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Local Lore

The Man Who Brought Theater To San Francisco

by George Rathmell

In 1848, when rumors began circulating that gold had been discovered in California and people were picking up nuggets by the bucketful as they strolled through the foothills, Eastern newspaper editorials dismissed those rumors as ballyhoo designed to lure gullible citizens to San Francisco.

Most people east of the Mississippi were too skeptical to be duped by such frontier propaganda and stayed home—until the end of the year, when President James Polk made an official announcement of the events, displaying 230 ounces of California gold. The Gold Rush was on.

Enter Maguire

Among the early fortune hunters was Thomas Maguire, an illiterate 29- year-old New York bartender and cab driver. He contrived to inflate his experience sufficiently to be appointed manager of the San Francisco Parker House saloon and gambling hall in 1849, and before long he became the proprietor. Maguire was smart enough to see that what the boomtown needed was entertainment. Accordingly, he constructed a second floor to his establishment and named it Jenny Lind Theater. Jenny Lind, “the Swedish Nightingale” never played there, but her name added class to the house. Plays were performed, even Shakespeare’s, and the city’s first legitimate theater was a great success—until May 4, 1851, when it burned down. Undaunted, Maguire commissioned a second Jenny Lind Theater that opened on June 13, 1851, only to burn down again nine days later. Maguire immediately began work on Jenny Lind III, this time a grand, four-story brick building on Kearny Street facing the Plaza. It could seat 2,000 people and had an orchestra pit, a balcony, dress circle, and three galleries. Maguire spared no expense in creating an opulent show place, but although attendance was great, he could not make enough money to pay his debts. In desperation, he approached the city fathers bemoaning the fact that San Francisco had no city hall. He convinced them to buy his theater for $200,000 and convert it into a proper civic administration building.

Now out of debt with his credit re-established, Maguire set out to construct his fourth endeavor, this time a more modest theater called San Francisco Hall. It opened on Christmas Day, 1852, and it featured the world-renowned opera star, Elisa Biscaccianti. She played to a sold-out house and led the way for major entertainers from the East to brave sailing around the Horn or crossing the Isthmus of Panama by donkey to get booking in far away California.


Now Maguire was ready to establish his empire. He hired the famous actor, Junius Booth, to manage San Francisco Hall, acquired a lease for another theater in the city, as well as two more in Sacramento, and one each in Stockton, Marysville, and Sonoma. With that chain, Maguire could entice talent from the East by offering a run in several different houses. By 1860, he was being called the “Napoleon of Theater Managers in California.” Junius Booth’s son Edwin got his start in San Francisco Hall and went on to become the nation’s foremost actor, despite his younger brother, John Wilkes, who assassinated President Lincoln.

Ever ambitious for bigger and better achievements, Maguire demolished San Francisco Hall and in its place erected Maguire’s Opera House, the city’s finest and most modern theater. Although minstrel shows, farces, melodramas, and burlesque were on the program from time to time, grand opera was the usual fare, utilizing the expansive stage and orchestra pit.

The 1,700 seats were filled on August 24, 1863, when Adah Menken performed in Mazeppa. The play was based on a poem of the same name by Byron concerning a seventeenth century nobleman killed by a jealous husband. The husband’s henchmen stripped Mazeppa naked, tied him to a wild horse, and turned it loose into the wilderness. Normally, a stuffed dummy would ride a fake horse into the wings, but Adah Menken, attired in skin-colored tights, was tied to a real horse and was carried off onto a set depicting mountains. Her performance scandalized New York but thrilled San Francisco.

Maguire’s next project was his Academy of Music, on Pine Street near Montgomery Street, where comic opera was the mainstay. An historic event took place at the Academy in 1866. Three years earlier, Maguire had sought to cash in on the Nevada Silver Rush by opening an opera house in Virginia City. He sent Adah Menken there to perform her Mazeppa, which was a smash hit with the miners. The local paper, the Daily Territorial Enterprise held the advertising rights for the theater and heaped praise on Menken’s performance. One of the paper’s reporters was a young Sam Clemens doing his journalistic apprenticeship. Clemens and Maguire became friends. Thus, years later when Clemens decided to try lecturing, based on his recent trip to Hawaii, he approached Maguire for the use of the Academy Theater. “You can have it for $50 for one night,” Maguire told him, “paid in advance.” On October 2, 1866, Mark Twain Takes a Bite Out of the Sandwich Islands began the young man’s career as a lecturer and, subsequently, as America’s most popular author. The Academy flourished for three years, and when attendance began to wane, Maguire sold it at a profit to Cole’s Furniture Store.

But the impresario was not abandoning his calling—far from it. He continued managing other men’s establishments, including Thomas Wade’s Grand Opera House at Third and Mission Streets. Maguire decided to produce the Passion Play in 1879, directed by David Belasco. Showing the life and death of Christ on the stage did not set well with local Jewish and Catholic citizens, who protested this blasphemy and got the performance shut down. But Maguire revived it for Easter week, starring James O’Neill (father of Eugene), who was arrested on stage near the end of the play and fined $50 for his effort. Maguire’s next project was a run of Carmen. It was a flop, and he found himself broke and with no credit. Desperate, he moved to New York. Despite his many contacts there, no one had a job for him, and he died, poverty-stricken, in 1896, his burial paid for by the Actor’s Fund.

There are no statues of Maguire in San Francisco, no streets named for him, and yet, if it hadn’t been for him, the city might never have become the theatrical and operatic center it is today. It’s even possible that without Maguire’s groundwork, New York nickelodeon producers in the early years of the twentieth century and the movie industry might not have come to Niles Canyon and Hollywood.

George Rathmell is a frequent contributor to the Nob Hill Gazette. His information is available at

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