Times Past

Rail gap gave rise to theater in SLO

The Gap revolutionized public entertainment in San Luis Obispo. This isn’t the clothing store that has marketed to young people globally since 1969. Instead, it was a real “gap” in standard gauge rail service that was created after the first trains came down through the Cuesta tunnels on May 4, 1894.

Until the completion of through rail service south to Santa Barbara in 1901, southbound passengers had to stay overnight in San Luis Obispo. Passengers could travel in the relative comfort of standard gauge rail service as far as San Luis Obispo. But from here, they had to board the narrow gauge Pacific Coast Railway and then make a stage coach connection from Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos to Santa Barbara.

San Luis Obispo was noted for being a “dead town” except for its many bars and well-known “red light districts.”

A few famous performers risked traveling from elegant venues in San Francisco to the growing metropolis of Los Angeles. They were joined by many lesser-known but talented actors and musicians. They came to realize that a paying performance was better than a dead night in a dull town. San Luis Obispo became a “theater town” in the traveling vaudeville circuit era.

Small-town theater impresario Dan Wolf took advantage of “the gap” to secure contracts with performers as famous as Lillian Russell and the “divine Sarah Bernhardt.”

Wolf’s problem was that San Luis Obispo lacked a dedicated theater space. A small theater was created in the 800 block of Monterey Street, upstairs in the Blackstone Hotel. It lacked sufficient seating to pay the fees of a well-known attraction like Sarah Bernhardt.

So Wolf leased the County Agricultural Exposition Pavilion, at Monterey and Toro. The site later became the Kimball automobile dealership and now serves as county offices. The lower floor of the twostory building had been used to display live dairy stock. San Luis Obispo residents still alive in the 1970s, including Dorothy Unangst Bilodeau, Pearl Mallagh and Young Louis, chuckled at Wolf’s elegantly renamed Pavilion. It still smelled like an old barn.

Russell was quoted as saying, “The theater and my dressing room were the worst dumps that I’ve ever played.”

Bernhardt seemed not to mind as much. She had come from seeing the burnt shells of her one-time venues in San Francisco. In May 1906, she got off the train to Los Angeles to do a recital at the Pavilion. She had just performed as the heroine 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, eldest son of pioneer merchant Ah Louis, began his 80-year career in theater as aset handler at the Pavilion. He recalled seeing Bernhardt giving someone a dollar tip for helping with her luggage. He said she spoke mainly in French. She spoke very broken English. Still, the local public flocked to her performances.

Young was promoted to stagehand 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 lived up to Russell’s description. They had 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.”

It was in the Pavilion in 1912 that Young made a transition from stagehand to projectionist. Thomas Edison’s Vitascope premiered April 23, 1896, at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City. By 1901, you could catch a traveling exhibition in San Francisco. But by 1912, the silver screen had come to San Luis Obispo to stay.

On Christmas Eve 1911, the El Monterey Theatre, later renamed The Obispo, with a seating capacity of 1,000 opened. In 1912, The Pavilion was closed as a theatrical venue.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.