Gold Rush Impresario paved the way for SF to become a big city of theater

Opera theater

Of all the personalities who made San Francisco early into a great theater city, the most flamboyant, controversial and indispensable was an irrepressible Irishman from New York named Tom Maguire. Known as the “Napoleon of the Stage,” Maguire was the city’s leading theater producer for over 20 years. Born in humble circumstances and blessed with an uncanny ability to bounce back from disaster, he was the perfect impresario for Gold Rush City.

As Lois Foster Rodecape wrote in the California Historical Society Quarterly in a series of articles beginning in December 1941, Maguire grew up in New York City, where he was a hack driver, Tammany Hall assistant, and bartender. He was a young bravo, fearless and quick with his fists, and supposedly illiterate. In 1849, this energetic and ambitious young man decided to try his luck as a theater director in San Francisco.

After arriving in Instant Town, Maguire found employment as a salon keeper at the old Parker House in Portsmouth Square. He quickly became part-owner, repeatedly rebuilding the building when it burned down in the large fires that ravaged Gold Rush San Francisco. After the fourth fire, in September 1850, Maguire added a small theater on the second floor, calling it the Jenny Lind named after the famous Swedish singer. In the highly diverse style of early San Francisco theater, Maguire staged a mix of Shakespeare, burlesque, minstrel and comedy.

Maguire quickly established the Jenny Lind as one of the city’s premier theaters. Then disaster struck once again, when the Sixth Great Fire, in 1851, reduced the building to a heap of ash. Four days after the fire, Maguire began to rebuild again. The new Jenny Lind Theater could seat 2,000 people and was widely acclaimed as one of the city’s tallest buildings when it opened on October 4, 1851, with a play titled Shakespeare-in-the-Mother-Lode ” All that glitters is No gold.

Despite a string of theatrical successes, Maguire was unable to pay his construction debts. In 1852, one of the biggest scandals in the history of the young town erupted when rumor leaked that Maguire was negotiating with city officials to sell his building to be used as a town hall, for the vast sum of $ 200,000. Critics denounced “corruption” and “bribes”, while supporters said the city needed a town hall and the deal was reasonable. After a great uproar, the sale took place and Maguire paid off his debts.

In 1855, Maguire returned to the theatrical scene, making hay on the city’s decade-long craze for blackface minstrel performances. His San Francisco Minstrels have been hailed as the best minstrel troupe in town: performing at Maguire’s new theater, the San Francisco Hall, they presented not only traditional minstrels, but also burlesque plays of classical and musical plays. ‘operas, presented in blackface: what is called “black opera”, as opposed to “white opera”.

In 1856, full of money, Maguire completely remodeled his theater and reopened it as “Maguire’s Opera House”. He added a popular saloon next to the theater, The Snug, known as the “little” house because drinks cost a “little” or 12.5 cents.

Maguire now spanned the narrow world of San Francisco theater like a colossus. But he had bigger ambitions. He opened theaters in Sacramento and Nevada, sent tour companies to the Gold Country, and recruited top New York talent, bringing companies in by train after the transcontinental railroad opened in 1869. Amongst others the stars who made their West Coast debut for him were Charles Kean, Edwin Forrest, Lola Montez and Adah Isaac Menken.

Maguire did not have an office. Instead, every morning at 11 a.m. he held an audience in front of his opera house. His striking appearance – he was tall and well built, had a lush mustache, and often sported a huge diamond brooch pinned to his sash – and his volatile personality made him a favorite of the newspapers, which delighted in reporting his many brawls, trials, quarrels. and controversies.

Despite his thorny temperament, Maguire could be kind and generous. One day he was approached by a respectable but poorly dressed woman, who timidly asked him how much it would cost to rent her theater to give a lecture on spiritualism. ” You have money ? ” He asked. When she said she didn’t, but could pay it back after the conference, he told her he would rent it to her for $ 50. When she came to pay him and he found out that she had only earned $ 60, he told her to keep it and add music to the program to make it more popular. She won $ 100 on the next show and tried to pay it again, but he told her to buy some clothes and not to worry about the rent.

For more than two decades, Maguire dominated the San Francisco theater scene. His ups and downs were legendary: he was said to have won and lost millions of dollars several times. If he had contented himself with staging mainly popular works, he could have withdrawn a rich man. But Maguire had an inordinate passion, and that proved his downfall: grand opera. It was sort of normal that this uneducated slum kid who had landed gold beyond his wildest dreams was drawn to the larger-than-life characters, the implausible storylines, and the moving music of the opera. But Maguire’s lyrical enterprises, even when they were performing to full halls, generally lost money – often large sums of money. In 1880, a final series of setbacks, topped by his unfortunate support for an unfortunate play on the life of Jesus, “The Passion,” dealt Maguire a financial blow that even he could not overcome. The San Franciscans who had seen him resurrected time and time again could hardly believe it when they learned that he had returned to New York. He died there in poverty and relative obscurity in 1896.

Like Napoleon himself, Maguire had legions of detractors and made many enemies during his long career as the backstage king of the histrionic stage. But it was essential in making San Francisco a great theatrical city. And the city’s opera enthusiasts owe him a special debt. Although his career ended in failure, he failed in grand style, out of passion for a great art form. Maguire’s irrepressible, scintillating words after one of his financially dire seasons could be his epitaph: “I lost $ 30,000; but I didn’t give them opera, did I?

Gary Kamiya is the author of the Northern California Book Award-winning bestseller Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco in the Creative Non-Fiction category. His new book, with drawings by Paul Madonna, is “Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City”. All Portals of the Past material is original for The San Francisco Chronicle. To read about past portals from the past, visit sfchronicle.com/portals. For more features from The Chronicle’s 150-year archive, visit sfchronicle.com/vault. Email: [email protected]

The previous trivia question: How many of the 8,300 workers who built the Bay Bridge died during construction?

Reply: 24.

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