Luther Burbank wants you to go away. No, he does not want to hear about your prize-winning begonias. No, he will not talk to you unless you have an appointment. No, he will not sell you anything. Can't you read the sign on his fence? "Any person entering or trespassing on these ground will be prosecuted." Go. Away. Now.
Burbank was under constant siege from admirers who traveled to Santa Rosa to see the "Plant Wizard" who was profiled in illustrated magazines and newspaper Sunday sections. A visiting friend was astonished to find Burbank "overrun by a horde of curiosity seekers...their endeavors to see him were most annoying. I know of no way of stopping their coming short of a shotgun."1
The thwarted public probably came away thinking Burbank as rude as he thought they. Couldn't he spare a single plant from the abundant fields surrounding his house? Can't they have one damn seed as a souvenir? Unfortunately, the articles that fawned over Burbank rarely mentioned his hybrids were sold exclusively through retailers, such as the Burpee and Stark Brothers seed catalogs and the regional Owl Drug Store chain. So it was very big news when it was announced in 1909 that three men had formed a company called "Luther Burbank's Products" to sell Burbank's seeds and live plants directly to the public.
(RIGHT: 1909 ad for Burbank seeds available through selected Owl drugstores)
For anyone just tuning in, here's a short summary of what happened up to that point: In 1905, the prestigious Carnegie Institution awarded Burbank a grant of $10,000 a year with the understanding that it would result in some sort of scientific report about his plant-breeding methods. Two years later, Burbank signed a contract with the Cree Publishing Company to create a 10-volume set about his work. Burbank insisted the books for Cree would be aimed at a mass-market audience and not at all in conflict with what he was supposed to be producing for the Institution, but the Carnegie directors were not so sure.
The Santa Rosa newspapers could scarcely contain their excitement over buying directly from Burbank to be bothered with accuracy. They blurbed the deal was "the most gigantic of its kind in the history of the country" (Press Democrat) and "said to have netted Mr. Burbank a couple of million dollars" (Santa Rosa Republican). The San Francisco Examiner also gave the "gigantic business enterprise" headline coverage and devoted nearly an entire inside page to Burbank. Also given much ink was that the main investors were the brothers Herbert and Dr. Hartland Law, who owned the Fairmont Hotel and other blue-ribbon real estate.
In an interview with the Examiner, Dr. Law said the brothers were undaunted, although "we have begun to realize is a greater project than we thought it was when we first took it under consideration." The tasks ahead were monumental, particularly setting up a global distribution network which would "involve the expenditure of several million dollars." Let's hope they didn't spend too much money up front; less than a month later, Burbank announced that he was breaking the contract - "the proposition was found to be impracticable," he said in a terse statement to the press. "While it is true that my business has become too extensive and too complicated to be handled by one man, yet, I believe that by having complete control of the entire system I can direct competent men in a way to secure the best results," Burbank stated.
What was Burbank thinking? It's understandable he didn't want to cede all control, but he was also 60 years old and had no talent or interest in building a large operation. No other suitors were courting him - it would be another three years before a similar distribution business was formed. With his chronic bad health, did he really expect to keep up the exhausting work involved with his plant breeding methods as he entered old age, staking his future on profits from far-between windfall sales?
Also unclear in press coverage was the role of the third partner: Oscar E. Binner, whom several San Francisco papers unfortunately and repeatedly misnamed as "Dinner." Little was written in any of the papers about Mr. ?inner, except the vague description that he was a "wealthy Eastern man." When Burbank withdrew from the project Binner gave a lengthy statement to the Press Democrat in which he managed to say very little, revealing mostly his talent at public relations.
Binner is an underrated figure in the Burbank canon; in the definitive biography by Peter Dreyer, A Gardener Touched With Genius, he rates scarcely more than Burbank's secretary, the euphonically named May Maye. But it was Binner who put together the ill-fated deal with the Law brothers, Binner who kept the Burbank book project from collapsing over the years, and Binner who masterminded a national campaign that brought Burbank acclaim greater than he had ever known before. Part manager, part counselor, part promoter, Binner aimed to be the Col. Parker to Burbank's Elvis and during Burbank's most successful years, he was something very much like that.
When he met Luther Burbank in January, 1908, Binner was 45 and a respected man with two successful careers behind him. As a youth in the Midwest he had apprenticed as an engraver and printer and by 1895 the Binner Engraving Company was established as a leader in the business. (Which is to say, his company produced very high quality printed material - they were hired by the Smithsonian Institution to produce a book of photographs of the moon, for example.) They were pioneers in commercial illustration; search for "Binner Engraving" on eBay or in Google Books and you'll find dozens of examples that are today respected as topnotch period art. The trade magazines of the time are filled with mentions of him as a much admired - and sometimes, jealously envied - master of his craft.
Advertising was a big part of the engraving business, and around 1901 Binner opened a branch office in New York City. In particular he cultivated a side career as an advertising director, becoming the head of publicity and promotion of Lever Brothers, an English soap maker. Binner's campaign to introduce Lifebuoy Soap as a modern, ultra-hygienic American product via photo-realistic ads was a remarkable success, and cemented his reputation as a successful ad man. In 1905 Binner returned to his engraving company in Chicago, selling it to his partner five years later when his attention firmly turned to all things Burbank.
Much of what we know of Mr. Binner at that time comes from two extraordinary letters written to Nellie Comstock. (When she died in 1940, these letters were donated to the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens.) An accompanying note from her son Hilliard pointed out that Binner lived with their family on Hoen Avenue for a time, and Nellie sometimes acted as a diplomat to resolve disputes between Binner and Burbank because she was "an intimate friend of both." The origin of the connection between Comstock and Binner is unknown, but might trace back to their shared roots in the Chicago area.
Binner came to meet Burbank via Cree Publishing, the Minneapolis company trying to produce the set of Burbank books. His exact status is unclear, but they must have already formed the Cree-Binner Company, which apparently had the sole purpose of wrestling the Burbank project into print. (Cree Publishing continued producing other books under its original imprint.) By 1910, Cree was completely out of the picture and Binner owned all work on the project produced to date.
In his first letter to Comstock, Binner boasted of his terrific working relationship with Burbank and that he scored points by immediately dismissing the entire editorial staff because they weren't to Burbank's snuff. His secret in getting results from Burbank was patience and working with him, he emphasized repeatedly in the letter. Over six single-spaced typed pages, Binner testifies to his devotion and defends Burbank's greatness (it seems Comstock had joined the scientific skeptics who didn't think Burbank's work was worth much), along with flogging his own sacrifice in trying to bring Burbank's message to the world ("Your red headed old hen with the yellow feathers has earned more money the past two years than I have"). With pleadings and bombast he hammers away that soon the world would kneel at Burbank's shrine and only Binner could make that happen: "[W]hat I have to offer is that which he needs and which he does not know how to produce...I have the talent and ability and desire to give him what he needs most in order to present to the world his story in such a manner as to make it live for centuries. L. B. will see it. Wait."2
(RIGHT: Oscar Binner c. 1911. Image courtesy Luther Burbank Home and Gardens)
Megalomania aside, Binner was basically right; he possessed a unique skill set that Burbank needed. Burbank was an inept businessman and deal-maker; Binner had single-handedly built one of the leading companies in his field. Burbank expected fawning profiles in the press to lure public interest; Binner was an acknowledged master of reaching out through advertising. But most of all, Binner had a talent for what Burbank really needed most: Marketing Burbank's unique brand.
