Professional Theater Comes to San Diego
By Dean Glass
Original advertisement for the December 2, 1868 opening of the Tanner Troupe Theater in "the Brick House."
Members of the Theatre Arts Guild of San Diego City College reenact the trial of notorious boat thief Yankee Jim Robinson in the Whaley House courtroom in the 1966 production of Frances Bardacke's The Ballad of Yankee Jim. Although his trial actually occurred at San Diego's first courthouse on the Plaza (now Old Town San Diego State Historic Park), Robinson was hanged on the property where the Whaley House now stands.
Playbill for the Spencer & Jackson Traveling Theatrical Troupe, a group of actors, musicians and dancers who recreate a traveling Old West type show and gave three performances in the former Tanner Troupe Theater in 2002.
Although the American Dramatic Club, an amateur theatrical company comprised of United States soldiers of Company D, Third Artillery and their wives, presented theatrical performances at the San Diego Mission and the Franklin House in Old Town as early as 1858, it was not until ten years later that San Diego's first professional theater came on the scene. On November 1, 1868, Thomas W. Tanner rented the second story of the Whaley House in Old Town and use of Whaley's corral for $20 in gold coin as a venue for the Tanner Troupe, a band of entertainers lead by Tanner himself. With daughter Soledad as leading lady, the Tanner Troupe was to provide entertainment-starved San Diegans with "...a short season of his Moral, Chaste and Versatile Entertainments, consisting of Drama, Farce, Comedy, Singing and Dancing, Laughable Burlesques, Negro Delineations, &c..."1 As it turned out, the season was even shorter than Tanner anticipated.
Tanner was permitted to remove twelve feet of studding to make an exhibition room large enough to seat "at least one hundred and fifty persons comfortably."2 A flight of exterior stairs was added to the front balcony for access to the theater. In advertisements, the address of the new Tanner Troupe Theater was given simply as "the upper part of the BRICK HOUSE." In 1860's San Diego, this was sufficient.
With plans to make performances "a weekly affair"3, the Tanner Troupe Theater opened on December 2 at 8pm, with admission at 75 cents for reserved seats and 50 cents at the door (children were half price). The San Diego Union reviewed the opening:
THE TANNER TROUPE. The performance of this troupe on last Wednesday evening, considering the circumstances, was very creditable. The house was filled to utmost capacity; which is a matter of congratulation to the manager; and all seemed pleased with this first attempt in this place, at least, at a theatrical performance. Notwithstanding the perfectly apparent indisposition of Mr. Tanner, the bronchial affliction of Miss Soledad, the rawness of the novices, the defective musical arrangements, the want of capacity in the seating room, and the smallness of the stage, we may be pardoned for saying that our theater is a success. Owing to the continued indisposition of Mr. Tanner the performance which he announced for tonight is postponed until Wednesday evening next, after which the troupe will perform nightly.4
The 55-year-old Tanner's "indisposition" did not improve, and he died just fifteen days later on December 20. Nevertheless, the same issue of The San Diego Union that announced his passing also announced "there will be a performance at the Theater - Brick Building - Next Thursday evening."5 The show must go on, and it did:
TANNER TROUPE. On Thursday night the theater was filled with an appreciative audience to witness the second performance of the troupe. The performers are all youthful, but they acquitted themselves with credit and to the satisfaction of the audience. We have not space in which to speak of the many excellencies of the youthful actors nor to point out the apparent defects which time and study may obviate. The music was one of the features of the evening; the dancing was graceful and the singing charming. We believe that the troupe is a permanent organization and will continue to cater weekly for the taste and pleasure of our citizens.6
Far from being a "permanent organization," the Tanner Troupe disbanded shortly after that performance. Soledad Tanner remained in San Diego, marrying Jesús Marrón and staging productions of La Pastorela performed by the children of Old Town. Notices in the San Diego Union indicate that for a short time after the Tanner Troupe vacated it, the Whaley House Theater was used by other performers: the San Diego Amateurs performed there on January 23; on February 9, the Minstrel Troupe gave "another of their varied entertainments" there, including "a match dance for the championship between Kennedy and a volunteer. Look out for fun."7; and a Mr. and Mrs. Connell appeared there on February 20. After this the Whaley House Theater closed, and by August the County of San Diego was renting the space for record storage. Around Christmas of 1869, a new theater with seating for 400 opened in Horton's Hall in New Town.
The Whaley House Theater as it is today, restored in 2001. Photo by Sandé Lollis
Although theater was to return to the Whaley House in 1966 with the production of Frances Bardacke's play The Ballad of Yankee Jim, a courtroom drama staged appropriately in the downstairs courtroom, it would not be until 133 years after the Tanner Troupe's premiere that theater returned to the original upstairs space.
In 2001 SOHO began restoration to transform the space, which had formerly been displayed as a bedroom/sitting room suite, back to its most historically significant use as San Diego's first commercial theater. Complete with a raked stage and painted backdrop, the room was ready by December 2001 when SOHO presented a new musical adaptation of O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi, directed and produced by longtime SOHO Board Member Welton Jones.
Today, visitors to the Whaley House Museum can see where professional theater first arrived in San Diego 140 years ago.
1 Whaley Papers.
2 The San Diego Union, November 21, 1868.
4 The San Diego Union, December 5, 1868.
5 The San Diego Union, December 26, 1868.
6 The San Diego Union, January 2, 1869.
7 The San Diego Union, February 6, 1869.
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