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Tom Maguire: A Colorful Character in SF’s Theatrical Past

by Sue Krumbein

In her book The San Francisco Stage: From Gold Rush to Golden Spike, 1849-1869, Misha Berson remarks on the beginnings of theatrical life in San Francisco: Theater was only getting its start in the Atlantic states when San Francisco was founded during the Gold Rush. Thus, the far frontier city began its theatrical life as an equal among equals as far as theatrical experience was concerned.

Given San Francisco’s importance in the development of the theater in the United States, it is interesting to examine the background and life of one of those who produced and directed on those early stages.

Tom Maguire ran San Francisco’s first legitimate house for serious actors, the Jenny Lind. This theater, located on Portsmouth Square above the Parker House Saloon, was a first class playhouse. Its boxes and ceiling were gilded, and its drop-curtain was colorfully painted. Though the playhouse lasted only a year, it clearly established that both the public and the theater community were interested in elegant theatrical spaces.

Maguire was an Irish immigrant from New York City who arrived in San Francisco in September of 1849. He got a job as the manager of the Parker House gambling saloon and soon after turned its second floor into the Jenny Lind. In its first year, productions of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Rivals were all staged at the Jenny Lind. Even patrons of the gambling saloon enjoyed watching these plays from the plush boxes of the theater. As did many buildings in the 1850s, the Jenny Lind burned down on May 4, 1851. Maguire built the Jenny Lind II, but a week after the opening, the city’s sixth fire blazed through the building. When Maguire planned the Jenny Lind III, he built with sandstone instead of wood. The Jenny Lind III shows how important grandeur was to Maguire. The walls of the playhouse were painted light pink and tastefully gilded. The theater seated 2000, with the boxes richly carved and decorated. The stage backdrop was painted to depict a classical ruin. This third theater opened on October 4, 1851, to great success.

Building the Jenny Lind III had put Maguire in serious debt, and to extricate himself, he managed to convince the city of San Francisco to purchase the theater for $200,000 and to turn it into city hall. Once the deal had been made, Maguire spent the money on his next theater, San Francisco Hall, where opera diva Elisa Biscaccianti performed on opening night, December 25, 1852.

However, Maguire’s ambitions were bigger than San Francisco, and he branched out into all parts of California and even across the country to New York. He created touring circuits, and many theater people made their debuts on the West Coast because of Tom Maguire.

Maguire’s downfall came when he and Lucky Baldwin decided to produce The Passion at the Grand Opera House in 1879. The Opera House as well as the Baldwin Theater had opened in 1876, joining the California Theater which had opened in 1869; the three houses had a combined seating capacity of over 5,000. With other theaters in town, it was a challenge to fill those seats. If for only a few days, The Passion did just that.

The show, with James O’Neill playing the role of Christ, was a series of tableaux featuring a cast of hundreds of men, women, children, and farm animals. David Belasco, who had established a reputation for bold visual designs, was hired to direct. In The Life of David Belasco, author William Winter remarks that Belasco remembered the production as possessing “a simplicity that amounted to grandeur. All was accomplished by fabrics and stage lighting, and when O’Neill came up from his dressing room and appeared on stage with a halo about him, women sank to their knees and prayed….”

Others in the community labeled it “an absurd and irreverent money-making spectacle,“ and incensed clergy condemned the show from their pulpits. Eventually the production led to the city’s first arts censorship battle. The Board of Supervisors actually passed municipal statute #1493 forbidding “any person to exhibit, or take part in exhibiting, any play or performance or representation displaying, or intended to display, the life or death of Jesus Christ, or any play, performance or representation calculated to tending to debase or degrade religion.”

It forced Maguire to close The Passion on March 13 after only eight performances, but he brought the show back on April 15, in time for Easter, to test the new law and make up for his financial losses. The Opera House was packed, but just before the scene of Christ’s removal from the cross, two San Francisco police officers went backstage and arrested O’Neill and seven others. O’Neill eventually pleaded guilty and paid a fifty dollar fine. Though the incident was seen as absurd, it was also ominous. If this could happen in wicked, reckless San Francisco, what would be next?

For Tom Maguire, The Passion caused the producer’s already shaky financial position to worsen. He hung on until 1882, when he lost control of the Baldwin Theater and never managed a theater again. He stayed active in San Francisco until 1890, when he returned to New York, where he died in 1896. However, Maguire had made his mark, and his young colleague, David Belasco, would go on to New York and triumph there as a true theatrical auteur, trained in San Francisco by one of the city’s greats.

Sources: The San Francisco Stage: From Gold Rush to Golden Spike, 1849-1869 The San Francisco Stage: From Golden Spike to Great Earthquake, 1869-1906 Both by Misha Berson. Part of the San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum Series, 1989 and 1992.

Photo courtesy of SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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The third Jenny Lind theater, on Kearny St. facing the Plaza

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