You can find Binner's fingerprints over everything connected to Burbank in the years immediately following. In a why-didn't-anyone-think-of-that-before flash of genius, Burbank was relieved of the visitor nuisance after a "Bureau of Information" was built on Santa Rosa Avenue in front of the farm where the public was invited to buy seeds, bulbs, and color lithographs of Burbank plants, suitable for framing. Binner produced dozens of pamphlets by and about Burbank and tried to sell shares in the Oscar E. Binner Company ("Luther Burbank's Publishers") for the publication of the still in-progress Burbank encyclopedia - "The popular edition will...have a field of about fifty million prospective purchasers," he gushed. Binner created the Luther Burbank traveling display that toured agricultural shows and exhibitions around the country for two years to high acclaim, ending 1912 on view at the huge American Land and Irrigation Exposition at Madison Square Garden, where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang "Ode to Irrigation."
This chapter of Binner's story ends in 1912, with the incorporations of the semi-autonomous Luther Burbank Press, Luther Burbank Society and Luther Burbank Company. Binner still had a role in Burbank's affairs, but that's a different adventure. Another Binner trail to follow leads to the question of whether he had any part to play in the final breakup between Burbank and the Carnegie Institute in the latter part of 1908. Although Burbank counted on the $10,000 annual sinecure, losing the distraction of the Carnegie obligation would have been greatly to Binner's advantage. The Luther Burbank Home and Gardens archive has a letter to the Institute's president from Binner that has an unpleasant tone and implies they were exchanging insults in prior correspondence. There's also an incriminating passage in that letter to Comstock: "L. B. misunderstands himself. When he finds himself, then he will see what is best for him and best for all time and all the world. He will waste no more of his talents and time on [the Carnegie Institute]..."
And finally, there's the unsolved mystery of why Burbank walked away from the lucrative deal with Law brothers. As it turns out, there are two versions of how it came about. In an interview with the Examiner, Hartland Law described the "peculiar way" the project began with a chance encounter on a train with a man coming to secure rights to "Burbank's book." Law expressed sadness that California had little appreciation for Burbank. Some time later, the same man approaches him outside the Fairmont. "This man later on visited Burbank, told him of the interest I had shown in his book, and in the end he was the medium through which my brother and myself met Burbank in this city and discussed the preliminary plans for this later project."
But in his letter to Nellie Comstock, Binner wrote that there was no lucky happenstance involved. Burbank directed Binner to research potential moneymen and convince them to form a partnership: "...I was to find men of character, reputation and wealth who could handle this project as it should be handled. I worked hard, I traveled much and at last found two men, men whose names and reputation could not be assailed and whose wealth was more than sufficient to finance this project..."
The key to Burbank's about-face is probably the part about "men whose names and reputation could not be assailed." Yes, the Law brothers were multimillionaire property owners, and Herbert Law was one of the directors of Wells Fargo. But the paint was still wet on their respectability; not mentioned in the San Francisco or Santa Rosa papers was that the brothers had made their fortune through a quack medicine and pyramid scheme they still owned (this article is a must-read). Singled out by medical journals and muckrakers as one of the worst of all the insidious medical frauds, the money they offered Burbank dripped with blood.
Always thin-skinned about being considered a charlatan himself, it's unthinkable that Burbank would have entered a partnership with the Law brothers if he knew about their dodgy source of income - or that he would have stayed with them once he discovered the facts later. Yes, the Laws kept their noses mostly clean and gained further respectability as years went on, but from the perspective of 1909, Burbank probably looked upon them as a career-destroying scandal waiting to explode after he discovered who they really were. In the end it was likely the Law brothers that played Burbank and Binner, not the other way around. Should the Laws ever be enmeshed in a scandalous wrongful death lawsuit, what better character witness to call to the stand than their partner and friend, Luther Burbank, one of the most respected men in the nation.
1Samuel Lieb letter to Carnegie Institute President Woodward, August 26, 1908; Luther Burbank Home and Gardens archives
|2Oscar Binner letter to Nellie Comstock, February 25, 1910; Luther Burbank Home and Gardens archives|
WILL HANDLE ALL PRODUCTSBurbank Sells Rights to his Future Creations
Arrangements have been made by Herbert E. Law, Dr. Hartland Law, and Oscar E. Binner, millionaires of San Francisco, to take entire control of the commercial aspect of the work of Luther Burbank. The gentlemen have purchased the right to all the new creations of Burbank not otherwise disposed of previously and all those which may evolve through his genius in the coming years.
The deal is one of the greatest ever made on the coast and is said to have netted Mr. Burbank a couple of million dollars, and placed him beyond the necessity of having any care for the material things of earth. He will now be able to lay aside business cares and worries and give his entire time and attention to the propagation of new fruits, flowers and shrubs, to which he has already devoted forty years of energetic work.
The commercial portion of the distribution of the products will be carried on an elaborate scale by the men who have become interested in the matter. They will establish agencies in all portions of the world, and the fame of Burbank will be carried to greater extent in the remote parts of the world than ever before.
Much illustrated and printed matter concerning the Burbank productions will be sent broadcast [sic] all over the world, and the handling of the business will necessitate a large clerical, office and shipping force. The spineless cactus will be sent to all the known arid regions, where it will produce sustenance for man and beast. It is claimed that recently Mr. Burbank has bred properties into this cactus which will make it available for producing sugar and alcohol as a by-product. It is said the sugar from the cactus will rival that produced from beets and that brought from the Hawaiian Islands.
The new company intends to purchase, if possible, the rights which Mr. Burbank has previously disposed of to certain creations and thus have a monopoly of all his efforts. There are many things which Mr. Burbank has accomplished of which the world knows nothing, but in future all these will be given to the public through the new agency established.
Mr. Burbank was recently in San Francisco and had a conference with the men who have purchased the rights to his creations and later they came here and spent some time in looking into the matters.
The arrangement made with the Messrs Law and Binner will not affect the distribution of seeds through the Chamber of commerce. The deal of Secretary Brown will be carried out as arranged and he is already promoting their selling in a number of states.
