GoldenHorseshoeSaloon

THE JEWEL IN THE BOOMTOWN

The first time Santa Rosa had more than a couple of dimes rattling around its coin purse, the town bought itself a present. A really big present.

“It gives us unlimited pleasure to chronicle the fact that a long felt want, in the shape of an opera house is at last to be built in Santa Rosa,” boasted the town’s Sonoma Democrat newspaper in mid-summer, 1884.

That opera house was to be called the Athenaeum (a name usually given to a library or academic/literary salons, not so often public theaters). It filled the western side of D street, from Fourth to Fifth streets and was 80 feet wide. Newspaper readers were repeatedly reminded that it was the largest auditorium in the state outside of San Francisco.

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The Santa Rosa Athenaeum in 1890. (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

 

Why a farm town of 5,000 needed an auditorium large enough to hold up to half its population was never discussed. But the mid-1880s were boom times for Santa Rosa, and much of the original downtown was being replaced with entire blocks of new buildings. A new city hall was built along with that pretty little courthouse in Courthouse Square. There were forty other projects under construction at the same time as the Athenaeum, almost all of them made out of bricks. Almost all of them would collapse in the 1906 earthquake, including the Athenaeum.

Outside it looked like a nondescript brick warehouse, but the interior drew high praise. Alas, there are no (surviving) pictures of it – a dilemma I often encounter here, so indulge me a short rant: Except for a couple of postcard views of the exterior, there are likewise no photos of the fabled 40 room “Buena Vista Castle” near Sonoma. Jack London’s Wolf House was nearly complete when it burned down, but there is only a single glimpse of the place under construction and most of it is obscured by a horse-drawn wagon in the foreground. There are no images of the inside – all of which is particularly aggravating because London was a photojournalist. I could name scads of other really interesting-but-lost-forever views just in Santa Rosa during the era when Kodak cameras were ubiquitous; I can’t understand why something was considered picturesque or important enough to be described in a newspaper – yet apparently no one thought of whipping out a Brownie camera to take a snapshot.

Fortunately there are multiple descriptions of the theater which paint a pretty detailed picture. I still wanted to find an image of an auditorium that was a reasonably close match and spent much of the last week prowling through hundreds of photos and period drawings of theater interiors here and in Europe. Two finalists were the Memphis TN Lyceum and the Virginia City NV Opera House, but the former is a little too cavernous and the other lacking architectural details. I could find only one theater that fits comfortably in the Goldilocks zone – and may the goddesses forgive me, it’s the Golden Horseshoe at Disneyland. All important details and proportions match except the Athenaeum was a few seats wider.

Let’s take a look inside the Athenaeum: Start your virtual tour by standing in front of the lovely 1911 Beaux-Arts style Doyle Building at 641-647 Fourth street. This has exactly the same footprint as the Athenaeum, except the stairway to the upper floor was almost twice as wide. At street level there was always a grocery to the west side of the stairs (more about that below) and in later years the Santa Rosa post office was on the corner side.*

The theater occupied the second and third floors. At the top of the stairs was the foyer with the box office. Wainscotting in the foyer used black walnut – a nice signal that you were entering a space that was posh and as permanent as a bank. Staircases on either side led to the third floor, where there was another larger foyer which took up about sixty feet of the top story. This was called the Society Hall and was rented out for banquets and dances when the theater wasn’t booked.

Beyond the top floor hall/foyer, theatergoers took seats in the balcony which wrapped around three sides of the auditorium. Called the “gallery” at the time, the balcony was both suspended from the ceiling and supported with posts. An item in the Democrat paper suggested some were squeamish over the safety of the overhanging balcony. “Let us whisper to the timid, if any such are left, that each of the seven iron columns under the gallery will support a weight equal to two hundred tons, or fourteen hundred tons in the aggregate.”

The gallery had the cheap seats but anyone who could afford better would sit below. There was the parquet circle directly beneath the gallery; like the balcony there was a baluster rail in front. It was (probably) at stage level, which meant the sight lines and acoustics were better than the main floor. The primary difference from the Disneyland theater was that the Athenaeum had more private boxes overlooking the stage; six on each side at the gallery level, and two on either side of the parquet circle.

The stage lights and everything else in the auditorium was lit by gaslights which were individually controlled by a panel. In the middle of the ceiling was an enormous “sun burner” (MORE info) which brilliantly illuminated the hall when turned up full. But what everyone was buzzing about was the artwork – the ceiling and walls were covered with murals. The Sonoma Democrat had the most detailed description:


About the ventilator in the center is a bit of sky, with clouds piled cumulus like, just as we sometimes see them on the horizon, while trailing vines, laden with blossoms seem to be peeping in the windows of some conservatory. The entire ceiling and gallery walls are hand painted, and at each corner a lyre and sprays of vines retain the eye, with elegantly designed borders enclosing numerous sky blue spaces. At the corners are huge clusters of reeds, conventionalized branches of leaves beneath. The area in front of the top of the stage is resplendent with flowers and sprays, and must be seen to be appreciated.

The stage itself was in the classic proscenium 19th century style, with drapery and an olio painted curtain depicting “a villa in the distance, amidst a beautiful grove with a magnificent garden in the foreground.” The artist was Thomas Moses who later became a top artist in this niche, painting scenic drops like this for theaters all over the country, including Broadway.

The official seating capacity was 1,600 although numbers up to a thousand higher were also mentioned. Theaters like this used wooden chairs, not seats bolted to the floor, so it was only a matter of placing them farther or closer together. (The cheapest gallery seats were apparently fixed in place, however.) Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley wrote an appreciation of the old place in 1932, which was abridged in a book, “Santa Rosans I Have Known.” Finley wrote “The theatre itself seated 1700 persons while 2500 could be and frequently were crowded in.”

Finley, who grew up in Santa Rosa, also recalled the Athenaeum box office was a popular place for kids to money launder any counterfeit coin which “sometimes found its way into their pockets without its spurious character being noticed.”

