STORIES OF STANISLAUS
A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County
Sol P. Elias
Modesto's First Theater
George Perley – premier post prandial (sic) orator of Modesto's early day and for fifty years one of its most versatile and active citizens, whether as business man, fraternal member, city trustee, charter freeholder, councilman or political leader – was the first theatrical manager in Modesto. He assumed the management of The Modesto Amateur Co. when it became the lessees of the “Theater” in Ross' Hall in 1872 and produced a series of plays during the succeeding several months for the pleasure of the people of the infant town. His success was phenomenal.
John Dillard Spencer, pioneer editor, was Modesto's first dramatic critic. In the issue of the Stanislaus County News of Friday, February 16th, 1872, he favorably described the performance of The Modesto Amateur Co. of the previous week and lavished unstinted (sic) praise on the actors, assuring them that they had acquitted themselves well – even better than could be expected. The feminine members of the cast received superlative compliments.
U. G. Munger, recently deceased at the age of eighty-six in the County Hospital after a severe accident, and for years a resident of the city, was Modesto's first orchestra leader at the initial performance of The Modesto Amateur Co., and through the entire season of its productions. In the musical part of the program, Mr. Munger was assisted by Messrs. Gleen and Pierson and by Miss Whitmore, subsequently the wife of the late Roger M. Williams, the first secretary of the Turlock Irrigation District, and the sister of the late Colonel R. K. Whitmore, who was captain of the local military organization, Company D, during the Spanish-American war.
There has been romance and vicissitude, joy and sadness, happiness and despair, prosperity and penury in the life of this old musician, who, enfeebled in mind and body, with form bent with the weight of years, lived in a hovel on the West Side, and whose memory harked back to sunnier days when he thrilled the audiences as a violinist in the orchestra in Idaho City in the early 60's, and Sue Robinson, and Charles Gessler and J. H. Warwick packed the house. Munger was one of the old time theatrical players. In the early days he made the circuit in Idaho and Oregon, and was a member of the orchestra that furnished music in Wolf's Stables in Stockton in 1868. He possessed the honor of having been one of the violinists in the orchestra at the old California Theater in San Francisco when the father of Ex-Mayor Schmitz was its leader. In Modesto's infancy his services were always given gratuitously for the public good.
Modesto's first show house - “The Theater,” as it was lovingly called by the people of the day – was located in the loft of the old Frank Ross' livery stables on the south side of “I,” between Ninth and Tenth streets. Here the floor was cleared of the debris and made ready for the play. A large raised wooden stage was improvised and erected in the rear of this space and on it the first dramatic performance in Modesto took place. A few small dressing rooms were attached. The curtain was a very simple affair and as was usual in the early theaters rolled from the bottom. There was some scenery, but not much more than the famous Shakespeare used in his original productions of his ever-living dramas. Ordinary tallow candles served for footlights, while kerosene lamps furnished the illumination. The seats were the regular wooden chairs that in after years graced the old Rogers' Hall and Plato Opera House. This crudely arranged and dimly lighted place, with its meager appointments and contracted limitations, was the “Theater” in the early 70's in Modesto, and it served the purpose admirably, for in those piping times the town was young and the population did not clamor for a more artistic setting for their local talent shows.
In its babyhood, and scarcely two years old, cut off from the currents of life that coursed through the larger centers of population, and as the tented city that assumed proportions overnight, Modesto, on the new railroad line and rising Phoenix-like on the ruins of her neighboring towns of Empire, Paradise and Tuolumne, early manifested a craving for the drama.
The “Theater” was the response of the sturdy old settlers to this desire, and this “Theater” was akin to the ancient community playhouse in old Salt Lake City in which Maude Adams years ago as a child actress made her debut on the stage and thereafter continued her histrionic career until she reached the heights. Those of the later era, when Modesto had grown to metropolitan size and became possessed of well appointed theaters and movies and the like, can readily visualize the zealous anticipation of the old timers as the prospect of a real dramatic performance flitted before their vision and the joy with which they thronged the “Theater” on the opening night.
The span of half a century is the bridge of time that connects the inception of the earliest theater of this city with the present. Through the dim and shadowy vistas of the intervening years there softly melt the golden tender memories that cluster around this first showhouse and the initial performance given in it by local talent – by the play of actors of Modesto's infancy, by the men and women pioneers, who in the primitive community sought to relieve their isolation and to furnish their own amusement during the long and dreary winter months on the plains of old Stanislaus, in the reproduction of life's drama on the mimic stage.
When the curtain arose on the opening scene of the play on Friday night, February 9, 1872, in the “Theater”, there were two hundred and sixty people in the audience, probably the major portion of the population in Modesto and surrounding country, for the event had been extensively advertised in the columns of the News. The youth and beauty of Modesto were there, together with all the other folks. It was indeed a gala occasion, for after the performance the “Theater” was cleared for dancing. The orchestra played both for the drama and for the dance, and the old timers say that all had a most wonderful time on that auspicious night.