- Santa Rosa Republican, February 27, 1909
TO HANDLE THE BURBANK PRODUCTS
A business transaction of world-wide importance has been consummated in Santa Rosa, whereby Dr. Hartland Law and his brother, Herbert E. Law, the millionaire owners of the Fairmont hotel, the Monadnock building and other valuable property in San Francisco and elsewhere throughout the United States, and Oscar E. Binner, a wealthy eastern man, who has spent several months in Santa Rosa, have secured the rights... [missing lines type and garbled text] ...They have formed a company known as "Luther Burbank's Products, Incorporated," and have already formulated complete plans for the distribution of the products in all civilized countries.
By reason of the deal consummated Mr. Burbank will henceforth devote his entire time to the scientific development of his great work, while the business and commercial end will be handled entirely by the company. The transaction not only includes the products already perfected but those in course of development.
- Press Democrat, February 26, 1909
BURBANK DISTRIBUTIONBig Work Planned by the Owl Drug Co.Monday a representative of the Owl Drug Company of San Francisco closed a contract with Edward H. Brown of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce for the exclusive agency of Luther Burbank's flower seeds for the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Pasadena.
Mr. Brown deserves great credit for placing the agency where it will do so much good for our town.
We know of no concern better able to handle the distribution of Mr. Burbank's seeds on a large scale than is the Owl Drug Co., with its eleven big stores in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Pasadena.
Mr. Burbank himself feels that the Chamber of Commerce need not look elsewhere for agencies as he believes, as do me, that the present arrangement will immediately consume the entire supply.
Other big concerns have been negotiating for the agency, but due to the fact that the Owl Drug Company had better facilities to carry on the distribution thoroughly the agency was given to them.
- Santa Rosa Republican, March 22, 1909
RUMOR THAT BURBANK DEAL IS OFF
A month ago, it will be remembered, it was announced that Herbert E. Law, Dr. Hartland Law, San Francisco millionaires, and Oscar E. Binner, a wealthy eastern man, had completed arrangements whereby they would take over the entire charge of the distribution of Luther Burbank's products throughout the world.
It was rumored here yesterday that the big deal was off and that Mr. Burbank had decided to still remain at the helm of the commercial as well as the creative branches of his work. Mr. Burbank preferred not to discuss the matter at all yesterday. Mr. Binner is in San Francisco,, and could not be seen yesterday.
- Press Democrat, March 24, 1909
LUTHER BURBANK ISSUES STATEMENT REGARDING DEALWill Direct His Own Business As Heretofore
This combination was altogether unique--with the exception of Mark Twain, John Burroughs and possibly some other cases--in fact only an experiment, as nothing of just its nature had ever existed. Hence no one could foretell the outcome.
The early developments did not indicate satisfactory future results either to the world or to the parties involved in the transaction.
As no corporation had yet been formed and only a preliminary contract executed, when the proposition was found to be impracticable. It was mutually agreed that it be abandoned.
While it is true that my business has become too extensive and too complicated to be handled by one man, yet, I believe that by having complete control of the entire system I can direct competent men in a way to secure the best results.
On Wednesday Luther Burbank absolutely confirmed the report published in the Press Democrat of that morning that the deal between himself and the Law Brothers and Oscar Binner, had been abandoned. The deal, one of the most gigantic of its kind in the history of the country, involved the sole handling of the Burbank products and their distribution throughout the world, with the exception of two or three small contracts into which Mr. Burbank had already entered. The announcement in the paper Wednesday morning that the deal was off attracted something of the surprise of that of a month ago, which told of the preliminary contract.
A Press Democrat representative had an interview with Mr. Burbank on Wednesday and obtained from him a statement explanatory of the abandonment of the contract. Mr. Burbank intends to be at the helm in the directing of his big business. He believes that with the assistance of competent men this can be done, and the best results secured.
Oscar E. Binner returned from San Francisco Wednesday night. He was associated with the Law Brothers in the transaction mentioned. In discussing the turn things had taken, Mr. Binner in the course of an interview, had this to say among other things:
"For myself and by associates, the Law Brothers, let me say that Mr. Burbank's absolute happiness and contentment were our first consideration.
"We still believe that to have equipped for Mr. Burbank a world-wide sales organization, such as we had planned, would not only have enabled him to devote more of his precious time to his noble and unique research, but also have been the means of giving to the entire civilized world an opportunity of getting a practical and most valuable benefit of his wonderful achievements. There is no doubt in our mind that with such an organization as we had planned for, consisting of some of the best world's workers, Mr. Burbank would have greatly extended his marvelous achievements.
"Every plant, fruit, and product of this great genius would through this sales organization have been scattered throughout the civilized world and so become the property of all mankind.
That our project (and when I say 'our' I mean Mr. Burbank first of all and the Laws and myself) was one which would have made the world better, is evidenced by the fact that hundreds of leading publications throughout the land recognized it as such, and heartily endorsed it, some even giving editorial recognition. Only one single article decried our project, and the man that wrote it admitted the next day that he had a 'grouch' on and was sorry he had written what he had.
"As further evidence and a most gratifying one are the numerous letters that have been received by us from some of the most prominent and influential men throughout the land. Many from our friends, but many more from total strangers to us, congratulating us on our project and offering us unlimited support and assistance if we would give them the privilege.
"One of the best and most responsible endorsements we received was from a man who, perhaps, is better able to judge and recognize what this great project would have meant to Mr. Burbank and the civilized world. I refer to an old and much admired friend of Mr. Burbank--Prof. E. J. Wickson, whose editorial in the Pacific Rural Press came nearer to our personal views and sentiments than all others.
"However, as already stated, Mr. Burbank's happiness and contentment was our first consideration, and if this would in anyway be involved by the project we were willing to step aside and annul the contract we entered into together on the 23rd of February.
"Mr. Burbank has many true and loyal friends throughout the world, yet none I feel can be more willing to help and assist him at any time than the Law Brothers. As for myself, I have always given him the best there is in me, and I shall always continue to deem it a pleasure to serve him."
- Press Democrat, March 25, 1909
BURBANK'S BUREAU WILL OPEN TODAYInformation Will Be Furnished all Visitors Together With Other Details--Open Daily
Luther Burbank's Bureau of Information will be opened to the public today from 10 to 12 and 2 to 4, and each succeeding day, Sunday excepted. It occupies the neat and attractive little building on Santa Rosa avenue fronting the old Burbank residence.
This branch office is designed for the accommodation of visitors, having been found necessary in order that Mr. Burbank be protected from the constant interruptions which have beset him in the past by those who wished either to meet him or to have to opportunity of securing information or samples, souvenirs, seeds, bulbs, etc. These have note heretofore been generally obtainable except from Eastern dealers.
Some scientifically accurate extremely fine studies of his newer fruits and flowers have been produced by California artists and Eastern lithographers, and these will be available to all.
Rare seeds also, all grown under Mr. Burbank's personal supervision, will be available.