The Athenaeum’s official dedication was the night of July 9, 1885. After the orchestra gave “a preliminary toot or two,” there were remarks by the president of the Athenaeum association and a San Francisco theatrical manager, then an actress read a really bad poem. (“…Through groves of drooping oak, a glistening stream/ Runs, like a silver thread, through emerald green/ And over all is sunset’s purple sheen./ Another change the Mexican appears/ He seems a centaur, horse and man, and spurs./ Across the unfenced valley, like a bird/ He sweeps, amid his startled sleek skinned herd…”) Once that was suffered through, the curtain went up for the performance of a blood-and-thunder melodrama based on Jules Verne’s novel “Michael Strogoff.”

The Santa Rosa paper enthused over everything about the evening (“It was the first time Don Mills’ mule ever greeted an audience”) but glossed over the detail that the theater wasn’t even half full on its opening night. It appears that it would be more than a year before the Athenaeum was actually filled, and that was for a free October, 1886 speech by the Republican candidate for governor. (Predictably, the highly-partisan Democrat sniffed, “His speech was dry, prosy and wearisome, and elicited very little applause.”)

Thus was the fate of the Athenaeum clouded from its earliest days. Although the theater itself was a jewel by any measure, it’s hard to imagine that a hall which was only open  every week or so – and then usually around half empty – could be profitable. When the entire hall was rented out and open for free admission it was sometimes reported filled: Church coalitions brought in famous bible thumpers, political parties had election eve rallies and small groups held conventions – the State Sunday School Association was scheduled to be there in late April, 1906, with plans cancelled because of the earthquake.

Finley and others wrote of the celebrated performers who appeared on its stage. Yes, John Philip Sousa’s famous brass band played a rousing concert and modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller was here. Heavyweight boxing champ James Jeffries tried to jumpstart a new career starring in a play about Davy Crockett (the audience liked it most when he hit things or flexed his muscles) and San Francisco promoters sometimes booked a slate of classical music artists, mainly opera singers past their prime.

But for every highbrow concert by a “tenor robusto” there were twenty performances of hoary melodramas like “Ingomar the Barbarian” or trite comedies such as “James Wobberts, Freshman.” For every serious debate or lecture by someone like the guy predicting the year 2000 there were a dozen touring comedians such as “Yon Yonson,” “Ole Olson,” or vaudeville acts like “Thirty Educated Dogs.” And there were minstrel shows – lots and lots of minstrel shows.

1900plays1The melodrama “Chimes of Normandy” and the comedy “Wang” both appeared at the Athenaeum in 1900

 

Ridgway Hall was the only other venue downtown for large gatherings and it was mainly used for dances and county conventions, but the Athenaeum was used for local events, too, including commencement ceremonies and school literary exercises. Locals also put on shows at the Athenaeum; Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Mikado” was produced here and Santa Rosa Attorney T. J. Butts produced a farce he had written, “Misery, or Three Spasms for a Half.” (A few years later, Butts participated in a lecture series on the topic, “What Is the Matter with Santa Rosa?” His position was that “our city government is as good as we deserve,” which gets my vote as our city motto.)

The Athenaeum was completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and many commented that it was a good thing it didn’t hit when the theater was occupied. Three days earlier, nearly every kid in town was in there for choir practice before the upcoming Sunday School convention. Ernest Finley wrote the best obit in his 1932 reminisces:


The Athenaeum went down at the time of the earthquake, together with everything else in that entire block…the Athenaeum was built by T. J. Ludwig, active here as a contractor at that time, and its plan of construction was much criticized. Resting on the side walls of the building were great trusses which stretched across from one wall to another and from these the auditorium was practically suspended in air. There was some underneath support, but not too much. There was no regulation of such matters in those days. This type of construction would not now be permitted anywhere. After the building collapsed, investigation showed that certain beams in the great trusses, which were entirely of redwood, had decayed at the edges. It is not improbable that, had the building continued in use many years longer, some of these beams might have given way under the tremendous strain and a holocaust far greater than that occasioned by the earthquake itself might have resulted.

Oddly, some of the early hype about the theater focused on the impossibility of its collapse. The Democrat promised before construction began that it was to be an “earthquake proof building,” and a few days before it opened, the paper offered a commentary on the safety of the Athenaeum and the new courthouse. “This is a good time to kill the idle street talk we hear about one building being unsafe, and another one just ready to topple over…So will Santa Rosa outgrow the little fellows who go whining about the streets. If none of them die until they are killed by the falling of Athenaeum, or the new Court House, they will survive a hundred years, which would be a greater misfortune to the city than the fall of both those substantial and elegant structures.”


*The Athenaeum Grocery was an ambitious effort to create a real food market, complete with canned goods, fresh produce, a butcher and fish counter, and something like a deli offering lunch. “Many a lady dreads the Saturday’s marketing, because she knows that she will perhaps have to walk over the whole town before completing her purchases, but when the new central market is opened it will be different; she may do all of her marketing in the one building, and her purchases will be delivered at the same time.”

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Santa Rosa Athenaeum, 1906 (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

 

 

Santa Rosa Athenaeum.

It gives us unlimited pleasure to chronicle the fact that a long felt want, in the shape of an opera house is at last to be built in Santa Rosa. A joint stock company with a capital stock of $20,000 has been organized, and incorporated under the laws of this State for of constructing a solid, substantial and earthquake proof building, on the corner of Fourth and D streets, covering that entire lot, extending through to Fifth street, known as the T. H. Pyatt lot. The building will have an eighty foot front on Fourth and Fifth streets, and will be 200 feet in depth. The seating capacity will be from 1,600 to 2,000 people. Two stores will be fitted up on Fourth street, and a society hall will also front on the same street. A gallery will extend around three sides of the building. The main entrance to the auditorium, will be from Fourth street with side entrance from Fifth aud D streets, so that the hall can be quickly cleared in case of a panic. The stage will extend across the Fifth street end of the building, and will be seven feet from the door. On each side will be three dressing rooms for theatrical companies. Under the stage a kitchen with range and all other necessary equipments, and a spacious banquet hall will be fitted up for the convenience and benefit of fairs, festivals, etc. The structure promises to be one of the most convenient and perfect ever built, and fills a long felt want in this community.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 5 1884

The lot for the Santa Rosa Athenaeum, on the corner of Fourth and D street is cleared, and work excavating for the foundation has commenced.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 19 1884

 

Our Opera House.

