Times Past

Dan Krieger: Opera marks milestone, helps celebrate fine county tradition

The “divine Sarah Bernhardt” came to San Luis Obispo in 1906. She had just performed in Racine’s “Phaedre” in Julia Morgan’s new Hearst Memorial Greek Theater at UC Berkeley. It was a benefit for victims of the San Francisco earthquake and fire.

Young Louis, who worked as a set handler at the Pavilion theater in San Luis Obispo, recalled Sarah Bernhardt giving someone a dollar tip for helping with her luggage. He said that she spoke mainly in French. She spoke only in very broken English. Still, the public flocked to her performances.

The theater here must not have impressed Mme. Bernhardt.

Lillian Russell had said, “The theater and my dressing room were the worst dumps that I’ve ever played.”

The Pavilion, originally the County Agricultural Exposition Pavilion, was at Monterey and Toro streets. The site later became the Kimball automobile dealership and now serves as county offices.

Dan Wolf, the impresario of the Pavilion, took advantage of a gap in the development of the Southern Pacific’s Coast Route between 1894 and 1901. Southbound passengers had to stay overnight in San Luis Obispo.

They could travel in the relative comfort of standard gauge rail service as far as San Luis Obispo.

From here, they had to board the narrow-gauge Pacific Coast Railway and then make a stage coach connection from Mattie’s Tavern in Los Olivos to Santa Barbara.

Still, a paying performance was better than a dead night for performers who felt most alive on the stage. So San Luis Obispo became a “theater town” in the vaudeville era.

Even after the through connection to Santa Barbara was made in 1901, companies stopped here to play to usually full houses at the shabby Pavilion.

Young started his 80-year career in the theater as a poster boy. He was paid 3 cents a sheet for slapping up theater posters all over town. He had to supply his own paste.

Young was promoted to stage hand moving the traveling sets from the rail cars and setting them up at the Pavilion. After the performance, he had to return them to the baggage cars.

The dressing rooms had very thin walls. Local boys found that they could make peepholes through the wall of the women’s dressing room. Young laughingly recalled that this added a new and lively meaning to the word “peep show.”

Today, with the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly and South County’s Clark Center, we have performance venues that would have wowed Sarah Bernhardt and the complaining “Jersey Lily,” Lillian Russell. These facilities have proven ideal for the Pacific Repertory Opera.

This marvelous company is celebrating its silver anniversary with a new name: Opera San Luis Obispo.

On Friday, Nov. 5, at the Clark Center, Opera San Luis Obispo presents a party opera specially created to celebrate many great moments in its history.

Staged as a complete opera, the evening includes a visit to Prince Orlofsky’s palace in “Die Fledermaus.” Surprise guests perform arias, duets and ensembles from many operas of the past 25 years including “Carmen,” “La Traviata,” “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Un Ballo in Maschera.”

For tickets, contact the Clark Center at 489-9444 or visit www.clarkcenter.org or the Opera’s website at www.operaslo.org.

Opera and fine drama have been a part of San Luis Obispo for more than 140 years. Never before has it been so accessible and thoroughly enjoyable. Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.