A big register is being prepared for the names, addresses and remarks of visitors. All are welcome to inspect the new office.
- Press Democrat, May 25, 1910
MANY CALLERS AT BURBANK BUREAUMany States and Several Countries Already Represented Among the Visitors
The information bureau at Luther Burbank's private experimental grounds on Santa Rosa Avenue is proving a great thing for visitors in this city, who are desirous of obtaining some information concerning Mr. Burbank's work and also as to where seeds, plants and literature, etc., can be obtained.
The handsome little building the bureau occupies near the site of the old residence has already been visited by several hundred people from out of town. Some fifteen states are represented among the callers and they are people who have come to Santa Rosa for a visit while making an itinerary of the state. Several countries are likewise represented.
Most of the time Miss Pauline Olson is in charge of the Bureau and no one better qualified or more conversant with the nature of the information desired could occupy that position. Daily some of the beautiful blooms created by Mr. Burbank are artistically arranged in the room and these never fail to attract the admiration from visitors.
The poppies and amaryillis are in bloom in the Burbank gardens at the present time, and the color picture is a very beautiful one.
- Press Democrat, May 25, 1910
Did you know Santa Rosa once had an art school? It's right there in the "Illustrated Portfolio of Santa Rosa and Vicinity," a 1909 book put together by the Chamber of Commerce and the Press Democrat to promote the town. Granted, the school didn't get beyond the planning stage and the building was never constructed, but hey, Santa Rosa needed something to show that it could become a classy place.
(RIGHT: Architectural sketch that appeared in both Santa Rosa newspapers and the Portfolio as "S. T. DAKEN'S ART SCHOOL, SANTA ROSA CAL.")
By 1909, the pace of change in Santa Rosa was accelerating. The last of the post-earthquake reconstruction was finishing up and the town's administrators finally closed the tenderloin district after 30 years. There were now three theaters downtown and almost all of the main streets were asphalt paved. In this burgeoning little metropolis the art school would have fit right in. Located on College Avenue near the current location of the Mission Car Wash, the plans for the school show a very modern design; in some ways it anticipated the streamlined Art Deco style of a quarter-century later, with its rounded corners on the roof above triple-row horizontal banding.
The force behind the planned art school was S. T. Daken, a landscape painter who was in Sonoma County for five years after the 1906 earthquake, living in Glen Ellen near his friend Jack London until he and his family moved to Santa Rosa in 1909. Here he taught art at the Ursuline College and at his studio at 509A Fourth Street, today the location of a pawn shop. Daken's time in the county has been recently described in a pair of very interesting articles in the Sonoma Historian, the quarterly newsletter from the Sonoma County Historical Society. The author, Tilden Daken's granddaughter, has a web site devoted to her ancestor, and also in the newsletter tells the tale of Daken and London meeting in a hayloft, the pair of them then hopping trains and riding the rods underneath boxcars from Reno to San Francisco.
The art institute project floundered for almost two years before it was abandoned, apparently due to Daken's rocky personal finances and inability to find enough investors. His partner in the development plans was local contractor Frank Sullivan, with whom he had other dealings in 1909. Together with Daken's former landlord, Dr. C. C. O'Donnell, they were hornswoggled by a con man who supposedly planned to build a world-class sanitarium for alcoholics in Glen Ellen. Sullivan and O'Donnell both were scammed, but when he tried to sweet talk Daken into painting a 12-foot canvas, the artist wisely refrained from putting brush to canvas until a deposit was forthcoming - which, of course, it never was.
Both Santa Rosa newspapers wrote of the art school as if it were a fait accompli, and the article transcribed below waxes poetic on the glory of painting local sunsets. Had the place actually been built, students trying to capture twilight's last gleaming from the studios would have certainly kept school's westward windows shut, as it was a block away and downwind from the slaughterhouse.
Obl. believe-it-or-not footnote: The item from the Santa Rosa Republican included a snippet of poetry using a word that can't be found in any dictionary: "Trancid," which apparently was a mashup between "tranquil" and "placid." A search of Google Books shows that it was in use from at least 1856 to 1942, but not even the Oxford English Dictionary mentions it. The word most often appears in obscure verse and poetry; really bad poets seemed drawn to it as moth to flame.
(BELOW: Portrait of Samuel Tilden Daken from the Portfolio)
SANTA ROSA TO HAVE AN UP-TO-DATE ART SCHOOL
Santa Rosa is seen to have what few towns of its size can boast--an art school and art gallery. S. T. Daken, the artist, has had plans prepared by J. B. Durand for a building to be devoted to these purposes. It will be located on the corner of College avenue and Ripley streets, and, judging from the plans, will be a decidedly attractive structure.
The style of architecture is along simple, dignified lines and the exterior finish will be something unique in rough cast cement plaster. The building will be a two story and basement heated by a furnace. The first story will be devoted to living rooms, and the entire second floor will be used for class room and gallery purposes. Special attention has been paid to the lighting facilities for the benefit of the art students as well as to show the paintings in the gallery to advantage.
Besides Mr. Daken's private collection of the works of noted artists, and his own paintings, which will form a permanent display in the gallery, the American Art Association, with which the Daken school will be affiliated, will furnish at various times excellent examples of art, including sculpture and architecture, as well as paintings. This association, whose headquarters are in New York, supplies circulating collections to affiliated schools throughout the United States.
An art library will be at the disposal of the students and lectures by well known artists will be given at frequent intervals. These, with the affiliation mentioned, cannot but be of great advantage to the students. The course will include studio work from models and sketching classes.
In the vicinity of Santa Rosa are many beautiful landscapes, and the cloud effects are especially fine. There are sunsets of exceeding grandeur when the dying rays gleam on St. Helena's snowy crest, throwing over the dark canyons of the eastern mountains yet darker shadows, and there is beauty too.
"In trancid calm of summer night,
When the cloudless moonlight fills
With chastened splendor, gently bright
The circuit of the hills."
This city is indeed a fitting location for such an Art School as Mr. Daken purposes to found and there is every reason to believe that the institution will be highly successful.
The construction of the building will be under the supervision of Mr. Durand and work will be commenced as soon as possible after he recovers his health sufficiently to attend to business.
- Santa Rosa Republican, March 22, 1909
ARTIST DAKEN DID NOT BITETold Williams Deposit Must Accompany Order
Artist S. T. Daken of this city is the only man who was shrewd enough to prevent being "taken in" by Dr. F. Harry Williams, who was also an attorney. Williams, it will be remembered, is the man who came here and purported to purchase the O'Donnell ranch at Glen Ellen for a huge Emanuel [sic] Sanitarium.
After letting contracts with lavish hand and transacting all kinds of business without parting with any coin, Williams determined that he wanted a huge landscape scene of the sanitarium, showing San Francisco bay in the distance, to place on exhibition at the Seattle exposition. He consulted with Artist Daken and ordered from the latter an oil painting six by twelve feet, showing the sanitarium.
