Historical Timeline

 

1906

The original Columbia Theatre, one of the eight large venues in San Francisco's thriving downtown theater scene, is located at Powell and Ellis Streets. At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, the successful Columbia run of Victor Herbert's musical extravaganza Babes in Toyland is abruptly interrupted. The ground gives way under the theater as the great San Francisco earthquake and fire lay siege to the entire city. All eight of the downtown theaters, including the Columbia, are destroyed. Owners "Jake" Gottlob and Melville Marx set up temporary theatrical facilities in tents and other makeshift structures while the work on the new Columbia starts.

 

1908

Widely respected local architects William Faville and Walter Bliss—designers of San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel, Southern Pacific Building, and Bank of California Building—have been selected to design the new Columbia, to be moved to a new location on Geary Street. Two employees of the firm are sent on a grand European tour to study the theatrical architecture in Europe's best theaters. Faville and Bliss's neoclassical design, with a touch of the baroque, gracefully blends a lively mix of theatrical architectural styles, including tripartitioned Roman arches, late-Renaissance Italian commedia dell'arte arches, and arch-framing Greek urns. The cost of the entire project is $850,000.

 

1909

The ground-breaking ceremony for the new Columbia Theatre is a significant event in the city's social calendar, featuring appearances by high society and local politicians. Prominent actress Rose Stahl leads the event.

 

1910

The construction of the Columbia Theatre is completed in just one year, and the theater opens on January 10, 1910, with a performance by William H. Crane's company of George Ade's Father and the Boys. The opening of the new Columbia is celebrated by local press as an important step in the city's recovery from the devastation of 1906. Called a "perfect playhouse" by the San Francisco Chronicle and a "splendid temple of drama" by the Bulletin, the Columbia receives rave reviews.

From "New Theater Is Approved by All," an article covering the opening of the theater that appears in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 11: "First nighters listened with pride when the Mayor, in his address of dedication, pointed out that the whole undertaking, from foundation to dome, was a monument to the future as well as to the past, erected for and by San Francisco. In all artistry and appointments [the Columbia Theatre] equaled the splendor of the East; in all sentiment it throbbed with the spirit of the West. . . . More than any other institution [a theater] reflects the life and character of a city and perhaps this is peculiarly true of San Francisco, most joyous of all the sister cities, the one who always wears flowers in her hair, although her tired feet trail through hot ashes."

The Columbia develops a reputation as a venue for the world's greatest performers, and by 1917 it will be the only theater offering legitimate drama in San Francisco. The names recorded in the doorman's log for the Columbia's first several decades are a veritable theatrical "Who's Who" of the era, with appearances by such legendary actors as Otis Skinner, Maude Adams, Mrs. Fiske, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, John Drew, Billie Burke, Basil Rathbone, Chauncey Olcott, Pauline Lord, Ruth Chatterton, Henry Miller, Ina Claire, and Lionel and Ethel Barrymore. The theater also becomes a favored destination for internationally renowned opera, chamber music, jazz, and dance ensembles for its excellent acoustics and large stage.

 

1911

Sarah Bernhardt appears in eight plays in one week in her farewell American tour.

Fanny Brice appears in Ziegfeld's Follies of 1910.

 

1912

The San Francisco theater community stages a benefit performance for the survivors of the Titanic disaster.

 

1912-13

After the first full-time movie house opens in San Francisco, Gotlobb keeps in step with the times by installing a projection booth in the back of the gallery and begins showing one or two films each year. The first films, shown in the four-week summer season of 1913, are newsreels advertised as "Kinemacolor Pictures of animated photography in natural colors secured by the sun's rays only." Several ground-breaking films will be presented at the Columbia in the early years, including D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), The Thief of Bagdad, with Douglas Fairbanks (1924), and Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments (1924).

 

1917

A 17-year-old Helen Hayes makes her stage debut in Pollyanna.

 

1918

Internationally acclaimed dancer Isadora Duncan—born in a building at Geary and Taylor in 1877—returns home to San Francisco for A Chopin Recital.

 

1924-28

Through a series of management changes, the name of the theater changes to Wilkes Theatre (1924) and then to Lurie Theatre (1927). In 1928, Louis Lurie sells his interest to Homer Curran and the Wobber Brothers, who operate the Curran Theater next door, giving the Shubert booking agency control over both houses. The building is renamed the Geary Theater with the final sale. For the next 30 years, the shared management and the similarity of both theaters' productions will often cause the local press to confuse the Geary and the Curran. The first production under the new name is The Scarlet Woman, starring Pauline Frederick.