The emotional drama, “Ten Nights in a Bar-room,” was the production and the following was the cast:
Sample Swichel, D. L. Markley; Simon Slade, Geo. Perley; Joe Morgan, T. A. Saxon; Frank Slade, A. S. Coulter;
Harvey Green, L. F. Beckwith; Mr. Romaine, R. A. McLean; Judge Hammond, Marden; Willie Hammond, Amos Gridley; Ned Hargrave, Ferdon; Judge Lyman, Bradshaw; Tom Peters, Andrew Mott; Mehitible Cartright, Miss Ida Freeman; Mrs. Slade, Miss L. Hilyard; Mrs. Morgan, Mrs. A. Eagelson; Mary Morgan, Miss Mary Gridley; Mrs. Hammond, Mrs. Nott.
Of the cast several are still living. Amos Gridley is a resident of a town near Antioch. He is a brother of Mrs. Josie Wood and bears the same name of his distinguished father of Civil War fame. Miss Ida Freeman is the sister of Mrs. Ella Maze of Modesto and is now married. Miss L. Hilyard was Mrs. J. I. Jones and resided in the county until her death. Mrs. A. Eagelson, at a ripe old age, is a resident of San Francisco. The remainder of the participants have passed on.
It yet remains for some journalistic Raphael – one with an intense imagination and a perfect familiarity with the olden, golden days of Modesto's infancy – to transcribe to imperishable print the picture and scenes of the old “Theater.” The cobwebbed loft, the odd stage, the antique curtain, the scant home-made scenery, and stage furniture, the dim light of the auditorium, the tallow footlights flickering in the faces of the spectators, the kerosene lamps gracing the musty walls, and the auditors seated on the old time wooden chairs listening now to the music of the orchestra or to the dramatic voices of the characters as they passed in review over the shaky boards, or to the plaintive yet sweet voice of Mollie Gridley as she sang the ditties of the play, and in the lull of sound in the intensity of the dramatic situations, to hear the subdued crunching of the horses below and the clanking of their chains – the entire atmosphere perfumed with the aroma of the new mown hay – and to demonstrate the pleasure of the dance that followed the final curtain – that would indeed furnish a lively picture of old time revelry on the plains of Stanislaus in the early 70's.
Fifty years have come and gone, with their sunshine and their shadows – and the “Theater” is one of the most pleasant, yet fadeless (sic), memories of the early days.
The Stanislaus County News on February 16, 1872, contained the following description of the performance:
“The Modesto Amateur Dramatic Troupe made their first appearance before an audience last Friday night. If there were any misgivings as to whether their first trial would not be well received, all such forebodings must have banished, as by nightfall the whole of the one hundred reserved seats had been disposed of and the hall crowded with not less than three hundred anxious persons. The play was the popular one of “Ten Nights in a Bar-room”. The stage, though temporary in its nature, was admirably arranged and fully trimmed with curtains, screens, scenes and other trappings peculiar to the stage. Music for the occasion was kindly volunteered by Messrs. Munger, Gleen and Pierson, and Miss Whitmore. We have not space to give in detail the characters and acting of each of the performers. All of the players rendered their parts well, and some of them were really excellent. We doubt if the rendering of “Morgan,” by Mr. Saxton, can be surpassed, at least in this state at the present time. The play has evinced the fact that there is at least one of our amateurs that could safely aspire to be more than an ordinary actor. Markely, as “Swichel”, rendered his difficult Yankee character well. Perley, as “Slade,” appeared the veritable landlord of the “Sickle and Sheaf.” Beckwith's “Green,” the gambler, was easy in manner, and quite natural. Mr. Gridley personated (sic) young “Willie” to a dot, whilst Coulter's “Frank Slade” was natural. Mr. McLean, as “Romaine,” was the right man in the right place. The lady performers, in their various characters, acquitted themselves well – even better than could have been expected. A little more self-confidence and practice, however, in their respective characters would not be amiss. Still, amateurs as they were, hedged by set phrases and forms of society, and cramped with inherent native modesty, they had certainly much to contend with that the male actors did not, and when everything is taken into consideration it is our belief that they acted their parts fully as well as the others. Where all did well, at least their best, it is not in our nature to give meed of praise to any one member of the company. The performance was, in every respect, a perfect success.
The performers were astonished at the great number of citizens present, and the audience were also surprised at having found the performance as good as it was. At the close, the hall was cleared and over a hundred couple enjoyed themselves until near daylight in a social dance. Elsewhere will be found a detailed statement from the secretary of the company, of the amount realized, and the disposition made of the funds.”
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Elias, Sol P., Stories of Stanislaus – A Collection of Stories on the History & Achievements of Stanislaus County. Modesto, CA. 1924.
© 2012 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.