In accordance with this order Artist Dakin went over to Glen Ellen and made the preliminary sketches from which to paint the scene, and forwarded these to Williams' address in the metropolis. In the letters to Williams Mr. Daken informed him that if he wished the work to proceed he would have to enclose a remittance in the return letter as a deposit on the same.
The picture was one that would have had little commercial value to Artist Dakin had it not been accepted by Williams, and he proposed to take no chances with the man, who was an entire stranger to him.
From this it will be seen that in addition to being an artist of renown, Daken possesses the faculty to read human nature in a far greater degree than some other Santa Rasans [sic], who are mourning the time and money lost on Williams.
- Santa Rosa Republican, June 29, 1909
It must have been terrifying for her at 63, facing the loss of everything she had including her name. These were the stakes when Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw returned to Santa Rosa in the first days of 1910 to answer a lawsuit filed by her late husband's wife.
For about 25 years centered on the turn of the century, Anna Finlaw represented culture and betterment in a town without much of either. Admired speakers came to Santa Rosa because of her, as did classical music performers. She was the force behind the musical Etude Club and the Saturday Afternoon Club where women presented original talks on literature and world events. Soirees at her home were the social event of the year, and the gourmet grub served at her dining table was legend. Her husband, Dr. William Finlaw, was a respected physician and Civil War veteran who raised and sold race horses as a hobby. Aside for the death of their only child in a shooting accident, theirs was a life on even keel.
(RIGHT: Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw at the August, 1908 groundbreaking for the Saturday Afternoon Club, two months before she applied for a widow's pension)
Dr. Finlaw died in 1905 without a will, and Anna inherited everything as his widow and sole heir. With an estate worth around $50,000 - the equivalent of some $2.5 million today - she was left without want. Anna was free to tour the great cities of Europe soaking up the arts, always stopping en route to the East Coast at her sister's home in Kansas. It was from there in 1908 she applied to the government for the pension due the widow of a Civil War veteran. Anna continued on to her vacation in Italy, unaware she had triggered events she would soon enormously regret.
Why did she wait almost three years after his death to file for a pension - and why did she apply at all, considering the payout was a measly twelve bucks a month? No explanation is certain, but it's significant that the application specified she was filing under the "Act of April 19, 1908." This change in the law raised the entitlement from $8/mo to $12/mo, but importantly in Finlaw's case, removed any examination of "pecuniary circumstances" to qualify - in other words, she did not have to prove she was destitute. She probably also believed this was her last chance to bite at the apple, as the law passed with some controversy.*
The Bureau of Pensions was swamped with applications because of the new law and it was a few months before they began processing Anna's paperwork. But when a clerk opened the file jacket for Finlaw, William C., he found a curious thing: There was already a widow's application in it. In 1903 another woman had applied for his pension, claiming he had deserted her at the close of the Civil War, never to be heard from again. The Bureau denied her claim as there was no proof William was deceased. Now they had evidence that he was, in fact, dead - but there was also now the problem of the two Mrs. Finlaws.
A federal investigation was opened, as the matter dealt with a military pension. The bare facts were these: William married Jane in 1862 and they had a son. There was no known divorce. He married Anna in 1865.
Before continuing, I must point out that much of the following history lay hidden until Heidi and Neil Blazey of Santa Rosa requisitioned a small paper mountain of Finlaw records from the National Archives. What appears here is a condensed version of a very rich story the Blazeys want to write about the Finlaws.
Informed of the investigation Anna did not rush home from Europe (she spent the entire year of 1909 away), leaving the matter in the hands of her attorney, James Wyatt Oates. In the meantime, an investigator from the Special Examination Division of the Pension Bureau gathered evidence and testimony from Jane Finlaw in Cincinnati. The investigator inappropriately let slip where William had lived. "Jane then sent an attorney to Santa Rosa to discover if the doctor had left any property," another Special Examiner summed up events in a letter to the Commissioner. "And he, finding such a large estate and no will, began suit to oust Anna."
The Santa Rosa newspapers had kept the bigamy allegations hushed up, but they couldn't stay quiet after Jane's lawsuit made the front pages in San Francisco. Aside from the scandal angle, it didn't hurt that Jane's granddaughter was a pretty showgirl. "A San Francisco paper of Friday morning devotes considerable space to the affair, and accompanying the story is the picture of an actress, Miss Marie Baxter," the Press Democrat commented in a lengthy article on the case. "Miss Baxter is shown in several graceful poses, which indicates that, professionally or otherwise, she is not averse to furnishing the newspapers with as many photographs of herself as they can conveniently use."
Jane demanded everything down to the polish on Anna's shoes. She wanted all the California property, $6,000 from Anna for back rent and another $6,000 in damages for unlawful occupancy. Jane even sued people who had business dealings with Anna.
With Jane's attorney hoping that Anna would gift them with damaging testimony to Pension Bureau investigators, it's no surprise that Anna said as little as possible in her deposition. No, she didn't know what year her husband was born, his middle name or names of any members of his family. No, she didn't recognize him in an old photo. No, she didn't recognize his handwriting in letters to Jane. And, of course, she had no idea her late husband had another wife. And child.
If not for the absence of divorce papers, Jane had a shaky case. She could not explain why she waited almost forty years to file for the pension. Although she claimed their son was born a year after their marriage and just before Dr. Finlaw "left for the front," he was actually born out of wedlock, two years earlier. The very few letters from her husband shown to investigators suggested Jane had abandoned him, not the reverse.
Anna stewed as attorneys dickered over her fate. She was upset with herself for filing a widow's pension claim and starting the gears in motion, and angry at investigators for "stirring up this muss" by revealing too much to Jane. Several months later, a deal was struck: Anna would keep the California property and pay Jane $3,000 in lawyer's fees. Jane was awarded the pension.
Then in March, 1911 came the cruel last blow: A letter to Anna from the Commissioner of Pensions informing her "you were never his lawful wife and have no status as his widow." The reaction of Mrs. William Finlaw was not recorded. That is, the former Mrs. William Finlaw.
*Politicians at that time were wont to treat veterans generously, and in 1907 had increased veteran's pensions while relaxing military service requirements to qualify. But when the issue of pensions for widows arose early the following year, the nation was reeling from the Panic of 1907 and the near collapse of the banking system. The country was running the first federal deficit in a decade and the widow benefits were projected to increase the pension budget by about $12 million a year, even while the government was closing regional pension offices to scrimp. Besides treasury concerns over a sizable new entitlement, there was political opposition to the widow's bill; it was sponsored by House Speaker Joseph Cannon, who was seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Complaints were also made in newspaper editorials that widows now only had to be married prior to the summer of 1890, which led to innuendo that youthful fortune hunters would be rushing to marry old men for pension booty.
