Wednesday, April 27, 2011

You can call it "the Opera House"

The Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theatre, originally known as the South San Francisco Opera House, is now known to locals simply as the Opera House. It is one of San Francisco's oldest theaters.

Located at 4705 3rd Street, nestled just a couple blocks from the Quesada Gardens in the heart of the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, the Opera House remains a historic treasure. Its original Douglas Fir floor, horseshoe balcony and forty-five foot stage proscenium are as charming as they were on opening day. Recent upgrades include a digital projector and an outdoor stage and courtyard.

A San Francisco's Masonic Lodge constructed the ornate Victorian building in 1888 as an "amusement center," and as part of a larger construction project that included a Masonic Temple adjacent to the theater.

The Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of California, organized in 1850, oversaw sixteen "Subordinate Lodges" in San Francisco by the 1880's including the South San Francisco Lodge which met at Myrtle Hall on Railroad Avenue and at its 1528 Gerald Avenue headquarters. At that time, South San Francisco encompassed what is now Bayview Hunters Point, and Railroad Avenue was the name for the neighborhood's main road, now 3rd Street.

For their "amusement center," the Masons contracted with Henry Geilfuss, a German architect who moved to San Francisco in 1876. Geilfuss designed many structures in the City, notably the William Westerfeld House at 1198 Fulton, which stakes out a corner of Alamo Square Park. He is known for blending Italianate detail into Victorian design, and brought that sensibility to this new project by blending Italianate, Gothic and Stick styles.

After completing construction in 1888, the Masons called their new theater the South San Francisco Opera House, a name that is still written above the front entrance to the theater.

In its early years, the 300 seat theater hosted a number of dramas, minstrels and vaudeville acts that were well-known at the time. Among them was Gordon William Lilly's Pawnee Bill's Medicine Show, one of the first of the era's traveling exhibits that characterized the vanished American frontier in popular, if not accurate, ways.

David Belasco also presented work at the Opera House. The son of Sephardic Jews who had emigrated from London during the Gold Rush, Belasco was born in San Francisco. He learned his trade in the City's theaters before moving, at age 29, to New York City where he found fame as a producer, director and playwright.

Like any centenarian, the Opera House has seen its ups and downs, some of which trace the boom and bust cycles of the neighborhood in which it sits.

The first shows were provided by road companies that brought performers, costumes and scenery by horse-drawn wagon from wherever the previous theatrical run had been. The dominant form of entertainment in those days, these shows attracted patrons in large numbers. Opera House theater-goers arrived by horse and buggy dressed for a big night out. Intermissions were long enough for a ticket-holder to walk to the brewery, just across Railroad Avenue, for refreshments.

Changing times stalled legitimate theater at the Opera House for decades. When rail transportation became common, road companies booked venues based on railroad stop locations. The closest stop to the Opera House was a long two blocks away for companies transporting sets and costumes. When the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire destroyed most of the City's other theaters, road companies stopped coming altogether.

The Masons began using the Opera House as a community social hall through the war years when the neighborhood was experiencing an economic upswing associated with shipbuilding activity at Hunters Point Shipyard. When, after the war, business at the Shipyard fell off, the neighborhood, its residents and the Opera House all suffered. In 1965, the Masons ceased all operations at the building, and the threat that the building would be demolished became dire.

That same year, the Western Opera Theatre, part of the San Francisco Opera Center and sponsored by the Equal Opportunities Council, mounted shortened productions of The Barber of Seville and La boheme. Seventy-seven years after being built, the facility that has "Opera" as its middle name hosted its first traditional operas.

In this transitional moment, Ruth Williams stepped into leadership. A community resident, activist, playwright and actress, Williams played a key role both with staging productions at the Opera House and with saving the building from demolition. She was an influence on many other artists emerging at that time, including film star Danny Glover.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to rename the facility for Ruth Williams on December 7, 1995. Williams is commemorated with a large sculpted bust that sits on a terrace just outside the theater.

In subsequent years, the Opera House served primarily as an African American youth center. It has been operated by the nonprofit Bayview Opera House, Inc. since 1989 as one of six City-owned cultural centers providing low cost arts education and cultural enrichment to the City, and has received majority funding from the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Community groups such as Infinity Productions, Pathlight Productions and the Children's Mural Program kept the pulse of art and performance alive during difficult years with programs geared toward the African American community in Bayview Hunters Point. After a period of management that was questioned by government oversight and community members, the Opera House now seems to be entering a new era. The building has been renovated, inside and out, with historic preservation in mind.

New community-serving programming has been introduced at the facility in the past several years as San Franciscans are once again discovering and rediscovering this community treasure. In April of 2011, the Bayview Opera House became the neighborhood's first landmark to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, protecting the building from any future changes not authorized by the State Historic Preservation Office.

- Jeffrey Betcher

Pictured: The painters who did the exterior restoration pose at the community event celebrating their work.

Along with the Opera House, these other great Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood structures are also on the local list of historic places:

Albion Brewery, 881 Innes Avenue
Quinn House, 1562 McKinnon Avenue
Shipwrights House, 900 Innes Street Video
Sylvester House,1556 Revere Avenue

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