 

1926

Pauline Frederick and Clark Gable appear in Madame X and Lucky Sam McCarver.

 

1929

The play The Front Page, which will later be turned into a celebrated film, opens at the Geary. The off-color language causes controversy in San Francisco, with the San Francisco Chronicle commenting that the play features "the most cuss words ever heard in the theater." The protests ease up after the producers agree to remove the word "Jesus" from the play.

When Lowell Sherman appears in The Guardsman, Wilson's ice cream store offers a "Lowell Sherman Special": maple pecan and chocolate ice cream with butternut dressing, whipped cream, and rubyette topper, for 35 cents. The policy of naming a special after a star or a local play continues for many years. During a revival of the 1860s melodrama After Dark, the bar in the theater's basement is reopened (dry) for the occasion.

 

1931

The Geary Theater is wired for sound and the reign of the talking film begins. The first talkie to be shown at the Geary is Journey's End, a World War I drama, which opens with a 40-piece orchestra to a capacity house and an audience of visiting foreign dignitaries. Films are treated the same as stage plays: tickets are sold for reserved seats, and the usual playbill listing cast and production credits is distributed.

An all-black cast of 68 performs the pre-Gershwin Porgy, "a folk play" by Dubose and Dorothy Hayward.

 

1939

On Christmas night, infamous showman Earl Carroll, known as "The Troubadour of the Nude," opens the Earl Carroll Vanities, featuring his signature scantily clad dancers. This is the only Carroll show to open outside of New York City. According to his tradition, he breaks a bottle of perfume over the door of the theater. Each girl who captures a cup- or spongeful of the liquid is guaranteed good luck for herself for the duration of the production. Over the Geary doors, he places a plaque bearing his motto, "Through These Portals Pass the Most Beautiful Girls in the World."

 

1940

Laurence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh, appear in Romeo and Juliet. Maurice Evans stars in Hamlet and Richard II.

 

1941

The Geary is the site of the much-anticipated local premiere of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. The film is believed to be based on the life and career of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who bans advertisements and editorials mentioning the film from all of his papers, including the San Francisco Examiner. Despite the boycott, the film's premiere is a huge event for San Francisco. It is rumored that Hearst sees the film at the Geary.

The Geary is the only theater within 400 miles of San Francisco to present Disney's Fantasia.

 

1943

Howard Hughes's infamous movie The Outlaw premieres at the Geary, turning its buxom star, Jane Russell, overnight into a sex icon. The film prominently features Russell's breasts (reportedly supported by a specially designed wire-structured bra), which causes huge controversy and almost shuts down the presentation; the film is banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. After some cuts, the Production Code office approves the film, and it runs for a sold-out ten weeks at the Geary with ads featuring pictures of its star with the slogan, "How'd you like to tussle with Russell?"

 

1945

Paul Robeson, Jose Ferrer, and Ferrer's wife, Uta Hagen, appear in Othello.

The spectacular Rain features 8,000 gallons of water per performance, and Dear Ruth employs 476 prop items, including 46 bunches of lilacs and 200 boxes of Cracker Jack.

 

1946

During World War II through the 50s, the owners make the Geary available for more populist entertainment alongside its legitimate fare, including an appearance by legendary stripper Ann Corio in Sleep It Off. Among the most infamous of such "light" entertainments is the sexually charged Mary Had a Little, filled with "sledge-hammer innuendos" and near nudity. The San Francisco Chronicle calls the production "the most discouraging event of the year."

 

1947

The American Negro Theatre production of Anna Lucasta, with Ossie Davis, plays two five-week runs.

 

1948

The "first couple" of American theater, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, star in O Mistress Mine.

Judith Anderson stars in Medea.

 

1940-60

Through these years, the Geary becomes a destination for pre-Broadway tryouts and Broadway tours (e.g., Mae West in Diamond Lil, 1950; Julie Harris in The Lark, 1956; and Tallulah Bankhead in Crazy October, 1958) and pop performers (Marcel Marceau, Edith Piaf, Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr., Maurice Chevalier, Marlene Dietrich, Yves Montand, and Johnny Mathis), alongside prominent international and American dance companies (Katherine Dunham, the Ceylon National Dancers, Kabuki Dance Theatre, Martha Graham, Les Ballets Africains, Ballets de Madrid, and San Francisco Ballet). During the 1950s, blacklist pressures increase foreign imports, including the Abbey Theatre Company and D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.