SENSATIONAL SUIT IN FINLAW ESTATEEastern Woman Asks Court to Dispossess Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw of all Property Left by Late Dr. Wm. Finlaw of this City
A very sensational suit involving the property rights of Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw, widow of the late Dr. William Finlaw of this city, was begun Friday in the United States Circuit court of San Francisco. The complainant, who signs herself Jane Bradley Finlaw, alleges that she became the wife of Dr. Finlaw in 1862, and that the marriage has never been abrogated or annulled.
According to the allegations as contained in the complaint, the marriage occurred while Dr. Finlaw was still in college and but twenty-three years of age, and shortly afterwards he enlisted in the army as a surgeon, since which time, except for a brief period immediately after his departure, she has been unable to locate him. The complaint fails to state just what efforts were made in that direction, or why the location of a man of Dr. Finlaw's reputation and prominence as a physician and in the army should have been such a difficult matter.
A further allegation of the complaint is that as a result of the union of "William C. Finlaw" and Jane Bradley, one son, William H. Finlaw, was born at Dover, Delaware. The exact date of this child's birth is not stated, other than to allege that the event occurred after Dr. Finlaw "left for the front." Dr. Finlaw answered the call for volunteers early in 1863, enlisting in the Fifth United States Volunteer Infantry as a major surgeon. He served with much credit throughout the war, finally becoming assistant surgeon in the Second Missouri Light Artillery and later finding still further advancement. Being captured in battle, he was confined for nine months in a Confederate prison. He often spoke here of the kindly manner in which he was treated during this period.
A San Francisco paper of Friday morning devotes considerable space to the affair, and accompanying the story is the picture of an actress, Miss Marie Baxter. She says her real name is Mary B. Finlaw, and that she is a grand-daughter of Jane Bradley Finlaw and the late Dr. William Finlaw of this city. Miss Baxter is shown in several graceful poses, which indicates that, professionally or otherwise, she is not averse to furnishing the newspapers with as many photographs of herself as they can conveniently use.
The complaint goes on to say that Jane Bradley Finlaw only learned by accident of the death of "Dr. William C. Finlaw." She says that after waiting forty-four years and hearing nothing of him, she came to the conclusion that he must be dead and thereupon filed a claim for a widow's pension. Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw of this city also failed a pension claim about the same time, and according to the allegations of the complaint it was through the filing of the latter document that the complainant first learned of the existence of Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw of this city.
The suit brought is one praying that Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw be ejected from the possession of any and all property now in her possession and which came to her through the late Dr. William Finlaw. A further demand is made for $6,000 damages for unlawful occupancy of the property and $6,000 back rents. As is well known, Dr. Finlaw left a considerable estate. Estimates vary as to its value, but it is believed that somewhere betwee forty and fifty thousand dollars would cover the amount. The San Francisco paper above referred to placed the figure at sixty thousand dollars, but this is too high. The estate was officially appraised at $43,000.
The late Dr. William Finlaw was one of Santa Rosa's best-known pioneer physicians. Together with his wife, Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw, and their son, Wainright Finlaw, they settled in Santa Rosa in 1876, or thirty-three years ago. A few years after coming to this city, Wainright Finlaw was accidentally killed by a companion about his own age while playing with a loaded revolver. Both Dr. and Mrs. Finlaw took their son's death much to heart, as he was their only child. Dr. Finlaw was a quiet man, and industrious, and he soon built up a lucrative practice. No man in Santa Rosa stood higher in the estimation of his fellows, and in every way he merited the esteem accorded him. His hobby was fine horses, and for a number of years he maintained the Rosedale Stock Farm near this city. A half-mile track for training purposes was a feature of this farm, and every day Dr. Finlaw drove out to see his trotters work. He sold and shipped horses to many parts of the world, Australia being an especially good filed for the output of his farm.
Dr. Finlaw died without leaving a will, and his estate reverted to his wife as community property. In recognition of his military record he was buried at the Presidio. Since the settlement of the estate Mrs. Finlaw has spent most of her time in Europe, and she is there now, sojourning in southern Italy.
Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw is one of Santa Rosa's most prominent women socially. She organized and was the first president of the Saturday Afternoon Club, and she also organized the Etude Club, a musical organization which, after the formation of the Saturday Afternoon Club, affiliated with and became part of the latter organization. She has always been especially prominent in musical and literary circles, and it was largely through her efforts that many of the club's soloists and lecturers were brought here.
Dr. William Finlaw and Anna Love Snyder were married at Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1865. For a number of years they lived there and at Junction City, Kansas, which was also the home of her sister and brother-in-law, Captain and Mrs. Bertram Rockwell. Lieutenant-General Adna R. Chaffee is also a brother-in-law of Mrs. Finlaw, so through their army connection as well as otherwise she and the late Dr. Finlaw were both well-known and prominent people.
In the complaint filed Friday in San Francisco, Councilman Aubrey Barham of this city is also made a defendant with Mrs. Finlaw in the case, he having purchased part of the property left to Mrs. Finlaw by her late husband. Several well-known attorneys when seen yesterday expressed the opinion that nothing would come of this, Mr. Barham being an innocent purchaser. The opinion was also expressed that, the estate having been long ago duly settled by the courts, the woman now claiming to be Mrs. Jane Bradley Finlaw would never be able to bring her suit to a successful conclusion. Dr. Finlaw died on November 17, 1905, and his estate was finally settled something like three years ago.
- Press Democrat, October 3, 1909
Mrs. Finlaw Returns
Mrs. Anna L. Finlaw returned to this city yesterday afternoon, and is a guest at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Edwards. This is her first visit here in thirteen months, and her many friends will be delighted to see her again. Some time since Mrs. Finlaw returned to Kansas City after spending a number of months in Europe, principally in Spain. She was accompanied to Santa Rosa from Kansas City by her brother-in-law, Captain B. Rockwell, who is Mrs. Edwards' father.
- Press Democrat, January 12, 1910
REACH SETTLEMENT IN FINLAW ESTATE
San Francisco, June 6--It was announced here today that the suit brought some time ago by Mrs. Jane Baxter Finlaw against the estate of the late Dr. William Finlaw of Santa Rosa had been settled out of court. It is understood that the contestant gets little more than enough to settle with her attorneys, having been unable to substantiate claims.
- Press Democrat, June 7, 1910
Want to take the pulse of a town in the early 20th century? Just look at its movie theaters. The more the theaters, the greater the population; the better the theaters, the greater the investment in the community's future. You can guess the hour most residents got up in the morning by when the marquee lights were turned off at night, and the people in matinee seats revealed much about who was idle during the day. In Santa Rosa, improvements in movie theaters also neatly followed the arc of the downtown's evolution; what was before 1906 mostly men's territory (via the shoulder-to-shoulder saloons, cigar stores, and the two block red light district) was yielding to businesses more welcoming to women and families.