We strolled into the Athenaeum on Friday afternoon and found the timbers for the gallery being placed in position, and the scantling for the different partitions being erected. The inside is going to present a handsome appearance. The gallery is semi-circular in form, and the timbers for the “circle” are being bent as they are being placed in position, under the immediate supervision of Col. Gray, whom we saw, with hammer in hand, as busy as any of the artisans. We should suppose that there were about thirty men engaged with hammer and saw, and noted that the work was progressing very satisfactorily.

Mr. Mailer, of the firm of W. C. Good & Co., informs us that the tin for the roof is all in readiness in the shop, and that twelve men are putting the work on the roof, as rapidly as possible. A few days fine weather, and the roof will be tinned. This firm have just received a consignment of ninety boxes of tin for the roofs o( other buildings now in the course of completion.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 28 1885

 

Handsome Ornamentations.

We were permitted to take a view of the ceiling of the Athenaeum, on Friday, as the decorative artists had just completed their work. It is a study in art. About the ventilator in the center is a bit of sky, with clouds piled cumulus like, just as we sometimes see them on the horizon, while trailing vines, laden with blossoms seem to be peeping in the windows of some conservatory. The entire ceiling and gallery walls are hand painted, and at each corner a lyre and sprays of vines retain the eye, with elegantly designed borders enclosing numerous sky blue spaces. At the corners are huge clusters of reeds, conventionalized branches of leaves beneath. The area in front of the top of the stage is resplendent with flowers and sprays, and must be seen to be appreciated. We consider it the most elegant finish we have ever seen in so large a building. The theater will be ready for occupation about the first June. In the main auditorium the seating and finishing touches only remain to be attended to, but the stage and the front hall yet remain to be finished.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 16 1885

 

Ambitions Santa Rosa.

The San Francisco Figaro, of a recent date, contains the following: “It may seem strange, but it is true nevertheless, that Santa Rosa will soon have the largest and most magnificent theatre building outside of San Francisco. Though occupying nearly as much space as our Grand Opera House, it will have only two circles, it is decorated in grand style, is called the Athenaeum, and will be finished about the middle of next month. Good for Santa Rosa, which is one of the most delightful cities of the interior, and a growing one, surrounded by a rich farming region, belted by timber lands almost inexhaustible. With a modesty unusual and worthy of note, the owner of the edifice did not give to it his own name.” Come up and see it Bro. Bogardus, and if we don’t give you a hearty welcome for old time’s sake, we will try it. Call soon.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 6 1885

 

The Athenaeum.

We stopped a moment at the Athenaeum, on Tuesday. Preparations are being made to lay the stone sidewalk, by putting in the curbing. Work on the inside is progressing. Painters are priming the woodwork, and graining has commenced. The railing for the boxes and about the orchestra are placed in position. The handsome railing for the stairways leading to the gallery is being put up. The doors about the entrance to the parquette and dress circle are being hung. The racks and slides for the scenery are being put in place and the lower hall is being graveled for cement pavement.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 13 1885

 

Dedicating the Athenaeum.

In response to an invitation of the Board of Directors of the Santa Rosa Athenaeum Company, a number of gentlemen met at the parlors of Occidental Hotel to consult in regard to the formal opening of the building, now so near at hand. In response to this, there were present…

…The building is nearly completed. The seats in the gallery are about finished. At the ends of the gallery circle, nearest the stage, are six compartments on each side the building set apart by railing as mezzanine boxes. Directly below them, at the terminus of the dress circle, are four elegant boxes, two on each side, decorated very handsomely and elaborately.

We have stated that six iron pillars have been placed beneath the gallery, which support it, so that it is no longer suspended from the roof.

The chairs for the boxes, dress circle and orchestra will arrive in a few days. They are on the way. There are 800 of them.

Work laying the scenery is progressing rapidly, and the stage now begins to have the appearance of business.

The painters and grainers are putting the finishing touches to the main hall, and back stairway, and glaziers are preparing the sash for the numerous windows. The wainscotting in the foyer passages, doors and stairways is black walnut. In the banquet, ball and offices, oak.

The patent stone work for the sidewalk and lower portion of the main entrance is completed and is now hardening. Work laying the basalt blocks in the gutter is progressing.

RECEPTION AND PROMENADE CONCERT.

The Committee appointed, as mentioned above, met immediately after the conference adjourned, and adopted the following programme:
1. Overture by orchestra.
2. Prayer by Rev. J. Avery Shepherd.
3. Remarks by the President. B. M. Spencer.
4. Dedicatory by A. B. Ware.
5. Vocal Music.
6. Remarks by R. A. Thompson.
7. Vocal Solo.
8. Closing remarks by Senator G. A. Johnson.
9. Overture by orchestra.
10. Promenade concert and reception.

[..]

– Sonoma Democrat, June 20 1885

 

The Athenaeum.

We were permitted to visit the interior of the Athenaeum on Tuesday, and found Mr. Bumbaugh with a large force of painters at work. The main hall has been most artistically and beautifully adorned, and the work is well done.

We met Mr. C. N. Crouse, who came from Chicago to arrange the scenery and mount it. He showed us the drop curtain, which is the finest we have seen in California, not even excepting the famous one at the Sacramento Theater, “Othello relating his adventures.” It represents a villa in the distance, amidst a beautiful grove with a magnificent garden in the foreground, while the whole is enclosed in gorgeous and elegant drapery. It is superb. Mr. Crouse says that nearly all the scenery is now ready. There are one or two set pieces to be arranged, a bridge forty feet long and a cottage scene.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 27 1885

 

The Opening of the Athenaeum.

On Thursday, Secretary C. A. Wright, of the Athenaeum Company, signed a contract with Al. Hayman, the well known theatrical manager, of San Francisco, to lease our new opera house for three nights, viz; July 2d, 3d and 4th.

There will be presented on these evenings, on the 2d, “Michael Strogoff,” on the 3d, “Lights o’ London,” and on the 4th,the magnificent drama. “The Count of Monte Christo.” The Company of the Baldwin Theater will present the plays, and they will be put on the stage in the best manner possible. The scenery will be superb, all most all new. Mr. Hayman has pledged himself to make the opening a credit to the handsome building, and to sustain the enviable reputation his company has gained. It will all be first class in every particular. The orchestra will consist of seven or eight accomplished musicians.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 27 1885

 

A WORD WITH YOU.

