After Quake, Arts Helped San Francisco Rebound At the turn of the century, some called San Francisco the Paris of the West. The 1906 earthquake leveled most of the city's theaters and artists' haunts. But the arts community rebounded to lead the city's recovery.
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After Quake, Arts Helped San Francisco Rebound

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After Quake, Arts Helped San Francisco Rebound

After Quake, Arts Helped San Francisco Rebound

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One hundred years ago this month, San Francisco was changed forever. At the time it was the eighth largest American city, the economic and cultural hub of the west coast. But on April 18, 1906, an earthquake hit and resulting fires killed 3,000 people. Much of the city was flattened. Here's one thing that helped to bring the city back to life. People in the arts kept singing, writing, acting, and raising money. Here's NPR's Laura Sydell.

LAURA SYDELL: 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 1500-seat Royal Chinese Theater, one of the city's oldest where everyone went to hear Chinese opera that's still being performed today in San Francisco.


SYDELL: On April 17 on the eve of the earthquake, San Franciscans were out on the town. Brad Rosenstein, curator of exhibitions and programs at the San Francisco Performing Arts Library:

BRAD ROSENSTEIN: All the theaters were hopping and there were many of them downtown that were operating. There was a production of Babes in Toyland.


ROSENSTEIN: Operetta was enormously popular and that was being performed at what was then called the Columbia Theater.


SYDELL: San Francisco also had a very large rough and tumble neighborhood known as the Barbary Coast.

ROSENSTEIN: There were, of course, all the melodeons on the Barbary Coast doing the dancehall, the chorus line, the kicking chorus girls in the seamy waterfront dives.

SYDELL: The neighborhood was vividly portrayed in the 1936 drama 'San Francisco,' a movie starring Clark Gable as the proprietor of a dancehall called The Paradise. Here's a scene of the chorus girls.


SYDELL: 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 here, they wanted to support the arts, says curator Rosenstein.

ROSENSTEIN: They started really believing in building a city that had quality restaurants, quality theaters. People were amazed. I mean, when they started coming out here in the 1850s--how what had been this very rough frontier town--they would come out here and they'd say: this is like the Paris of the West.

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

MARVIN NATHAN: (Reading) In a city of restaurants, Fulda's(ph) restaurant was unique.

SYDELL: That's San Francisco State humanities professor Marvin Nathan. He's reading from The Heart Line, a novel by Gelett Burgess about the scene of bohemian artists who hung out in the North Beach neighborhood at a restaurant called Coppa's, named Fulda's in the novel.

NATHAN: (Reading) The artists of the quarter had gained Fulda's consent to a new scheme of decoration, a plan so mad and impudent that the room was now a showplace for visitors. The walls were covered with cartoons and sketches as incongruously placed, perhaps, as the embossed pictures on a bean pot.

SYDELL: Coppa's, the restaurant that inspired this passage, had been a hangout for writers like Gelett Burgess, Frank Norris, and Jack London and California landscape painters such as Xavier Martinez and Arthur Frank Mathews. They, too, covered the walls with painting and writing.

NATHAN: People would come to Coppa's to watch the young intellectuals, writers and artists exchange repartee. They had a great table in the center of the restaurant. Jack London cut an extremely heroic figure.

SYDELL: Oddly enough, on the walls a writer had scrawled: something terrible is going to happen. Early in the morning of April 18, an earthquake, magnitude 7.8, hit the city.


SYDELL: It was dramatized in the 1936 movie San Francisco, which portrayed the collapse of a dance hall.


SYDELL: The scene was realistic. All but one of San Francisco's theaters was destroyed and Coppa's, the restaurant that had been the center of a bohemian artist scene, burned down as did the studios of many artists. The photographer Carleton Watkins lost all of his work and he wasn't alone says Scott Shields, the senior curator at the Crocker Arts Museum in Sacramento, California.

SCOTT SHIELDS: Some of the reason we don't know these artists now is because they lost so much of their work in the earthquake and fire. William Keith who is an internationally recognized landscape painter, for instance, lost 2,000 paintings in the fires and that was much of his life's work.

SYDELL: Keith spent the last five years of his life trying to repaint what he'd lost. Watkins never recovered from the shock. Four years later, he was committed to a psychiatric hospital and died there in 1916. With the destruction of Coppa's, the thriving bohemian scene dissipated says humanities professor Nathan.

NATHAN: Whatever sense of intimate literary culture had emerged in the 90s, I think was somewhat dissolved 'cause their hang-outs were destroyed, but partly because the city for three years was a pretty desolate place to be.

SYDELL: 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. It was one of her most famous roles and she recorded her performance in 1903.

SARAH BERNHARDT: (Unintelligible)

SYDELL: Brad Rosenstein of the Performing Arts Library:

ROSENSTEIN: The performing arts here had an incredible role in the actual recovery of the city. They were really central both in a financial, and even more, I think, importantly, in a psychic sense.

SYDELL: Other performers followed Bernhardt's lead. They gave benefit performances around the country. Within four years, most of the city'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 Summer, the song she recorded a few years later.

LOUISA TETRAZZINI: (Singing) Tis the last rose of summer left blooming alone...

SYDELL: San Francisco was back but its culture had changed. The bohemian artist and writer scene wouldn't really return until the 1940s with the emergence of poets like Robert Duncan and Madeline Gleason and, of course, the beats in 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. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

INSKEEP: You can listen to performances from San Francisco's turn-of-the- century cultural scene at

MONTAGNE: And Enrico Caruso was there that day. Next week I'll take you to the city 100 years ago when the earth shook and the fires that would destroy San Francisco began to burn.

TETRAZZINI: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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