis was an ex-Assemblyman from Buttonwillow (best known to travelers on I-5 as, “hey look, there’s an exit for a town named Buttonwillow!”) and then the head of the “California Farm Research and Legislative Committee,” a grassroots organization representing hundreds of thousands of small farmers and farmworkers against agribusiness and PG&E/SoCal Edison. Rands was the federal Bureau of Reclamation chief overseeing the contracts providing ultra-cheap power to PG&E. As far as I can tell, this was the only time the two men appeared together to shine a spotlight on the monopoly’s practices.

PG&E’s argument(s) went something like this: Although the proposed rate hike will raise the average bill by 21 percent, that’s not a lot. Heck, some other power companies have doubled their rates in the last dozen years – thanks to our good management we’ve kept rates low. But we’re really paying a lot of taxes (more than half of all taxes collected in some counties!) and we’ve had to expand because of all the people who moved to California since the end of WWII. Our profits are way down and we might have to reduce the approx. 12% annual dividend we’ve paid our thousands of shareholders (fun fact: More women than men own stock!) this year. Also, we’re entitled to raise prices because we’re legally allowed to make a 5.8 percent profit under regulations, which makes this rate increase only fair.

Bullshit, said Lewis, Rands and the other PG&E critics. The true reason to hate PG&E in those years was because in all ways it acted more like a Fortune 500 company than a regional utility.

The company’s balance sheet was filled with hard-to-justify operating costs, starting with the president’s whopping base salary of over $107,000 – a shocking number back then, when average family income was $3,300 and a CEO typically only made 20x more than its workers (far more obscene today is that a major corporation CEO makes about 360x over the employees).

PG&E also paid over $1 million between 1949-1952 on lobbyists in Washington and Sacramento and spent lavishly to defeat ballot items it didn’t like. When Redding, which has its own municipal electric utility, held a 1949 referendum on buying energy directly from the Bureau of Reclamation, PG&E poured money into their small town politics (population 10,000) blocking the switch by spending $7 for every vote – and remember, multiply all these dollar amounts by ten.

But the most questionable item in its operation budget was “sales promotion,” which Lewis said totaled $2,100,000 in 1950. That did not include the cost of “PG&E Progress,” the chatty little newsletter sent to each customer in the same envelope as the monthly bill; much of that PR budget paid for large, expensive ads in newspapers and national magazines such as Life, Look, Time, Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest and similar. This was certainly a major reason why it’s so hard to find any scrutiny of PG&E in the press during the 1950s – publishers are always loathe to portray major advertisers in a bad light.

The national ads didn’t tout PG&E by name; the source was a trade group that identified the ad as being sponsored by “America’s Independent Electric Light and Power Companies.” Known in the industry as the “Electric Companies Advertising Program” (ECAP) it was among the top 100 national advertisers, spending $25 million in 1950. At various times there were about a hundred ±30 companies underwriting the program and we don’t know how much of their funding came from PG&E, but you can bet it was a greater chunk than all the pee-wee members such as the Conowingo Power Company of Elkton, Maryland.

The ECAP ads from the ’50s and ’60s are often campy fun, urging consumers to embrace “modern electric living” (which usually meant buying major appliances) and feel-good “world of tomorrow” stuff (a personal favorite is found at the end of this article). But there were other ad campaigns which were anything but fluffy PR.

Another type of their print ads (ECAP also sponsored popular network radio shows) brought scrutiny by crossing the line into lobbying, particularly by complaining the companies were being taxed unfairly. Since PG&E and the other companies claimed those ads as part of their operating expenses, they sometimes were investigated or sued over doing so – and it’s only thanks to legal documents about the issue (such as this one) do we know some of what was going on behind the curtain at ECAP.

Sometimes the ads changed the name to something like, “Investor-Owned Electric Light and Power Companies” as a reminder that some of the big companies like PG&E were ready to sell stock to non-customers. While their newsletter boasted that it was California owned, almost half of PG&E’s stock in 1952 was held by sixteen East Coast corporations, according to a PD columnist.

socialistic(RIGHT: 1950 ECAP ad calling public-owned utilities un-American)

At the Santa Rosa meeting Mr. Rands was clearly angered by a particularly despicable class of ECAP ads that attacked municipal power utilities as “socialistic poison.” He explained that PG&E not only didn’t like the competition, but wanted to conceal that towns such as Healdsburg had much lower rates because they could buy power directly from the Bureau of Reclamation at a fraction of the cost of other places in Sonoma county.