 

1962

Of the eight downtown theaters built immediately after the 1906 earthquake, only two stay in operation after the O'Farrell Street Alcazar is torn down in 1962. The Curran operates on a four-wall rental basis for out-of-town musicals, leaving the Geary to carry on the city's grand theatrical tradition.

 

1966

Following the closing of San Francisco's resident theater company, the Actors Workshop, a group of San Francisco civic leaders, including Cyril Magnin, Melvin Swig, and Mortimer Fleishhacker, travel down to Stanford, where the then one-year-old American Conservatory Theater is in residence for four weeks. Taking the trip in a custom coach complete with drinks and hors d'oeuvres, the representatives of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce take in a production of Charley's Aunt, starring Rene Auberjonois. What they do not find out until after the performance is that the production is almost doomed, with half the cast arriving from Connecticut—there had been no chance for the two halves to meet or have a technical rehearsal for this antic farce requiring flawless timing. Thankfully, the performance goes smoothly and the investors are impressed enough to start negotiations immediately to make A.C.T. the resident company in San Francisco. As part of its tour, A.C.T. moves on to Chicago, where civic leaders also make a bid to move the troupe to their city. Promising to raise $200,000 for A.C.T.'s first season, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce secures this young company as permanent residents of the Geary Theater.

 

1967

A.C.T.'s first production at the Geary is Tartuffe, starring Rene Auberjonois. The opening night is a glittering affair and the production receives rave reviews. Cecil Smith of the Los Angeles Times says: "The applause roared on and on. The actors on stage, having done all their curtain call tricks, finally just stood, many with damp eyes. A.C.T. founder-director William Ball wept and Cyril Magnin, one of the prime civic movers in the movement to establish A.C.T. permanently here, did a victory dance in the aisle, grabbed a nearby woman to give her a resounding kiss." In its first season, A.C.T. performs 16 productions in repertory at the Geary and at the Marines Memorial Theatre. Company members who appear in two shows simultaneously become well-known figures on Mason Street as they make their nightly dashes between scenes.

 

1968

A.C.T. begins its Student Matinee (SMAT) program. Since 1968, more than half a million students have seen A.C.T. productions; for many, it is their first theater experience.

 

1969

Glory! Hallelujah! by Anne Maria Barlow, an A.C.T. world premiere, is taped and broadcast by PBS.

 

1970

At the age of 72, Dame Judith Anderson returns to the Geary to play the title role of Hamlet in a national touring production directed by William Ball and produced in association with A.C.T.

 

1971

Allen Fletcher translates and directs An Enemy of the People, inaugurating an A.C.T. Ibsen cycle that eventually encompasses seven major works over the next 14 years.

 

1972

The Royal Shakespeare Company performs Peter Brook's staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Geary as part of the A.C.T. subscription season.

 

1974

With the generous support of the Ford Foundation, A.C.T. purchases the Geary Theater.

Cyrano de Bergerac, with Peter Donat, Marsha Mason, Marc Singer, and Paul Shenar, is taped and presented nationwide by PBS.

 

1975

The Geary Theater is awarded a place on the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Register of Historic places and named a landmark of the State of California and the City and County of San Francisco.

PBS tapes and presents The Taming of the Shrew, directed by William Ball and featuring Marc Singer and Fredi Olster.

A.C.T. presents the world premieres of Tennessee Williams's This Is (An Entertainment), Michael McClure's General Gorgeous, and Dennis Powers's and Laird Williamson's A Christmas Carol, featuring William Paterson as Scrooge.

 

1979

A.C.T. wins a Tony Award for theatrical achievement and excellence in repertory performance and actor training.

 

1980

A.C.T.'s A Christmas Carol is broadcast by the Arts and Entertainment Network.

 

1982

A.C.T. presents the world premiere of New Yorker cartoonist William Hamilton's Happy Landings.

 

1983

A.C.T. presents the world premiere of The Holdup, by Marsha Norman.

 

1984

The Western Association of States and Colleges grants A.C.T. full academic accreditation and the authority to award the master of fine arts (M.F.A.) degree in acting.

 

1986

William Ball leaves A.C.T. and Ed Hastings, who has been with the company since its beginnings, becomes the new artistic director.

 

1987

The company joins forces with the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC) to present Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, by August Wilson. The California premiere is a critical and popular success in both San Francisco and Los Angeles.