We hate to give advice and absolutely won’t scold, but we wish to say to you that this is a good time to kill the idle street talk we hear about one building being unsafe, and another one just ready to topple over, that the town is overgrown, the land given out, and the bugs have taken the country. In point of fact the croaker is the bug that is doing the most harm just now. His idle talk reminds us of an incident which came under our observation. A plant was growing vigorously in a garden. It was thoroughly in sympathy with the soil in which it grew and the air with which it stretched its limbs, but its young and tender branches were covered with the aphide, a pestiferous parasite that mars the beauty while it sucks the life of the plant upon which it feeds.

Fears were expressed to an old gardener that the “bugs” would kill the plant. “O no,” said he, “it will outgrow those little fellows.”

So will Santa Rosa outgrow the little fellows who go whining about the streets. If none of them die until they are killed by the falling of Athenaeum, or the new Court House, they will survive a hundred years, which would be a greater misfortune to the city than the fall of both those substantial and elegant structures.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 4 1885

 

THE TEMPLE OF ATHAENE
Brilliant Opening of Santa Rosa’s Beautiful Opera House

The youth, beauty and fashion of our fair city were out in force at the opening of the Athenaeum on Thursday evening. It must have been the greatest pleasure imaginable to those of our enterprising citizens who took such a leading part in the construction of the beautiful temple of the muses to hear the exclamations of unfeigned delight which fell almost unconsciously from the lips of nearly all present, most of whom had not seen the interior of the building since the work of ornamentation had begun. The comfortable opera chair, the pleasant Mezzanine and elegant proscenium boxes and the superb decorations on every hand.

THE ATTENDANCE.

Was a pleasing surprise to all. Over one half of the seating capacity was occupied, and we noticed in prominent parts of the foyer representatives of every leading interest in our city, and in the dress circle, parquette and boxes the elegant toilets of our pride, Santa Rosa’s fair ones, lent an air most charming to the most novel and really pleasant scene ever witnessed in the “City of Roses” not less than five hundred persons were present, the gallery was about half filled, and the lower portion more than half filled. The gallery was of anything the most sedate portion of the house.

It was 8:15 when Prof. S. L. Parks’ orchestra gave “a preliminary toot or two,” and then began the first overture, and at its close, B. M. Spencer appeared and introduced Mr. Al. Hayman, who spoke in glowing tones of this new building and referred in eloquent terms to the enterprise of those who built this temple to the muses. He then introduced Miss Phoebe Davies, who read the following prologue:

THE OPENING OF THE ATHENAEUM.
INVOCATION.

[..]

All was enthusiasm. The prologue was read before a scene carefully prepared, and as Miss Davies left the scene, the beautiful drop curtain fell, and was displayed to an audience for the first time. Miss Davies was heartily applauded, and the curtain was the signal for another burst of enthusiasm.

[..]

NOTES.

It was the first time Don Mills’ mule ever greeted an audience.

Sosman & Landers of Chicago painted and prepared the scenery which every one so much admired, and it was mounted by C. M. Crouse, one of the most experienced in the United States, and who was brought here by the Athenaeum Company especially to fit up this stage. He had done his work in the most satisfactory possible.

The drop curtain was designed and painted by a special artist employed by Sosman & Landers, and who devotes his entire time to this class of work. His name is Thomas Moses.

An important feature is the nickel plated gas stand, by means of which the gas in any part of the building can be readily regulated. It was made by H. C. Hickey of Chicago.

The lights are perfection. The huge sun-burner in the center of the ceiling and the numerous side lights illuminate the auditorium perfectly.

Let us whisper to the timid, if any such are left, that each of the seven iron columns under the gallery will support a weight equal to two hundred tons, or fourteen hundred tons in the aggregate. General John A. Brewster says so, and he knows. This is independent of all support from the roof.

Mr. Hayman says we can say for him that we have the prettiest and most commodios [sic] theater in the State outside of San Francisco, and that it is perfect in all its appointments.

The acoustic properties of the building are excellent. Each line was as distinctly heard as could be. There is no difficulty in hearing at all in any part of the building. It is a credit to the architect and contractor, T. J. Ludwig.

The painting and graining by C. M. Bumbaugh, is the best in Santa Rosa.

The drapery about the boxes is splendid and is the work of Doubleday Bros.

We must give credit to Mr. Lyons, who has been the foreman of the construction ever since the foundation was laid, for the evident excellence of his work.

The opening was a brilliant success, and to the Board of Directors and officers…we extend the congratulations and thanks of this entire community.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 11 1885

 

The Athenaeum.

Arrangements were completed on Monday to have a sectional floor put in the Athenaeum, so that balls and parties can be given in the main room. This will make a floor of 100×50, and will contain no seats. It will be completed by New Year’s eve, and has been engaged by the Knights of Pythias for that occasion.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 5 1885

 

New Enterprise.

Mr. O. Howell signed a five years’ lease with the managers of the Athenaeum Saturday morning, for the large storeroom under the west half of the theater, where he will open a central market. It is Mr. Howell’s intention to supply a want long felt, viz: a place where the housewife can do her morning marketing in the one store, or as it should more properly be called, the market. There will be the grocery department, butcher’s stalls, greengrocer’s stalls, fresh fish and oyster department, flour and feed department, poultry and game department and lunch counter, where the farmers and their families, when in town over the dinner hour, can partake of a lunch without the expense of the restaurants and hotels. This market will not only be a great success to its projector, but will be hailed as a solution to the problem of the housewife and busy husband, “What shall I get for dinner?” or supper, as the case may be. Many a lady dreads the Saturday’s marketing, because she knows that she will perhaps have to walk over the whole town before completing her purchases, but when the new central market is opened it will be different; she may do all of her marketing in the one building, and her purchases will be delivered at the same time. Mr. Howell has undertaken no small job in consummating his plans to a successful issue, and he appreciates his situation and enters into it with the determination of making it one of the successful and useful institutions of Santa Rosa.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 18 1886

 

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WHEN THE CIRCUS WAGONS CAME TO TOWN

Before Thanksgiving or Independence Day were national holidays, there was only one event nearly every American celebrated, regardless of class, race or creed: The day the circus came to town. That two-century tradition ends on May 21 when Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey gives its last performance. Before the Big Top comes down for the last time, here’s a look at what it meant to small towns like Santa Rosa and Petaluma, as viewed through their newspapers.

