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Spirits Of The Bay: Bayview Opera House

Written by Gary Kamiya | Illustration by Paul Madonna

Certain buildings are so unexpected, so out of place with their surroundings, that they bring to mind the weird spires known as “fairy chimneys.” Like those uncanny rock formations, such buildings are emissaries from another age — time capsules that have miraculously survived.

In the urban geology of San Francisco, few structures are more anomalous than the Bayview Opera House. This elegant Italianate building, on motley Third Street at the corner of Newcomb, is a link to San Francisco’s Wild West days. When the South San Francisco Opera House (its original name) was built, the Bayview was home to Butchertown, the City’s slaughterhouse district. Cowboys drove cattle down Third Street, and traveling theater troupes would barnstorm through the remote neighborhood, announcing their performances at the opera house with brass bands whose sounds carried across the sparsely populated area for miles.

As Katherine Petrin and Matthew Davis note in their historical context statement in support of the building’s 2010 nomination for the National Register of Historic Places (it was inducted the next year), the opera house was part of a two-building Masonic complex. As was the case across the City, many residents of the area then known as South San Francisco (which was not the name of a separate city yet) were Freemasons. At first they shared buildings with other organizations, but in 1887, members decided to build their own Masonic lodge. The cornerstone of South San Francisco Lodge No. 212 of the Free and Accepted Masons was laid on May 30, 1888. At the same time, the members commissioned the eminent and prolific German-born architect Henry Geilfuss to build a public hall and theater next to the lodge, named the South San Francisco Opera House.

The opera house was intended to serve the isolated but growing neighborhood, which was mostly made up of truck farmers — many of them Portuguese, Italian and Maltese — as well as meat packers and tanners, many of whom were French. The two buildings were among the most substantial structures in the City’s southern hinterlands. (The lodge no longer exists.)

After it opened in 1888, the opera house began hosting a wide variety of events, from political rallies, charity fundraisers and shindigs for fraternal organizations to parties, dances and masquerade balls. And, of course, it hosted theatrical performances. The first play staged was Little Puck, followed by Richelieu and Richard III. A big production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin featured “two funny Topsys, 25 plantation singers, imported bloodhounds, a comical trick monkey, beautiful scenery and a company of 50 people onstage,” wrote George Poultney, who was cited by Petrin and Davis.

Most early performances were short runs attracting a primarily local audience. The troupes were small, probably stopping off at the remote venue on their way to or from engagements at downtown theaters.

About the only entertainment not typically offered there was opera. This was not unusual for “opera houses” throughout the Old West.

Many different types of productions, from Shakespeare to minstrel shows, were presented at the opera house. In fact, about the only entertainment not typically offered there was opera. This was not unusual for “opera houses” throughout the Old West. In American Theaters: Performance Halls of the Nineteenth Century, David Naylor and Joan Dillon wrote that such halls provided “some semblance of conventional community life” for Western boomtown residents. The grand moniker “opera house” appears to have been bestowed with tongue in cheek, a joking commentary on the un-high-society-like nature of life in Western mining towns.

The South San Francisco Opera House declined as a performing venue after the 1906 earthquake and fire, although it continued to be a community center. During World War II, the neighborhood formerly known as South San Francisco, which was called Bayview–Hunters Point after the city of South San Francisco incorporated in 1908, saw a massive demographic transformation, as thousands of African Americans arrived to work at the Navy shipyards in Hunters Point and elsewhere.

In 1940, according to Petrin and Davis’ statement, there were only seven Black residents in the entire area; by 1945, there were 9,000. When the shipyards closed after the war, many of these workers could not find other jobs. The area became increasingly impoverished and was even more isolated after the Bayshore Freeway created a physical barrier between it and the rest of the City.

When James Baldwin visited the Bayview in 1963 for the documentary Take This Hammer, he found a powder keg, ready to explode. The explosion came on September 27, 1966, when a police officer shot and killed a 16-year-old African American boy, Matthew Johnson, who was fleeing from a stolen car. Riots broke out, and at the height of the days-long disturbances, Blacks inside the Bayview Opera House (being used as the Bayview Community Center) opened fire on police on Third Street, who returned it. Amazingly, no one was killed.

In 2014, the Bayview Opera House was renamed the Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theatre, after African American producer, playwright and actress Ruth Williams. It underwent a $5 million renovation, reopening in 2016. The oldest theater in San Francisco, and still used as a cultural resource by local residents, the grand old building is a last link to a fascinating era.

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