 

1989

The Loma Prieta earthquake occurs at 5:04 p.m., less than two hours before ushers are to open the doors to patrons expecting see the A.C.T. season opener, George Coates's Right Mind (October 17). The earthquake causes severe cosmetic damage, ripping a gaping hole in the ceiling, destroying the proscenium arch, and dumping tons of equipment and debris on the first six rows of orchestra seats. For the next six years, A.C.T. performs its repertory season in seven different San Francisco theaters.

 

1991

Theatre Crafts International honors A.C.T.'s production department, headed by Production Director James Haire, for exceptional work in getting the theater back on its feet after the earthquake.

Carey Perloff, former artistic director of Classic Stage Company in New York, is appointed artistic director of A.C.T. to succeed Edward Hastings. The third artistic director in A.C.T.'s history, Perloff is known for her groundbreaking productions of classical works and bold explorations of contemporary playwriting.

 

1994

Renovations begin, overseen by Gensler and Associates/Architects.

On June 13, festivities hosted by A.C.T. company member Sydney Walker mark the beginning of reconstruction of the Geary Theater. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi is recognized for her efforts on behalf of the company in securing federal support for the rebuilding of the theater.

 

1995

The Kresge Foundation awards A.C.T. a $750,000 challenge grant for the Geary Theater Capital Campaign, one of the largest awards ever given by the foundation to a regional theater.

 

1996

After a $28.5 million capital campaign (at this date the largest undertaken by an American regional theater), the Geary reopens with the celebration A Galaxy on Geary (January 10). A public open house brings five thousand people into the theater for backstage tours (January 13). The inaugural production, Shakespeare's The Tempest, directed by Carey Perloff, starring David Strathairn, and featuring Kronos Quartet, opens January 24.

 

1997

A.C.T. opens the 1997–98 season with the world premiere of the Broadway-bound Cole Porter musical High Society, which becomes the company's biggest financial success at the Geary Theater.

A.C.T. presents a 50th-anniversary production of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, which is unanimously acclaimed and becomes a standing-room-only hit.

 

1999

A.C.T. presents the American premiere of Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink, directed by Carey Perloff.

 

2000

A.C.T. presents the American premiere of Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love. Directed by Carey Perloff and featuring James Cromwell as A. E. Housman, the production plays to sold-out houses nightly.

The class of 2001 becomes the first ensemble of M.F.A. Program students to appear on the Geary stage in A Christmas Carol.

 

2001

A.C.T. opens its 35th San Francisco season—and celebrates Carey Perloff's tenth anniversary as artistic director—with the American premiere of Harold Pinter's most recent play, Celebration, on a double bill with his first play, The Room. With this production, A.C.T. revives one of its founding principles with the debut of a new core acting company: René Augesen, Marco Barricelli, Steven Anthony Jones, and Gregory Wallace. The four actors sign multiyear, 52-week contracts with A.C.T., allowing them to create three to four major roles at the Geary Theater per season, as well as to teach and direct in the conservatory throughout the year.

 

2003

A.C.T.'s production of Urinetown: The Musical—a West Coast premiere—sets a new opening-week single ticket sales record for the company, shattering the previous opening-week record set by A.C.T.'s production of The Threepenny Opera, directed by A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff, in the 1999–2000 season.

 

2004

A.C.T. presents the world premiere of Paul Walsh's new translation of Henrik Ibsen's 1879 masterpiece A Doll's House, featuring A.C.T. core company actor René Augesen as Nora. Eve Ensler presents the world premiere of her new solo show Eve Ensler's The Good Body.

The Robert Wilson, William S. Burroughs, and Tom Waits collaboration The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets—featuring Marianne Faithful and Matt McGrath and produced by BITE:2004, Cultural Industry, the Sydney Festival, and A.C.T.—opens A.C.T.'s 2004–05 season. A landmark piece of musical theater, the show extends twice, becomes the San Francisco Chronicle's choice for best theatrical production of 2004, and becomes the new single-ticket sales record holder at A.C.T.

 

2005

A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff and A.C.T. Dramaturg Paul Walsh unveil a new adaptation of Charles Dickens's holiday classic A Christmas Carol. A.C.T. presents the world premiere of a newly commissioned adaptation by David Mamet of Harley Granville-Barker's The Voysey Inheritance.

 

2006

The Geary is renamed the American Conservatory Theater.

 

2007

A.C.T. presents the world premiere of After the War, an original play commissioned by A.C.T. from Philip Kan Gotanda, with an original score by Anthony Brown.
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