By no means does this series represent all the circuses that came to Sonoma county – this is only a small sample. It was not uncommon to have two or three every year, and even the shows that returned often were different enough each time to be a considered new.

Because of the number of images involved I’m breaking this article into two parts. This section covers the early circuses travelling by roads and waterways; these wagon shows were dinky affairs compared to some of the monster spectaculars which came here after the railroads were available, as discussed in part two, “LET’S GO TO THE CIRCUS ON COLLEGE AVE“.

But regardless of the year or degree of magnificence, every circus day was magic and were the climax of weeks of hot anticipation. The places you had walked past thousands of times – fences with scabby whitewash, streetlight poles, the plain brick walls on the sides of businesses – those drab things were now transformed by beautiful lithograph posters showing flying trapeze women, daredevil animal trainers and other scenes you had never imagined. You know the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opened the door to Oz into a world riot in color? It was like that, only better because YOU were about to enter such a magical place. And you would go there. Nothing on earth could stop you.

(CLICK or TAP any image to enlarge, or see the complete collection on Pinterest)

This is the oldest circus ad I’ve found in the local newspapers, dating to June, 1856. The promise that “The Police Department will be under the supervision of efficient officers” suggests the public believed a circus attracted criminals and troublemakers.

1856 Rowe Circus

 

The 1857 ad for the Lee & Bennett circus also has the “efficient officers” vow. Note they don’t say much about the acts, but boast at length of their “magnificent, new, and costly” wagons. They promise the Big Top is waterproof and ladies will get cushions for their seats. Classy!

1857 ad for the Lee & Bennett circus

 

Until the railway reached Santa Rosa in late 1870, circuses with large animals rarely visited Sonoma county in those days. This 1859 show with two elephants was the first exception. As with most circuses seen here in that era, the performance was mainly horseback stunts, acrobatics and a featured clown.

1859 Wilson circus

 

The patriotic theme of the “United States Circus” reflects the national mood in the first months of the Civil War – although it may not have gone over so well in pro-Confederacy Santa Rosa and Healdsburg. “Blondin” was the famed tightrope walker who crossed Niagara Falls.

1861 United States Circus

 

Although there was still no train service to Santa Rosa in 1869, we were on the tour route of Dan Castello’s Circus and Menagerie, the first East Coast show to come to California via the new transcontinental railroad, which had been completed less that four months earlier. “Their immense posters cover half the town, and everybody is anxiously waiting to see the greatest show of the age,” the Democrat commented. It seems the ads exaggerated the number and varieties of animals; their wagon caravan included only ten cages and a couple of elephants and camels. A correspondent to the Russian River Flag wrote, “It was agreed by us that the menagerie was a failure, but the circus part we liked very well.”

1869 Castello’s Circus and Menagerie

 

The 1872 San Francisco Circus and Roman Hippodrome was the first show in Santa Rosa to introduce exotic themes, with an “oriental pagoda” and Roman Empire-style chariot races. The show also included a political angle, with “Horace Greeley, Comic Mule.” That year Greeley was the most well-known among the eight candidates running against incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant and lost by a landslide (in Santa Rosa he came in fourth). Greeley actually had died four days before this Santa Rosa performance.

1872 San Francisco Circus and Roman Hippodrome

 

Montgomery Queen’s 1874 Circus and Traveling World’s Fair drew an audience of 2,800 that night in Santa Rosa – about the same as the official population of the town. Since before the Civil War, the price for an adult ticket was always one dollar, which would be between $30-40 in today’s currency. Even if half this 1874 audience were children, they pulled in about $60,000 (adjusted for inflation) with this one show. While circus life was hard on the performers, crew and animals, it was undeniably very profitable for the owners.

1874 Montgomery Queen’s Circus and Traveling World’s Fair

 

Queen’s Great Moral Circus was here in 1875 and I’m presuming it was not a railroad show, as their route went from Petaluma to Sonoma and there was no rail line running between the towns. Aside from the appearance of a living giraffe and a “hogapotamus,” this visit was special because of a delightful story which appeared in the Sonoma Democrat:

1875 Montgomery Queen’s Great Moral Circus

 

 

GOING TO THE CIRCUS.

Yesterday morning as we were quietly strolling down town, with both hands in our pockets, thinking of nothing in particular, our meditations were disturbed by the loud demand:

“Whar are they a-goin’ to stretch the canvass?”

Looking up, there stood a tall, rawboned fellow with a grizzled beard and sun-burnt face, waiting for an answer.

“Canvas? What canvas?” we answered, all abroad like.

“Why, the circus,” you know, replied the man from the mountains.

We confessed our inability to direct him, and he pursued his way with a compassionate look on his face for our ignorance. Determined to become better posted about the circus, and to take a hand in the fun going on, we had not gone far until meeting a platform of eight small boys stretching quite across the pavement.

“Going to the circus, boys?”

“Yes, sir, answered the eight small boys together.

“Could you tell me where the tent is?”

“Yes, sir,” altogether, and eight small hands and arms pointing in the same direction.

Sure enough, there it was, nearly covering Bill Hardy’s lot with about an acre of canvass, and surrounded with empty circus wagons, loose horses and piles of baggage. The cook stove was smoking through a short pipe, and the cook, a gentleman from Africa, was taking his morning wash in a basin that looked suspiciously like a bread pan.

On the street corners pretty girls, carrying new parasols, were grouped together, looking with admiring glances into shop windows. Along the streets new arrivals of young fellows on horses, and old fellows, just as young within were soberly driving family tumouts, containing mother and the children. As a rule from three to five of the little people contrived always to get on the front seat with the driver.

