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California's First Theater

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Joined: 27 Nov 2007
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Location: Monterey County, California

PostPosted: Mon Apr 14, 2008 2:13 pm    Post subject: California's First Theater Reply with quote

OLD Jack Swan landed in Monterey in 1843, three years ahead of the Yankees.

Whether the skipper of the Soledad wanted a better cook, and fired him, or whether he jumped ship does not appear.

Whatever his attainments in the art of preparing chow for his shipmates, he certainly made good pies. Which he proceeded to do as soon as he had acquired the necessary flour, manteca, and the fruit filling—and, of course, an oven. They sold fast to the Bostonese, and later to the Monterenos, who had before only known empanadas, confections like Yankee "turnovers." They sold as fast as he could turn them out.

With the proceeds, he purchased a piece of land on Calle Estrada (now Pacific Street), and built a saloon and boarding house for sailors, with a lean-to for his own abiding-place (1847). He liked Monterey.

Now, there came to the capital in the spring of 1847, Col. Jonathan Drake Stevenson, with part of his command, the famous New York Volunteers. Two companies had been assigned to Monterey. When the Mexican War was over, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had been ratified (February 2, 1848). The regiment was mustered out, some of the companies having been ordered to Monterey to be disbanded.

Among the New Yorkers were several clever fellows who, to relieve the tedium of barrack life ('47) put on plays in the Cuartel. Later, out-of-doors. To these performances no admittance charge was made. But when it looked as if Uncle Sam's pay-checks would soon cease, it occurred to them that an honest penny might be made by putting on plays for money. But where?

Somebody with a glib tongue sought out Jack Swan, and showed him how he owed it to the community to let the soldier-players put on their performances in his large room. That the emissary succeeded is evidenced by the fact that "Putnam, or the Lion Son of '76" was staged—for money—in the spring of '48. A stage had been built less than a foot from the floor, at the south end of the room, with a wooden curtain, raised and lowered by a rope and pulley system. Footlights-tallow candles, or whale oil dips. Perhaps both. The curtain of wood is still in place.

Bancroft says that, at the first performance, only five women were in attendance. Probably from the casus de los fandangos. The "good" women of the Capital were extremely conservative, and it is easy to see how they would look upon such a social innovation. But before the run of plays was over, their curiosity, as well as their love of amusement, broke down the dam of conservatism. It is said the "box" on that first night's performance totaled $500, mostly in doubloons.

The members of the company included Captain and Mrs. C. E. Bingham (the former aide-de-camp to General Zachary Taylor), Charles Chichester, Peter Earl, the Frank Wentrells, Lieutenant Sully, John Harris, Thomas Beech, Captain Wingfield, Mrs. Kettlebottom, and Lieutenant Derby—the latter a famous wit, who wrote later under the name of "Squibob"— and Major John O'Neill and Mrs. O'Neill. (The latter became permanent residents of the Capital, their granddaughter, Mrs. Nellie Fleisher, occupying a finely designed old frame house on the hill overlooking the town.)

Other plays included "Box and Cox," "Damon and Pythias,” "Grandfather Whitehead," "The Golden Farmer," and "Nan, the Good-for-Nothing." Even "Romeo and Juliet" was essayed by the ambitious thespians.

The Cuartel performances of '47—without pay— and therefore not officially "theater" performances, were put on by Matt Gormley, Bill Tindal, Jack Morgan, and Long Lee, all members of Company F, Third Regiment, United States Artillery. They were in barracks at the Cuartel, under the official roof of the First Capitol. Did Governor Mason, a dignified, austere soul, and his equally dignified adjutant-general, Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman, attend the performances, under their own roof?

The Mexican musicians who gave a concert or two before the coming of the Americans come under the "no-pay" classification.

In the natural course of events, Jack Swan died (1896), and his First Theater, built on a foundation of pies, began to disintegrate. In 1909, or thereabouts, a group of Montereyans bought the property, and deeded it to the State. Funds were then provided by the legislature for its restoration. It has successively served as a saloon, a lodging house for sailors, and later for whalers; a drug store, tea room and shop; and has evolved into a decorous museum, under the direction of the State Division of Parks. It is chiefly due to Carmel Martin and Harry A. Greene of Monterey that the romantic old theater was saved from disintegration.

It may be noticed that in the list of performers in the First Theater, Jenny Lind is not mentioned. The reason is that she did not sing there. If there is a sillier yarn than that.

Jenny Lind came to the United States under the management of P. T. Barnum. But the "Swedish Nightingale" and her manager terminated their enterprise on the banks of the Mississippi. The facts are so well established by the best of documentary evidence that to repeat the story of her having sung in California is a naive confession of complete ignorance of the subject. Those who cannot possibly find it in their souls to debunk this yarn may read Werner's life of Barnum. So deeply ingrained is the story that one meets persons whose mothers—who couldn't and wouldn't lie—had heard her sing in San Francisco. Also in Monterey.

The story probably started from the fact that a "Jenny Lind Theater" stood in the Plaza in San Francisco in the '50s. And Jack Swan, who was a good advertiser—he wore a band on his hat bearing the inscription "JACK SWAN, PIONEER '43"—concluded the singer must have sung there. So, therefore, he must have it appear that she came to Monterey, and sang in his theater, too. And the story stuck.

There is plenty of interest in the First Theater in California—legitimate interest—to confine statements relating to it to ascertainable truth.

It is the ambition of the Monterey History and Art Association to lure back the First Theater to its early dramatic uses. A sympathetic attitude on the part of the State Parks Commission, and an eagerness on the part of the lovers of the play on the peninsula lend hope to the ultimate success of the plan.

The museum could continue to function in the three smaller rooms, and in the interesting entrance room, in which a noble fireplace is a dominating feature.

What a delectable pleasure to see one of the good old plays produced in the old room, by some of the brilliant players of Carmel—Herbert Heron, father of the Forest Theater, for instance, to put it through!
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