At the time of the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake, there was only one place showing movies: The Novelty Theatre, which used the short, clumsy films (read a sample description) as a break from the low-rent vaudeville acts that appeared on its dinky stage. After the disaster more than a year passed before Santa Rosa had another place showing moving pictures, which is a bit surprising, considering the barrer to entry was so low - little more was needed to set up business than a projector, a whitewashed wall, and optional piano player.
In mid-1907 the Empire Theatre opened but despite its grand name, it was just another storefront converted into a vaudeville/moving pictures theater. The place almost crashed and burned immediately - literally - in Santa Rosa's most horrific moment since the earthquake.
On its second night of business, a movie was being shown when the projectionist dropped the hot tip of a carbon lamp onto the pile of highly flammable celluloid film. It burst into flame with a terrifying flash, instantly setting the projector aflame and burning the projectionist. The audience panicked and rushed for the single exit. "Women screamed and one fainted and narrowly escaped being trampled underfoot," reported the Press Democrat. "Several boys were knocked down and more or less bruised." Except for the fright, it was a small blaze that the fire department put out with a "few bucketfuls of water." As the shaken audience milled outside, one of the owners appealed for their sympathy: "You people have all been through an earthquake and fire and know what it means. We put everything we had into this little venture, and now the most of it has gone up in smoke. We propose to stay right here, though, and will have things running again tomorrow night just as if nothing had happened." He was heartily cheered, according to the PD, but the place was jinxed; it did reopen but soon faded (judging by the disappearance of newspaper ads).
In its stead a few months later arose the Star Nickelodeon, a couple of blocks down at 414 Fourth Street. No vaudeville stage this time; it boasted only "continuous performance" of moving pictures and admission for 5¢ in keeping with its name. There was also no piano; as the Press Democrat described, "Its music is 'canned music' it is true, but that gigantic phonograph and its horn as big as all the horns in a big brass band, can give the finest sort of music in the finest sort of style."
Also in flux were the live entertainment offerings at this time. Before the earthquake, the cavernous Athenaeum, which could seat up to 2,500, was rented out to touring companies and vaudeville bills. After it was quake-flattened in 1906, the Hub Theatre opened a few months later and offered the same sort of terrible vaudeville acts as had played earlier at the Novelty (also destroyed by the quake). Soon the Hub was offering plays performed by the homegrown Al Richter stock company, and it wasn't long before Richter opened his own Richter Theatre on the corner of B and Third street, where his troupe offered a new play every week (see earlier article). That lasted about a year, and the Richter became a vaudeville house just as the Santa Rosa entertainment scene was about to undergo a turnaround.
If you were reading the Santa Rosa papers from out of town - or, say, from more than a hundred years in the future - there was little clue that something unusual happened in June, 1908. Okay, another movie house, the Theaterette, opened at 507 Fourth street; just another pop-up in a storefront, probably, like the late, lamentably flammable Empire. But a couple of months later the trade newspaper Billboard flagged much was different:
The writer was in Santa Rosa this week and was positively surprised to note that this pretty city of only 10,000 inhabitants supports two handsome nickelodeons. Both are under the same management, the Columbia Amusement Co. composed of J. R. Crone, E. Crone and F. T. Martins. These enterprising men came from San Francisco and established their first one and were so successful that they opened the second one called Theaterette, which is second to none in this state. It is a beautiful affair with art glass, onyx mirrors and beautiful paintings to make an attractive front.
In short, it was the opposite from the Empire Theatre situation in every way. Instead of newbies taking a fling at running a movie house, it was an already-established business expanding and spending coin to make the place appealing. And all of this was possible because the theaters were now controlled by the Columbia Amusement Company, one of the largest theater chains in the nation. In the East and Midwest, Columbia used their theaters to present their own traveling programs of "clean-enough" burlesque; in the West, they staked out their territory by controlling vaudeville theaters and movie houses. (Since nickelodeon programs changed several times a week, they also probably managed film distribution, but that's a guess - not much has been written about Columbia's activities in the West.)
Columbia's investment in Santa Rosa extended to its own print advertising, stepping on toes of the newspapers. Each Friday a four-page "Weekly Show News" appeared in local mailboxes, giving the upcoming weekly program for the two theaters along with blurbs for the films and other entertainment news.
With the Nickelodeon and Theaterette changing their hour-long programs every two days (sometimes a special show on Sunday), Santa Rosans could now catch up to 24 short moving pictures a week. When the silver-coated curtains parted, the screens would glow with overacted melodramas (including the first films from legendary director D. W. Griffith), riotous comedies, and sometime in the months around Easter, always a somber Passion Play for which they charged extra. They presented a three-part version of Uncle Tom's Cabin with two of the chapters flipped, so Santa Rosa audiences watched Tom die followed by the events leading up to his demise. Think of it as the Pulp Fiction version of the story.
Columbia Amusement completed its monopoly on Santa Rosa's entertainment when it took over the Richter a year later, renaming it the Columbia Theater. Again they spent heavily on showy improvements aimed at drawing ever larger audiences: "The entire front of the building is outlined with electric bulbs," reported the PD, "and a real electric sign will extend out over the corner walk so as to show on Third, Fourth, and Fifth streets for blocks in either direction."
With its big hall that could seat about 700 - as many people as the Nickelodeon and Theaterette combined - the Columbia Theater could be used for anything: vaudeville, lectures and speeches by famous people, featured movies, traveling stage shows (charging up to $1.50 for the best seats), even amateur talent dramatic productions of the sort Al Richter used to present. As this wasn't Columbia's only venue in town, they wouldn't lose money by letting the theater remain idle for weeks if there was nothing in the offing. But usually they could find someone who wanted to put on a show. For local singers they charged a dime admission, or free with a coupon from a sister movie house. Among the warblers who performed on their stage was Olney Pedigo; I'll bet his odd name caused some childhood misery - although none were probably still snickering years later when he became the Sonoma County Auditor.
Thus marks the end of the first chapter of Santa Rosa's movie history (with the footnote that in 1910 The Elite Theater operated briefly on Fourth Street, "Pictures Changed Daily," which reeks of desperation). Chapter two begins with the 1916 opening of The Cline, the most famous of early Santa Rosa movie palaces.
Gentle Reader may be bored to yoinks by some of this minutiae (hey, did you know that the Theatrette walls and ceiling were pressed steel?) but it has real purpose. First, all local histories garble these names and/or dates, and the latter particularly needs to be accurate if movie house evolution can be viewed as a barometer for a community's overall prosperity. Second, the continuing investment into Santa Rosa by Columbia Amusement, a non-local company, cannot be understated; over three years they continued acquiring and improving their holdings because they obviously believed there was growing potential for profit. That leads to the big question: Does the era of Columbia's expansion also mark the turning point where the town finally lost its feral Wild West temperament and emerged as a housebroken 20th century metropolis? It may be significant to note that Columbia's second wave of investment soon followed the 1908 repeal of legal prostitution in Santa Rosa and the third (and largest) investment came in 1909 shortly after the town finally closed the red light district just a couple of blocks from the Columbia Theater.