The circus band struck up the inspiring strains of “Champagne Charley,” and a mingled mass of humanity began winding its way to the “horse opera.” There, from the moment of the grand entree until the close of the performance, the boys and girls seemed spellbound with the Oriental magnificence of its sights and sounds. The venerable jokes of the clown were as new and as keenly relished as, ah, me, so many years ago, when the reporter was a boy. The gaily spangled dresses of the riders, and the fearful perils of the horsemen, held the lower seats, filled with boys, in the same trance of wonder. The eight boys had managed to get seated in a row like so many chickens on a fence, their mouths slightly opened, and their honest eyes protruding enough to be scraped off with a stick. Innocent boyhood enjoying its first pleasures. Most of them had, without doubt, performed unheard of tasks for three weeks to get taken to the circus. At its close, about four o’clock, when the audience began to disperse, they broke into family groups and slowly wended their way down street to their wagons, homeward bound, with heavier hearts and lighter pockets. How many of them wished they had their dollar back? The middle-aged frontiersman of the morning was seen mounted on a cayuse, headed toward Guerneville, riding pensively along, a little sideways in the saddle, trying to urge the pony into an easy lope, doubtless for reasons best known to himself.

How much money the showman took away is a question that cannot be answered. But, judging from the number in attendance, it must have been enough to pay off the debt of either of the Santa Rosa Colleges.

 

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marktwain1866

THE TIME MARK TWAIN CAME TO PETALUMA

Petaluma was soooo lucky. Mark Twain, that funny guy everyone was buzzing about, made only a few appearances before he left for the East Coast and Europe, probably never to return out west. Reviewers had been giddy with delight over his recent appearance in San Francisco: “From the beginning to the end, the interest was never allowed to flag,” gushed the Chronicle. “Taking it altogether, ‘Mark Twain’s lecture may be pronounced one of the greatest successes of the season.” Other SF newspapers sang with similar praise. Thus on November 26, 1866, you can bet Hinshaw’s Hall was crowded with Petalumans expecting to spend a jolly evening. Spoiler alert: They hated him.

The next edition of the Petaluma Journal and Argus offered a review of his lecture with the headline, “REPREHENSIBLE.” That fellow who called himself Mark Twain was a complete flop (“…as a lecturer he falls below mediocrity”) and the San Francisco papers should be condemned for misleading the public by giving good reviews to such bad entertainers.

Now, wait a minute; today, everyone knows Sam Clemens/Mark Twain was the most celebrated speaker of his time, if not all of American history. Surely that Petaluma critic was as much an idiot as the Hollywood producer who supposedly dissed Fred Astaire’s screen test, “can’t sing, can’t act, balding, can dance a little.”

As it turns out, the Petaluma review was truthful, albeit inartfully written (the full review is transcribed below, apparently for the first time since 1866). Evidence found in contemporary papers show Twain’s appearances in those weeks were often stinkers – and it seems he was aware of that but did not know how to improve. Following one lecture he told a friend he felt like he was a fraud who was taking people in.

But that’s not the story he tells in his memoir and first popular book, Roughing It, or when reminiscing as he did in his remarks about stage fright made after his daughter’s musical recital. In his version, he was nervous about his debut performance in San Francisco, fearful that no tickets would sell and no one would laugh at his jokes. He papered the house to pack it with friends including three “giants in stature, cordial by nature, and stormy-voiced” who were expected to howl with glee and beat their shillelagh on the floor whenever Twain made a funny. Still, he was terrified of failure. From Roughing It:


…before I well knew what I was about, I was in the middle of the stage, staring at a sea of faces, bewildered by the fierce glare of the lights, and quaking in every limb with a terror that seemed like to take my life away. The house was full, aisles and all! The tumult in my heart and brain and legs continued a full minute before I could gain any command over myself. Then I recognized the charity and the friendliness in the faces before me, and little by little my fright melted away, and I began to talk. Within three or four minutes I was comfortable, and even content. My three chief allies, with three auxiliaries, were on hand, in the parquette, all sitting together, all armed with bludgeons, and all ready to make an onslaught upon the feeblest joke that might show its head. And whenever a joke did fall, their bludgeons came down and their faces seemed to split from ear to ear…

“All the papers were kind in the morning,” Twain finished up, referring to those reviews the Petaluma paper later called “reprehensible.” As he didn’t write about his subsequent appearances, Gentle Reader was left with the impression all went smoothly after his debut butterflies. And as far as I can tell Twain biographers all take him at his word, speeding past events of that autumn to arrive without delay at his rise to international fame.

It’s a great shame more attention hasn’t been given to this period, as this was a turning point in his life. “Without means and without employment,” as he wrote in Roughing It, he convinced himself public speaking was his “saving scheme,” despite having absolutely no experience or training at it. And although the reviews after his debut were often poor, his convictions seemingly never faltered that he would now do this for a living. If nothing else, it’s an inspiring story of determination; constructing a Mark Twain from scratch was not easy work.

The topic of Twain’s lectures were the “Sandwich Islands,” AKA the Kingdom of Hawaii, where he had just spent five months as a special correspondent for the Sacramento Daily Union. The Kingdom was a pretty exotic place to Americans in 1866 and the couple of dozen articles he wrote were well received, but travelogue lectures are not where you usually expect an evening of knee-slappin’ humor. Twain destroyed his copy of the speech years later so we don’t know exactly what he said, but from snippets and summaries we know the lecture was mainly a travel description of people, places and things along with his wry observations. Or as the Sacramento Union critic wrote, he “seasoned a large dish of genuine information with spicy anecdote.”

The advertisements he placed in the papers became celebrated in their own right. Shown here is his first from the Sept. 30 Daily Alta California (CLICK or TAP to enlarge) with its funny blurbs. “A SPLENDID ORCHESTRA Is in town but has not been engaged“, read one of them. At other lectures he came up with different items, such as “THE WONDERFUL COW WITH SIX LEGS! Is not attached to this Menagerie“. Most famous was the tag at the end: “Doors open at 7 o’clock. The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock.” He varied this line, too; another example was, “Doors open at 7; the inspiration will begin to gush at 8.”

Once back in his old Gold Country stomping grounds, he also ran this in the Nevada Transcript and Grass Valley Union:


After the lecture is over, the lecturer will perform the following wonderful feats of SLIGHT OF HAND, if desired to do so: At a given signal. he will go out with any gentleman and take a drink. If desired, he will repeat this unique and interesting feat – repeat it until the audience are satisfied that there is no deception about it. At a moment’s warning he will depart out of town and leave his hotel bill unsettled. He has performed this ludicrous trick many hundreds of times in San Francisco and elsewhere, and it has always elicited the most enthusiastic comments.
At any hour of the night, after ten, the lecturer will go through any house in the city, no matter how dark it may be, and take an inventory of its contents, and not miss as many of the articles as the owner will in the morning. The lecturer declines to specify any more of his miraculous feats at present, for fear of getting the police too much interested in his circus.