And finally, PG&E was even covering up why they really needed to increase prices – it was in order to pay for the $62M “Super Inch” natural gas pipeline from Arizona to Milpitas. Under federal regs they had to show they had the income to pay for building and maintaining this enormous project. Looking forward forty years, the pipeline would become national news in the 1990s, after Erin Brockovich exposed it had contaminated the groundwater in Hinkley, CA – another major PG&E scandal one of your friends might have recalled.

In the autumn of 1952 the Public Utilities Commission allowed PG&E to increase rates, but by 16% instead of the 21% they had insisted was needed. From the wire service reporting it appears the company’s inflated operating costs were not mentioned at the PUC hearing. (PG&E’s funding of ECAP did come up when they requested another rate increase in 1974.)

This is not the place to poke through all of PG&E’s dirty laundry from that era, although there’s no book or internet source that explores it (at least, none I’m aware of). Those wanting to know more will find the testimony of Robert Read and Louis Bartlett at the 1945 state water conference to be stimulating reading. This scarcity of background makes the 1952 coverage by the Press Democrat and Argus-Courier all the more extraordinary.

Credit where it’s due: Besides Lewis and Rands, we were educated by W. D. Mackay of the Los Angeles-based “Commercial Utility Service,” a watchdog group that sent letters to mayors and city attorneys about the gas pipeline. The Argus-Courier was apparently the only paper in the state that published the letter. In the Press Democrat solid information was provided by Ulla Bauers, the paper’s night editor and sometimes columnist. Because of him, we have a great Believe-it-or-Not! footnote: “Ulla Bauers” was the name of a dislikable minor character in the sci-fi DUNE universe who appears in a novella published in “The Road to Dune.” Author Frank Herbert worked at the PD 1949-1952, so the name can be no coincidence. Herbert also later wrote “The Santaroga Barrier,” a novel which takes place in a small California town where residents “appear maddeningly self-satisfied with their quaint, local lifestyle.”

1959 ECAP ad
1959 ECAP ad
1951 ECAP ad
1951 ECAP ad

TOP PHOTO: “Kitty” @blackksiren
PG&E ads:


“Letter Read to City Council” Argus-Courier, July 4, 1951

“P.G.&E. Rate Case Affects Interests Of All Santa Rosans” Press Democrat, December 7, 1951

“‘Unjustified’ PG&E Costs Reported in Rate Protest” Press Democrat, January 9, 1952

“Much of P.G.&E.’s Profits Are Drained Out to the East” Press Democrat, April 1, 1952

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Soprano Frieda Hempel in a 1919 tone test with "Edison's musical experts." Note that the blindfolds also cover their ears


The Press Democrat just helped solve a century-old mystery, and it’s all thanks to the paper’s laziness back in 1919.

This adventure begins just before Hallowe’en when a large ad began appearing in the PD promoting an appearance by a concert singer. “The music lovers of Santa Rosa will rejoice in the news that Miss Ida Gardner, the well known contralto, will sing in this city Thursday night November 6, at the Cline theater,” announced a related news item. The Cline was the most famous of early Santa Rosa movie palaces (it became the Roxy in 1935) and was a big, cavernous hall that also hosted vaudeville acts and traveling stage shows. What made this performance unique, however, was that tickets were free but could only be obtained from the Santa Rosa Furniture Company. Also, the ad noted cryptically, “Mr. Thomas A. Edison’s Three Million Dollar Phonograph will assist.”

A review appeared about a week after the concert: “Probably a number of people who attended the recital given Thursday night by Miss Ida Gardner and Mr. Lyman at the Cline Theater, were at first puzzled and disappointed when they discovered a phonograph cabinet occupying the center of the stage. They felt that they had been beguiled into going to hear a charming singer and a clever flutist and naturally thought they had been imposed upon.”

Flutist/Edison Company pitchman Harold Lyman came onstage and told the audience that he and Miss Gardner were going to demonstrate why Edison’s new record player was so terrific. “It finally became apparent that the phonograph was at least to receive assistance from the singer, but even then the mental outlook was not exactly bright.”

A record was placed on the turntable and Ida began to sing along. “She paused from time to time, apparently at random and permitted her re-created voice to be heard alone. This gave an opportunity to compare one with the other, and it is no more than just to state that there was no discernible difference in tone quality.”

idagardnerThe PD reported, “It was only by watching the singer’s lips that one could be sure when she sang and when she did not…This proof was very convincing. If it were not, another proof was offered. After Miss Gardner commenced to sing the lights were turned out – ostensibly so that the audience could not watch the singer’s lips.

