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Triple Play: A.C.T., San Francisco Heritage, NatureBridge

by Sandra J. Swanson

In May, the Nob Hill Gazette will sponsor the celebrations of two San Francisco cultural organizations.  American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) will honor its founders, and San Francisco Heritage will laud the Palace of Fine Arts. Both landmarks were rebuilt and flourished in the aftermath of notable land movements—namely, famous earthquakes. In early June, a third NHG-sponsored event, NatureBridge, will pay homage to a beautiful land—namely, America.


The audience at the beautiful, beaux arts Columbia Theater at Powell and Ellis Streets was right in the middle of Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland on April 18, 1906, when the earthquake struck. The ground gave way; the theater collapsed.

The city scrambled to rebuild the Columbia amid the general devastation and managed to reopen the theater four years later. Over the subsequent years, a “who’s who” of theater paraded onto its stage: Billie Burke, Basil Rathbone, Henry Miller, Ina Claire, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore, Sarah Bernhardt, Fanny Brice, Helen Hayes, Isadora Duncan, Clark Gable, Lon Chaney, Jr., Paul Robeson, Laurence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh, to mention a few of the early headliners. In 1928, the theater was renamed the Geary. And starting in 1940, the Geary became the venue for pre-Broadway try-outs and Broadway tours.

In 1966, San Francisco’s resident theater company closed. On behalf of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, a group of civic leaders, led by Mortimer Fleishhacker, Cyril “Mr. San Francisco” Magnin, and Melvin Swig, launched a search for a new resident theater company. They hired a motor coach and traveled to Stanford to assess a newly formed young acting troupe that (rather grandly) billed themselves: “The American Conservatory Theater.” The gentlemen took in the troupe’s performance of Charley’s Aunt. Impressed, they made an offer to the troupe and a match was made. Forty years later, the Geary Theater was renamed the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), ushering in a new era for the city’s rich theatrical history.

On Sunday, May 18, A.C.T. will salute the three founding and “funding” fathers who closed the deal at Stanford nearly 50 years ago. The curtain for A.C.T.’s black-tie event goes up at 5 p.m. with a cocktail reception as overture, followed by an original musical production, A.C.T.’s Mad Mad Men, featuring students from A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts program and Young Conservatory, with a cameo by Ellen Magnin Newman, Cyril Magnin’s daughter. The gala dinner and live auction will appear center stage at 7 p.m.

Honorary co-chairs for A.C.T.’s May event are Nancy Sawyer Hasson and Fred M. Levin. Levin says, “As a fourth-generation San Franciscan, I am honored to co-chair this specific gala.”

Suggested attire for the evening will borrow heavily from the glam 1960s style of the madly popular TV series, Mad Men. Proceeds support A.C.T.’s actor training, which serves 3,000 students each year, and A.C.T.’s arts education programs, which provide access to live theatrical experiences for more than 9,000 Bay Area students.

Sunday, May 18, 5 p.m.

The Regency

Tickets from $1,250

415.439.2470 or


Saturday, May 10, San Francisco Heritage will celebrate the Palace of Fine Arts’s 99th anniversary with a gala dinner dance at the magnificent building itself, along with the visionaries whose uncommon efforts have preserved the Palace of Fine Arts for nearly a century. For the past 40 years, Heritage has served as the city’s only organization dedicated to preserving significant San Francisco architecture.

The palace was designed by Bernard Maybeck to showcase fine art at the nine-month-long 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which marked the completion of the Panama Canal. Our civic leaders saw the century’s first great world’s fair as their grand opportunity to welcome the world back to the new splendor of San Francisco—“the city that knows how”—after the 1906 quake and fire.

Preservation of the palace began at the actual exposition. Slated for after-fair demolition, the building was so beloved by all, that Phoebe Apperson Hearst took it upon herself to found the Palace Preservation League, saving the Palace for the first time, even before the exposition closed. Restorations followed in the 1930s, a reconstruction took place in the 1960s, and, in 2003, the Maybeck Foundation and the City of San Francisco created a public-private partnership to restore the Palace yet again. In early 2011, the Palace re-opened after a stunning, palatial $21 million renovation.

Willis Polk said of the Palace, “In all the ages there was never a more beautiful building.” Inspired by the elegance of the exquisite venue and its grand era, Heritage’s dazzling black-tie soirée will feature cocktails at 6 p.m. under the rotunda dome by the reflecting pool, fine dining by McCalls, dancing to David Hardiman’s 19-piece orchestra, featuring Janice Maxie Reid, with echoes of Cab “Hi De Ho” Calloway, Josephine Baker, and Nat King Cole.

“I look forward to strolling through the colonnades and enjoying cocktails under the dome. As the stars come out, we’ll be escorted through those magnificent double doors for yet another fabulous soirée,” says Stewart Morton, honorary co-chair of the event with Linda Jo Fitz; both have been supporters of Heritage since the early 1970s and longtime members of the Heritage board of directors. Soirée 2014 event chairs are Peggy Dohrman and Carolyn Squeri.


Saturday, May 10, 6 p.m.

Palace of Fine Arts
3601 Lyon Street
Tickets from $350

415.441.3000 ext.14 or


    Wednesday, June 4, via spectacular soundscapes and imagery, guests at An Evening With NatureBridge will journey to NatureBridge’s environmental science campuses, located within America’s naturally magnificent national parks. From the vast Prince William Forest Park of the East Coast, travel through spacious skies and amber waves of grain, to Yosemite’s granite giants. Then cover the fruited plain, to the fern bottom forest of Olympic National Park, and on to the purple majesty of the Santa Monica Mountains—finally journeying to the Marin Headlands coastline; from sea to shining sea.

The presentation will mimic the actual hands-on environmental science experiences that kindle the exploration and discovery programs, which NatureBridge has been carrying out for 43 years, inspiring children and teens to take action and become future environmental superheroes.

Event co-chairs Mary Poland and Ivy Archer Winters chose the perfect vantage point for the excursion: City View at Metreon, with window walls that unfurl the panorama of the San Francisco cityscape.

“NatureBridge’s basic mission is environmental literacy,” says Poland, who has been on the board for four years. “Our new twist is applying technology to the programs, to exponentially expand our reach. Students feed their first-hand environmental data into software to share with other students everywhere. We are thrilled that U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has endorsed NatureBridge as the number one nonprofit that incorporates STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) standards into our curriculum.”

The cocktail reception will kick-off the evening, with an opportunity for an advance peek at NatureBridge’s $20 million Environmental Education Center, currently being built in Yosemite. Dinner will follow, with a live auction of four spectacularly singular “packages.”

Randi Fisher will serve as honorary chair with an all-star honorary committee, including Mark Buell, Gail Glasser, California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, Nion McEvoy, James Redford (yes, Robert Redford’s son), plus astrophysicist, cosmologist, and Nobel laureate George Smoot, and Paul Zaentz. Adam Werbach will be the keynote speaker. Incidentally, for this event, “green is the new black.”

Since 1971, more than one million children and teens have experienced NatureBridge programs within the organization’s six national park campuses. This year alone, NatureBridge will inspire conservation and historic preservation for more than 30,000 children and teens.


Wednesday, June 4, 6:00 p.m.

City View at Metreon

135 Fourth Street

Tickets from $250

510.994.4252 or

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Sandra J. Swanson writes about fashions in food, culture, travel, gardening, and yachting.

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