The Mark Twain who appeared on stages in those weeks was more or less an imitation of his contemporary and friend who went by the name of Artemus Ward. One of the most popular humorists during the Civil War – Lincoln opened the cabinet meeting about the Emancipation Proclamation by reading aloud a little humor sketch – Ward’s stage persona was a backcountry hick who drawled through rambling stories, clueless there was anything remotely funny about his remarks. Audiences ate it up. It was Ward’s great success that undoubtedly inspired Twain to try his hand at it.

Those early lectures by Twain included a great deal of clowning. He would open by pretending he did not know there was an audience; if there was a piano available the curtain sometimes went up with him yowling and banging away at an old saloon tune, “I Had an Old Horse Whose Name Was Methusalem.” From a good profile of Twain’s years in the West, “Lighting Out for the Territory:”


As can best be reconstructed, he simply sauntered onto the stage from the wings, his hands stuffed into his pockets and a sheaf of papers clutched under his arm. He wandered vaguely around the lectern for a bit, looking for the most comfortable place to stand, and then appeared to notice the audience for the first time, the expression on his face registering an equal mixture of surprise, perplexity, and fear. For a long moment he looked silently at the audience while it looked back at him, waiting.

Once he introduced himself the comic shtick continued as he pretended to be shocked and mystified whenever there was laughter or applause. Describing his debut performance, a journalist in the audience recalled “…the apparently painful effort with which he framed his sentences, and above all, the surprise that spread over his face when the audience roared with delight or rapturously applauded…”

His Petaluma review was certainly the worst. but other reactions were decidedly mixed. Even as the Chronicle called his debut “one of the greatest successes of the season,” the back page of the same edition had a little item about running into Twain on Montgomery street and telling him “the envious and jealous” were saying it wasn’t worth the price of admission. When he appeared in San Jose the Mercury said “the lecture was entirely successful” while the Santa Clara Argus wrote “the lecture disappointed.” For his second San Francisco lecture the Chronicle called his performance unpolished and raw: “Some of ‘Mark’s'” jokes were very much strained, and others were so nearly improper–not to say coarse–that they could not be heartily laughed at by ladies.”

This was not harsh criticism, but that any were negative has to be weighed with understanding he had a “favorite son multiplier.” Samuel Clemens was a fellow newspaperman and drinking buddy of everyone in the City and in the Sierras who reviewed his appearances. They all wanted him to succeed, if for no other reason that he used his box office receipts to buy rounds of drinks after the show.

So great was his popularity that the harsh Petaluma review received its own smackdown from the Grass Valley Union:


Unfortunate Clemens! Why did you blight your lecturing prospects by attempting to pass the ordeal of the corn and spud-producers of the Russian river country? You may do in San Francisco and ‘sich like places,’ but you ought to have known better than to brave the Petaluma lions in their den…what business had you, Mark Twain, up in that part of the country? Telegraph to the St. Louis and Cincinnati Boards of Commerce that you cannot accept their invitations to lecture – that your lecturing star went down in Petaluma.

We have that sublime gob of sneer thanks to Santa Rosa’s newspaper, the Sonoma Democrat, where editor Thomas L. Thompson was still locked in battle with the Petaluma Argus over the Civil War, by then over a year and a half. (In an adjacent article, the Confederacy-mourning Thompson ranted at length about “the Radical tools and dupes of Abolition despotism.”) Thompson was clearly delighted that another editor handed him a cudgel to bash Petaluma and he did so with relish, taunting their critic as not “able to appreciate the entertainment” and comparing him to a dimwitted character in a Shakespearean play.

By the end of 1866 Mark Twain was on a ship headed to the East Coast. Over the next seven years he would deliver the Hawaii lecture some 150 times, by his count, almost always to acclaim. How did he completely turn it around?

For starters, he must have sharpened his focus once he was facing audiences of strangers and not his personal acquaintances, as was the case in California and Nevada. In the second Chronicle review they noted his weeks performing in front of his old pals in the Gold Country had changed his performance and not for the better: “…He was a little too familiar with his audiences. What will be thought very funny by the inhabitants of the desolated wastes on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, won’t do at all in great metropolis like San Francisco.”

He also likely improved the writing; the Hawaii lecture he gave in 1873 probably was very much evolved from the original of 1866. His early reviews remarked at how much information he packed in about the climate, volcanoes, weird food, “board surfing” and the native people who were primitive because they did not act or dress like Victorian-era Americans. That didn’t leave much time for humor beyond making witty asides; were people filling his theater seats for a geography lesson or to have some laughs?

An incident during the Nevada leg of his tour should have given him cause to reflect: While walking the short distance back to Virginia City after an appearance at a mining town, Twain was held up by masked robbers who took his money and expensive gold watch. It soon came out the highwaymen were really his friends playing a prank and everything was returned to him, but Twain was livid and unforgiving. Why did they do it? Some forty years later, one of would-be brigands revealed they hoped it would cause him to stick around Virginia City and give another talk. And hopefully for that lecture, the robbery – which they had made as scary as possible – would be his topic instead of rehashing those damned factoids about Sandwich Islands.

But it appears his biggest improvement was dropping the stage business – the silly gimcrackery of pretending he had no idea what he was doing in front of an audience. He became less targeted on checking off the list of Hawaii’s wonders than sitting back and telling us a story about the place. Here was the emergence of the beloved Mark Twain we all know (well, the Hal Holbrook we all know), the man in the white suit, relaxed in the comfy chair and flicking ashes off his cigar while keeping us spellbound with whatever fool thing that happened to pop to mind. Volcanoes? Jumping frogs? Steamboats and your Missouri childhood? Whatever, Mark, just keep talking. We’ll listen to anything you have to say. You never needed the theatrics.

Unknown illustration, probably from early edition of Roughing It

 

“Mark Twain’s” Consolation

Meeting “Mark” this morning on Montgomery street, the following dialogue ensued:

“Mark” — Well, what do they say about my lecture?