“It did not seem difficult to determine in the dark when the singer sang and when she did not. The writer was pretty sure about it himself, [until the] lights were turned on again and it was discovered that Miss Gardner was not on the stage at all and that the new Edison alone had been heard.”

(RIGHT: Ida Gardner, c.1919)

Now, I’ll concede an Edison phonograph playing Edison records were considered state-of-the-art in the late 1910s, and the company’s sales brochure convincingly explained why it was technically superior to anything else on the market. Still, it had no electrical amplification nor speaker (aside from the wooden baffles in the cabinet); here’s a video of that exact model playing a record from that time and the only thing heard that sounds as if it could be realistic is the harmonica. We can also listen to an Ida Gardner recording made around that time played on modern equipment and even hearing past the scratches and surface noise – much of it probably due to the record being 100+ years old – it sounds as if she’s singing inside your coat closet. With the door closed. Behind the coats.

For the Press Democrat music critic to claim such a wind-up acoustic phonograph could sound exactly like a live performer is a pretty amazing testimonial. But (s)he was not alone; the Edison Company did about 4,000 of these “Tone Test” exhibitions in theaters and music stores around the country between 1915-1925 but I can’t find a single negative review in a newspaper or magazine. And before Edison, the Victor company was boasting as early as 1908 that it was impossible to tell the difference with their gear.

So what was going on? Was everybody lying, delusional, or was there some kind of trickery? To no surprise, academic types have been pondering this for decades.



I’m reminded one of my best college professors emphasized the need to completely sensitize yourself to any particular historical era before judging how people reacted to anything in the arts. During the 5th century BC two artists had a painting contest where one displayed painted grapes which looked so realistic that birds supposedly pecked at them. He challenged his rival to draw back the curtains and display his work, not realizing that curtain itself was a masterful painting. While ancient Greek murals and panels are astonishing works of art, our eyes today would never confuse their grapes and curtain paintings for real physical objects. In the world of music, people in the mid-18th century reacted strongly to hearing the unique Mannheim effects, such as instead of just playing loud, soft, or in between, an entire orchestra would slowly build a crescendo towards a loud and exciting climax. Audiences didn’t know what to make of those unfamiliar sounds and became agitated; women fainted and men jumped to their feet, shouting as they might have cheered on a horse race. Yet to our modern ears it’s…meh. The background classical music at your dentist’s office.

While it may seem absurd to consider today, it’s possible there were those who actually did believe these primitive phonographs sounded “real.” Americans were hearing less and less live music with every passing year; theaters like the Cline were booking fewer vaudeville acts as the public preferred to watch silent movies when going out for entertainment, and home musicians were finding the new jazzy pop music harder to plunk out on the piano in the parlor. Listening to recorded music was the new norm.1 If you’ve become acclimated to hearing music on a tabletop Victrola with its big metallic horn, that Edison floor model must have truly sounded phenomenal, particularly with the theater’s acoustics boosting its limited dynamic range.

Edison also gamed the Tone Tests in a couple of outrageous ways. Although the Press Democrat review claims the audience was very skeptical, the main job of Edison’s pitchman was to put the audience in a highly receptive mood, coaching them on what they should be listening for (and implicitly, the shortcomings they should be ignoring).2

We don’t know what was exactly said in these theater presentations, but Edison gave a strict set of instructions (“The Tone Test and Its Stage Setting”) to the dealerships on how to manage a showroom demo. There should be comfortable furniture (“mahogany, upholstered”), potted plants and “the best framed picture of Mr. Edison you can produce.” When the record begins playing, the listener is to stay “in the moment” for 45 seconds with eyes open. Then eyes should be closed for about a minute, then opened for 15 seconds (“but do not gaze at your surroundings”) then closed again until the record is over. The purpose of those eye exercises was supposedly to “shake off the influence of your surroundings,” although it sounds to me more like the mumbo-jumbo associated with another invention Edison was working on at the same time – a device which would communicate with the dead.