But as always, there's a believe-it-or-not angle. The secretary of the Columbia Amusement Company here in Santa Rosa was one J. R. ("Raymond") Crone. He moved to Hollywood sometime around 1916, and years later, climbed the ladder to become the top production manager at RKO. There he was the studio's final authority on the schedules and budgets for most of the great 1930s Fred Astaire classics, Bringing Up Baby, and a little film called Citizen Kane. There's an anecdote passed down about his early involvement with Orson Welles, who originally planned to develop Heart of Darkness as his first screenplay. Welles' script called for the characters to ride a train through the jungle. "Do you know what it would cost us to build a locomotive for that purpose?" Asked Raymond Crone. When told of the incredible expense, the unfazed Welles agreed to compromise: "We'll make it a hand cart."
WILL REMODEL THE THEATERWill Have New Front and a Larger Stage
The Columbia Amusement Company, the new proprietors of the Richter theater, will shortly begin the remodeling of that play house. They expect to spend the sum of $50000 in making the theater modern and up-to-date and will arrange the same so it will be far superior to its present condition.
Among the improvements contemplated is a large stage, so large traveling road shows can be better accommodated on their trips to this city, and so extravaganzas and companies carrying a good many people can put on their shows without hindrance or being overly crowded. A new entrance is to be constructed, an entirely new front will be placed in the theater, and a new gallery will be built.
When these contemplated improvements have been carried out Santa Rosa will have a modern and up-to-date theater.
- Santa Rosa Republican, April 7, 1909
RICHTER'S CURTAIN RISES NEVERMOREPopular Playhouse, Now a Thing of the Past, Closes with the Latest New York Sensation, "The Devil"
No more will Virtue and Vice contend in the footlight's glare at the Richter theatre. The villain will no longer pursue the helpless damsel to the edge of the paper precipice in that temple of Thespis; and the hero, accustomed to step from behind a set tree and perform his work of rescue to the applause of appreciative gallery gods, will no longer delight his admirers at the Richter. For the Richter theatre is to be closed today, and completely remodeled. When it is rebuilt it will be finer and large, and it will be named "The Columbia." Until we have the Columbia we must go without the drama, or we must go elsewhere to be thrilled...
- Press Democrat, April 20, 1909
NEW COLUMBIA THEATRE WILL OPEN ON THURSDAYMany Improvements in Santa Rosa's Playhouse
Work has progressed so far in the rehabilitation of the old Richter Theater that the Columbia Amusement Co., which now has the lease, announces that it will be reopened as the Columbia next Thursday evening. It is one of the neatest play houses north of San Francisco. The entire inside has been remodeled and handsomely decorated and new opera chairs are being installed.
The new front is practically completed and presents a very showy and inviting appearance. The entire front of the building is outlined with electric bulbs, with several clusters, and a real electric sign will extend out over the corner walk so as to show on Third, Fourth, and Fifth streets for blocks in either direction. There is a double front entrance with the ticket window between, while separate entrances are provided on each side for the gallery.
The gallery has been extended forward into a semicircle and the ceiling angled so as to give good ventilation. The changes here are marked and will grow very popular to all who sit with the "gods."
The stage has been deepened six feet and the "fly gallery" added so that none of the scenery will be in the way on the stage floor. A new drop curtain is being painted, while entire new scenery is being made ready for the opening next week.
The companies playing in the Columbia will be provided with new and commodious dressing rooms under the stage. The stage entrance from Fifth street is so arranged that trunks and baggage can be dropped down into the dressing rooms or taken right on the stage, if desired, with little difficulty. The stage door from the auditorium has been done away with, and the only entrance to the stage is from Fifth street.
Musical comedy will be placed on the boards for four nights in the week for a run of twenty weeks, with a change of program twice a week. There will also be some vaudeville and road shows booked whenever good ones can be secured. It is the purpose of the management to conduct a first-rate play house at popular prices.
- Press Democrat, June 18, 1909
"The Nickelodeon," which is the new hall of entertainment on Fourth street, has opened to a good business, and the large crowds in attendance have departed well pleased with a nickel's worth of fun that overflows the measure. The moving picture machine works well and its views are good ones, well selected. Its music is "canned music" it is true, but that gigantic phonograph and its horn as big as all the horns in a big brass band, can give the finest sort of music in the finest sort of style. Children, especially, find the Nickelodeon a delight, and there are matinees for them today, tomorrow and next day. But there are many children larger grown in the audiences, and they, too, are pleased with the performances.
- Press Democrat, September 5, 1907
FIRE CAUSES PANIC AT THE EMPIRE THEATRE LAST NIGHTPeople Make a Lively Scramble for Exits
The second performance at the Empire Theatre in the Ridgway block of Third street had just commenced last night when a fire scare threw the audience into a wild panic. There was a mad scramble for the doors, chairs and benches were smashed, women screamed and one fainted and narrowly escaped being trampled underfoot. Several boys were knocked down and more or less bruised. The theatre was crowded, and above the din arose the shouts of the cooler ones telling people to sit down and be quiet, that there was no danger. But few heeded the advice, and not until they found themselves out in the open air and gazing up at the small blaze that had broken out in the front of the building just to the right of the entrance did those present realize that their excitements had been all unnecessary.
The panic started when a sudden flash of flame shot out from the moving picture gallery in the rear of the auditorium above and just to the right of the entrance. The fire was caused by the operator of the picture machine accidentally dropping a hot carbon point into the box of films under the machine. These firms are made of celluloid and are almost as inflammable as powder. The flash which followed completely destroyed the machine, consumed the films, singed the hair and clothing of the operator and set fire to the woodwork of the office and the small gallery above from which it was finally communicated to the window frames outside. When the fire department arrived, the flames were quickly extinguished with a few bucketfuls of water.
In the excitement a number of ladies dropped their purses, wraps, etc. These were recovered by the management as quickly as possible, and returned to the owners, one of the men in charge mounting a box outside and announcing a list of articles found. When he had finished the distribution, he made an impromptu address which went something like this:
"You people have all been through an earthquake and fire and know what it means. We put everything we had into this little venture, and now the most of it has gone up in smoke. We propose to stay right here, though, and will have things running again tomorrow night just as if nothing had happened. If you wil give us a helping hand we will come out all right." He was heartily cheered when he finished his few remarks and stepped down from his improvised platform.
One of the women patrons and quietly removed her shoe after being seated on account of a corn. When the excitement began she did not stop to recover it and when she started home it was with one shoe on and one shoe off.
The damage to the theatre proper was trivial. The loss to the Empire management will amount to several hundred dollars.
- Press Democrat, June 16, 1907