We–Why, the envious and jealous say it was “a bilk” and a “sell.”

“Mark” — All right. It’s a free country. Everybody has a right to his opinion, if he is an ass. Upon the whole, it’s a pretty even thing. They have the consolation of abusing me, and I have the consolation of slapping my pocket hearing their money jingle. They have their opinions, and I have their dollars. I’m satisfied.

– San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, October 3, 1866

SECOND LECTURE BY “MARK TWAIN”-Platt’s Hall has been engaged for to-morrow by “Mark Twain,” tor the delivery of his second lecture on the Sandwich Islands, and in addition he promises “the only true and reliable history of the late revolting highway robbery, perpetrated on the lecturer at the dead of night between the cities of Gold Hill and Virginia.” The tickets for the lecture are for sale at the book stores, “The wisdom will begin to flow at 8.” “Mark” will depart on the steamer of Monday, for a visit to the Atlantic States.

– Daily Alta California, November 15, 1866

…”Mark” was not as happy in this new lecture as he was in his old one. He was not in very good condition, having of course got alkalied while in the savage wilds of Washoe, and at the same time we fear that he had become a little demoralized. He was a little too familiar with his audiences. What will be thought very funny by the inhabitants of the desolated wastes on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, won’t do at all in great metropolis like San Francisco. Some of “Mark’s” jokes were very much strained, and others were so nearly improper–not to say coarse–that they could not be heartily laughed at by ladies. However, “Mark,” of course, sent the audience into fits of laughing again and again; and as a whole, his lecture was thoroughly enjoyed by those present. “Mark’s” travels to the interior, where he has so many friends, have not improved his style. The lecture which he delivered last night might have been polished considerably without wearing down any of the sharp points with which it was ornamented.

– San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, November 17, 1866

“Mark Twain,” the Missionary. styled the “Inimitable.” by the Mercury, favored a large and appreciative audience at San Jose, on Thursday, with an amusing account of what he heard, saw, and “part of which he was,” in the Sandwich lslands. One attraction, he announced, was necessarily omitted. In illustration of Cannibalism, as practiced anciently, he proposed to devour, in presence of the audience, any young and tender cherub if its maternal parent would stand such sacrifice for public edification, but there being no spare infants at hand the illustration was not given. With this exception, the Mercury says the lecture was entirely successful. They want him to do it again.

– Daily Alta California, November 24, 1866

The Argus, concerning ” Mark Twain’s” lecture, says: We have long been an admirer of the infutitable humor of the lecturer, as shown in his numerous letters and sketches that have been so widely published but confess that the lecture disappointed us. We expected to hear the Kanakas “joked blind,” but had no idea of being treated to such an intellectual feast as he served up to his audience. We never heard or read anything half so beautiful as his descriptions when he laid aside the role of the humorist and gave rein to his fancy. To use the expressions of a wrapt listener to the lecture, “he’s lightnin’.”

– Daily Alta California, November 25, 1866

MARK TWAIN.– The Alta of Sunday last says that Mark Twain is to deliver a lecture in this city Friday evening. We hope this is not a mistake.

– Petaluma Journal and Argus, November 22, 1866

REPREHENSIBLE.– The gentleman who enjoys a wide celebrity on this Coast as a spicy writer, over the non de plume of “Mark Twain,” delivered his lecture on the Sandwich Islands, in this city, on Monday evening last. While we accord to him the merit of being a spicy writer, candor compels us to say that as a lecturer he is not a success. We say this through no desire to be captious, but simply because it is literally true. As a newspaper correspondent Mark Twain is a racy and humorous writer, but as a lecturer he falls below mediocrity. In this connection we think it not inappropriate to address ourself to the editorial fraternity on this Coast, and to our San Francisco contemporaries in particular, in relation to the reprehensible practice of disguising the truth in reference to the qualifications and ability of persons who sell their talents for a valuable consideration, and too frequently “sell” those who go to hear them, innocently expecting to be instructed or amused. To remedy these evils we must begin at the fountain head. San Francisco occupies that proud eminence, and what she has of intelligence and real worth we delight to honor. She possesses an array of talent and varied accomplishments of which she may justly be proud; but her journals have apparently yet to learn to discriminate between stars of the first and ninth magnitude. They seem to lack the power of discrimination, and bespatter with printer’s ink all aspirants for public fame, without any seeming regard to their fitness or ability to meet the requirements of the public. Through their fulsome praise the public expectation, in the interior, is worked up to the highest pitch of expectation, and as a consequence nine times out of ten is doomed to disappointment. These frequent dampers upon public expectation has rendered the people so suspicious that lecturers of real merit are frequently mortified by finding themselves facing an audience that would be a discredit to the attractions of a hand organ.

– Petaluma Journal and Argus, November 29, 1866

POKING FUN AT PETALUMA.— The ridiculous comments of the Journal and Argus upon “Mark Twain’s” lecture in Petaluma, which we noticed at the time, have called forth some pretty sharp remarks from various quarters. The Grass Valley Union lets off steam in this manner: “Unfortunate Clemens! Why did you blight your lecturing prospects by attempting to pass the ordeal of the corn and spud-producers of the Russian river country? You may do in San Francisco and “sich like places,” but you ought to have known better than to brave the Petaluma lions in their den. What Mud Springs was to the Californian who crushed a certain young lady’s musical aspirations with a few well directed word-shots, silencing the match-making parent forever, Petaluma is in a lecturing way. Have not the Petalumans had Lisle Lester and other lecturing and reading stars up their way, and what business had you, Mark Twain, up in that part of the country? Telegraph to the St. Louis and Cincinnati Boards of Commerce that you cannot accept their invitations to lecture—-that your lecturing star went down in Petaluma.” There is a mistake here, through which injustice has been done to the people of our neighboring town. They had no fault to find with “Mark Twain.” On the contrary, his humorous and instructive lecture was highly appreciated by them. The editor of the Journal and Argus is the dissatisfied individual on whom Clemens wasted his wit. Not being able to appreciate the entertainment, he at once pronounced “Mark Twain” a failure. Evidently, when doing so, in the opinion of the press of the State, he followed the example of Dogberry of old, and displayed his ears rather prominently.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 22, 1866

 

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