Soprano Frieda Hempel in a 1919 tone test with "Edison's musical experts." Note that the blindfolds also cover their ears
Soprano Frieda Hempel in a 1919 tone test with “Edison’s musical experts.” Note that the blindfolds also cover their ears


Edison also boasted that a roster of famous musicians were performing his Tone Tests but in practice, newspaper searches reveal his company mostly relied upon a handful of female singers of little renown. The woman who performed in Santa Rosa, Ida Gardner (real name: Ida Greason) apparently had no professional background at all aside from sometimes being a soloist in New York City churches. (UPDATE: A descendant wrote to clarify, “Her ‘lack of professional training’ was years of private lessons in New York followed by further study and professional engagements in Paris, France. She was on the last ship to sail out of Le Havre in 1914, to visit her family, hoping to return to Europe and take up a post at the Venice Opera. Because of the war, she instead went to work for Thomas Edison.”) Their talent lay in another direction, however: A kind of reverse mimesis, where they could imitate the sound of their own unnatural voice bleating from a mechanical record player. One of the singers confessed in an interview fifty years later:3

I remember I stood right beside the machine. The audience was there, and there was nobody on stage with me. The machine played and I sang with it. Of course, if I had sung loud, it would have been louder than the machine, but I gave my voice the same quality as the machine so they couldn’t tell. And sometimes I would stop singing and let the machine play, and I’d come in again. Well, it seemed to make a tremendous success.

So add all this up – the singers imitating the tinny sound of their own recordings, the audiences being trained to ignore their lyin’ ears (and maybe flap their eyelids on command), the fading memory of what live musical instruments and singers really sounded like on stage – and it explains why Edison’s Tone Tests always received nothing but rave reviews. After all, the only other explanation is that everyone was lying.

Believe it or not: Everyone was lying.

The review that appeared in the Press Democrat also can be found, word for word – except for the name of the theater – in other historic newspapers online. Even more papers share a paragraph or three with the PD’s review and still others beyond that are littered with the same keywords and phrases (“clever flutist,” “the audience confessed,” repeated use of “Miss Gardner’s lips” for ex) which betray they all drew waters from the same well. Clearly, the Edison company was providing advertising copy which the local newspaper editors could reprint in toto or use to cobble together a rewrite, depending on how industrious the copy editor felt. The fingerprints of still other boilerplates can also be found; when Harold Lyman was touring 1915-6 with a different singer, he was then mentioned in Tone Test reviews as a “clever young flutist.”

This simple explanation has eluded scholars because not many are familiar with newspapering practices at that time. The first clue of something funky was that concert reviews even existed; it was very rare then for papers to recap a one-night-only musical or theater performance. That the PD review didn’t appear until almost a week later added a further red flag.

Yes, other types of ads disguised as news articles sometimes can be found but it wasn’t common, and that Edison’s appeared in many newspapers nationwide over many years makes me think that the placement of these “newsverts” was actually the key objective of Edison’s promotional campaign – a kind of early influencer marketing. (That the fake reviews were unsigned only made them appear more legit, as news articles rarely had bylines.)

The scheme also relied upon the Edison dealers having a good relationship with the local papers. Here the Santa Rosa Furniture Company was a regular advertiser in the Press Democrat anyway; buying an additional two weeks of big, expensive ads promoting this phonograph and the Tone Test only gave the editors more incentive to go along with the request to also print all/part of the glowing “review” as a favor for this important ad client.

(As a side note, newspapers also conversely did favors for their advertisers by not printing news; in 1911 a local scandal involving double suicides was suppressed by both Santa Rosa papers as long as possible, even while the San Francisco dailies were covering it on the front page. At risk was the reputation of a downtown store that was a major PD advertiser, and probably fears that drawing attention to the story could launch boycotts against both the store and the newspaper itself.)

Surely there were some publishers (hopefully, many) who balked at printing such “fake news,” but even if the phony reviews appeared in a fraction of the places where there were Tone Test demonstrations, this was still likely the most brazen example of covert advertising in early 20th century America (I’ve certainly never encountered anything like it).

And more than his hundred competitors, Edison needed to generate lots of good publicity; his music system wasn’t going to sell itself. His phonograph players were ridiculously expensive – up to two-thirds the cost of a new Ford car – and the only records you could play on them were the ones Edison made. Worse, he always selected the recording artists himself and besides being a half-deaf old man, his taste in music was mostly abysmal.

