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[TIMELINE] Arts Helped Recovery From San Francisco's 1906 Earthquake

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  • madchinaman
    After Quake, Arts Helped San Francisco Rebound Laura Sydell http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5324301 One hundred years ago this month, San
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 24, 2006
      After Quake, Arts Helped San Francisco Rebound
      Laura Sydell

      One hundred years ago this month, San Francisco was forever changed.
      At the time it was the eighth-largest American city, and the
      economic and cultural hub of the West Coast. But on April 18, 1906,
      an earthquake and then fires struck, killing 3,000 people. In the
      aftermath, much of the city was leveled. But through it all, San
      Francisco's arts community kept singing, writing, acting, and
      raising money to help bring the city back to life.

      The San Francisco of 1906 was diverse; there were Russians,
      Italians, Mexicans, Germans, Chinese. Almost every ethnic group
      could hear performances in their own language. Especially popular
      was the 1,500-seat Royal Chinese Theater, one of the city's oldest,
      where audiences heard Chinese opera that's still being performed
      today in San Francisco.

      On April 17, on the eve of the earthquake, San Franciscans were out
      on the town. The big news was Enrico Caruso performing in Bizet's
      Carmen at the Opera House. But a production of Babes in Toyland, a
      popular operetta at the time, also drew crowds to the Columbia
      Theater downtown.

      San Francisco also had a very large rough-and-tumble neighborhood
      known as the Barbary Coast, where among the seamy waterfront dives
      patrons visited dance halls featuring chorus girls, says Brad
      Rosenstein, curator of exhibitions and programs at the San Francisco
      Performing Arts Library.

      San Francisco's dance halls and theaters all grew out of the Gold
      Rush days, when the city went from a town of a few hundred people to
      a metropolis of tens of thousands almost overnight. Miners visited
      the city looking for entertainment. As some made money and settled
      in the city, they wanted to support the arts, Rosenstein says.

      "They started really believing in building a city that had quality
      restaurants, quality theaters," he says. "People were amazed... when
      they started coming out here in the 1850s, how what had been this
      very rough frontier town" had turned into what some called
      the "Paris of the West."

      The city drew illustrious performers such as Caruso, the Italian
      tenor, and the doyenne Sarah Bernhardt. Like Paris, the San
      Francisco of 1906 also had its painters and writers.

      In the North Beach neighborhood, a restaurant named Coppa's was a
      hangout for writers including Gelet Burgess, Frank Norris and Jack
      London, and California landscape painters Xaiver Martinez and Arthur
      Frank Mathews.

      "People would come to Coppa's to watch the young intellectuals,
      writers and artists exchange repartee," says San Francisco State
      Humanities Professor Marvin Nathan. "They had a great table in the
      center of the restaurant. Jack London cut an extremely heroic

      Oddly enough, a writer had scrawled on a wall, "Something terrible
      is going to happen." Early in the morning of April 18, a 7.8-
      magnitude earthquake hit the city.

      All but one of San Francisco's theaters were destroyed. And Coppa's -
      - the restaurant that had been the center of a bohemian artists
      scene -- burned down, as did the studios of many artists. The
      photographer Carleton Watkins lost all of his work. Watkins never
      recovered from the shock. Four years later he was committed to a
      psychiatric hospital and died there in 1916.

      Some of the artists faded into obscurity because they lost much of
      their work in the disaster, says Scott Shields, the senior curator
      at the Crocker Arts Museum in Sacramento.

      William Keith, an internationally recognized landscape painter, lost
      2,000 works in the fires, much of his life's work. Keith spent the
      last five years of his life trying to repaint what he'd lost.

      With the destruction of Coppa's the thriving Bohemian scene
      dissipated, San Francisco State's Nathan says. For three years, the
      city was a "pretty desolate place to be," he says.

      But, the performing arts began to reemerge quickly. Local producers
      set up tents and staged performances for a weary but grateful
      audience. The city may have gotten its biggest boost a month after
      the earthquake. The French actress Sarah Bernhardt did a free
      performance of Phedre for more than 5,000 survivors at the Greek
      Theater on the University of California Berkeley campus.

      The performing arts played a key role in the city's recovery --
      helping financially and psychologically, says Rosenstein of the San
      Francisco Performing Arts Library.

      Other performers followed Bernhardt's lead. They gave benefit
      performances around the country. Within four years, most of San
      Francisco's theaters had been rebuilt. In 1910, another famous
      friend of San Francisco, the opera star Louisa Tetrazzini, gave a
      free concert to thousands of people in the midst of a rebuilt
      downtown. She stood in front of Lotta's Fountain -- one of the few
      structures untouched by the earthquake -- and sang "The Last Rose of

      San Francisco was back. But its culture had changed. The Bohemian
      artists and writers' scene wouldn't really return until the 1940s,
      with the emergence of poets like Robert Duncan and Madeline Gleason,
      followed by the beat poets of the 1950s. The theaters were booming,
      but the Barbary Coast with all its quirkiness had vanished.

      Still, most San Franciscans feel their city retains the diversity
      and character born of the Gold Rush culture. And it remains a city
      that loves its arts.
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