The Edison catalog leaned toward military marches, religious and sentimental pap, hillbilly and comic songs (including many in racist dialect), operatic warhorses, classical chestnuts and dance tunes for dance steps nobody did anymore. He liked recording novelty ensembles (the Waikiki Hawaiian Orchestra, the Alessios Mandolin Quartet) and novelty songs (“Farmyard medley“). Edison disliked most trained singers (“many of the most famous of opera singers sing badly,” he said) but praised Donald Chalmers, an amateur who sang without any emotion but hit every note as perfectly as a machine.4

In the end, Edison’s work on the phonograph during those years yielded only small improvements in the evolution of sound recording – but along the way it appears he invented a marketing scheme which was quite good at hoodwinking our ancestors. You might even say he was a kind of wizard at doing that.

1 Emily Thompson: Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877–1925; The Musical Quarterly Spring 1995, pg. 159
2 Alexandra Hui; The Naturalization of Built Environments: Two Case Studies; Ethnomusicology Review, February 2016
3 Jan McKee; Is It Live or Is It Edison? Library of Congress Now See Hear blog, May 2015
4 David W. Samuels; Edison’s Ghost; Music & Politics, Summer 2016 2015
Press Democrat ad, October 30, 1919
Press Democrat ad, October 30, 1919


Press Democrat ad, November 13, 1919
Press Democrat ad, November 13, 1919




Miss Ida Gardner to Give Concert Thursday

The music lovers of Santa Rosa will rejoice in the news that Miss Ida Gardner, the well known contralto, will sing in this city Thursday night November 6, at the Cline theater.

Miss Gardner comes to Santa Rosa from a long and most successful concert tour. Her voice is said to be more charming than ever, and she has increased her repertoire to include some delightful new songs.

Miss Gardner says she hasn’t any specialties in songs, as some artists have. She sings a wide range of things and is not at all averse to giving one or two numbers by request.

During the war, Miss Gardner devoted practically all her time to entertaining soldiers in camps. She was very popular among the boys, and among the officers as one colonel can testify.

– Press Democrat, November 2 1919




Probably a number of people who attended the recital given Thursday night by Miss Ida Gardner and Mr. Lyman at the Cline Theater, were at first puzzled and disappointed when they discovered a phonograph cabinet occupying the center of the stage. They felt that they had been beguiled into going to hear a charming singer and a clever flutist and naturally thought they had been imposed upon.

They hardly were reassured when Mr. Lyman appeared on the stage and commenced to talk about “reproduction,” “re-creation,” and other like matter. It finally became apparent that the phonograph was at least to receive assistance from the singer, but even then the mental outlook was not exactly bright.

Mr. Lyman explained that the purpose of the recital was to show that Thomas A. Edison, after years of work, had achieved his ideal to perfect a musical instrument which actually re-creates music so perfectly that the re-creation would be indistinguishable from the original.

This was a broad claim but it was established before the evening was over for Miss Gardner actually stood beside the new Edison Phonograph and sang in unison with Mr. Edison’s re-creation – so called – of her own voice. This would have proved little as her voice might easily have overbalance the tone of the instrument — swallowed it up – so to speak; but Miss Gardner did more, or to accurate, less. She paused from time to time, apparently at random and permitted her re-created voice to be heard alone. This gave an opportunity to compare one with the other, and it is no more than just to state that there was no discernable difference in tone quality.

There must have been a slight difference in volume when Miss Gardner stopped singing, but it was not noticeable, for the voice which came from the cabinet was round and luscious with all the vibrant, pulsating quality of that which came directly from Miss Gardner’s throat. It was only by watching the singer’s lips that one could be sure when she sang and when she did not.

Mr. Lyman offered similar comparisons with his instrument playing in direct comparison with the re-creation of his own performance. This proof was very convincing. If it were not, another proof was offered. After Miss Gardner commenced to sing the lights were turned out – ostensibly so that the audience could not watch the singer’s lips.

It did not seem difficult to determine in the dark when the singer sang and when she did not. The writer was pretty sure about it himself, [until the] lights were turned on again and it was discovered that Miss Gardner was not on the stage at all and that the new Edison alone had been heard.

– Press Democrat, November 12 1919

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Ads in the Santa Rosa newspapers a century ago could be quaint, silly or downright fraudulent, but some required a double-take – did I really see that in the paper? Here is a sample of ads from 1911-1913 that require some explanation:

Actually, this ad, which appeared in the Press Democrat for a week, probably doesn’t require any explanation at all. Great grandma certainly looks happy with her Arnold Massage Vibrator.

Great scott, did a 1911 vaudeville act really include a live grizzly bear? All sorts of trained animal acts appeared on stage in Santa Rosa: Dogs, monkeys, even goats. But even when raised from a cub by humans, grizzlies are famously temperamental – goddesses know what might happen if one was frightened or angered by rowdy drunks in the audience.

As it turns out, the grizzly was a guy in a bear suit with La Angelita and “Petus” doing the “Grizzly Bear” and “Texas Tommy,” so-called rag dances that Petaluma and other cities banned for being indecent. That it was a novelty dance act was remarkably difficult to learn – newspapers presumably didn’t mention that angle so as to not spoil the surprise. Once the ragging craze faded La Angelita began appearing with two other women as costumed Spanish dancers. The ersatz grizzly still showed up for the finale, which confused a reviewer for Variety: “The only drawback to the act is the bear dance, wherein a man parades in a bear skin.”

Another reason it first seemed the act involved a real grizzly was because at least once they appeared on a bill with actual trained bears, “Albers’ Ten Polar Bears.” Apparently that act mostly consisted of the animals rolling a large ball up and down a slide, although the 1911 Oakland Tribune noted, “Herr Albers promises to give them a big feed during the matinee Saturday, so one can imagine the fun while these ten tons of Teddies are at their porridge.” Hopefully they went on last so the stage could be hosed down afterward.

Oh, the good ol’ days, when someone could shop downtown for large containers of lethal poisons. Painting your house? In 1912 you could stop by the Asbest-o-Lite Paint Company on Fifth street and pick up a few gallons direct from the factory. And doesn’t everybody love the smell of fresh paint? Take a good whiff while they mix your color! And if it’s spring, don’t forget to spray your fruit trees with lead arsenic, that safe and economical insecticide.

They did’t know at the time that inhaling lots of asbestos can cause a particularly nasty form of cancer, so it was widely used at the time – in roofing, flooring, wall insulation, wrapped around hot water pipes, lining the interior of forced-air furnaces, and much, much more. Asbestos paint was probably the least dangerous form of exposure as the stuff wasn’t blowing around, but you wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere near the factory while it was being made. The Asbest-o-Lite Paint Company apparently lasted only a year.

Lead arsenate was heavily used as an insecticide in the first half of the Twentieth Century (good history here) although it was discovered after World War I that it didn’t easily wash off produce completely and contaminated topsoil. Yet until the introduction of DDT in the late 1940s everyone bought the stuff by the tub.

It was particularly risky for people who handled the stuff in the fields, but only California and a handful of other states recognized long-term exposure could be an occupational disease. Making matters worse, it was common to use it as part of a “bordeaux,” mixing it with other arsenics such as Paris green – a fungicide and also the main ingredient in rat poison  – so all spraying could be done at the same time. That cocktail nearly made quick work of Henry Limebaugh, a farmer near Hessel in May of 1912 when after spraying his fruit trees he forgetfully took a sip from the same hose, leading to an emergency visit from a doctor.

Was that a movie about the Klan playing at the Nickelodeon?

D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” is credited with inspiring (and to some degree, inventing) the modern Ku Klux Klan. But that film was not made until 1915; playing here in 1911 was “Night Riders of Tennessee and Kentucky.” A synopsis printed in the Santa Rosa Republican showed it villainized them and since this movie is not mentioned in any cinema history, it would be a pretty big deal to find there was an earlier film with an antithetical view to Griffith’s glorification of the sheet-wearing vigilantes.

It turns out the film was first shown elsewhere in 1910 and the “Night Riders” weren’t the Klan at all – it was about the recent Dark Patch Tobacco War. Once it had a monopoly, the American Tobacco Company sharply dropped what it paid farmers to less than it cost to grow the tobacco. They organized a boycott and formed an association to warehouse the crops until prices returned to normal. The company offered top dollar to any scab growers who would sell their tobacco; in turn, the association organized hooded Night Riders to enforce the boycott by intimidating those sellers, usually burning their fields. The conflict ended in 1908 when the Kentucky National Guard was called up to suppress the Night Riders.

How much of the film was “founded on fact” is impossible to say as no copies survive, but it was most likely propaganda created by the American Tobacco Company to demonize the growers and place the company in a good light. When copies of the movie were circulating in 1910-1911 the company was fighting government charges that it was an illegal Trust and should be broken up (in 1911 the Supreme Court ruled it was indeed a monopoly). Further evidence that it was underwritten by the company is that Mr. Hood and Browning – whomever they were – toured with the movie and narrated it. While live stage appearances with films were presented in that era, it was only in major theaters in big cities and at a premium admission price, not showing weekday nights down at the Santa Rosa Nickelodeon for a dime.

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