History of the California First Theatre
Scope and Content
Arrangement of Materials
Title: California. Department of Parks and
Recreation. California First Theatre (Monterey State Historic Park) Collection,
Date Range: 1840-1981.
Collection number: 455.1
Collector: California State Parks
Monterey State Historic
Monterey, CA 93940
12.49 cubic ft.
California State Parks
Monterey State Historic Park
20 Custom House Plaza
Monterey, CA 93940
Abstract: The California First
Theater Collection consists of records, artifacts, and memorabilia
connected with the oldest theatrical performance house in California.
bulk of the documentation is related to the theater's last major period
of activity, from 1937-1999. In addition, the collection contains
significant documentation of contemporary theatrical performance in San
Francisco, Chicago, and New York City.
Physical location: For current information on the
location of these materials, please consult the Monterey District
Curator at 831-649-7118.
collections are open for research by appointment only. Appointments may
made by calling 831-649-7110.
Property rights reside with the California Department
of Parks and
Recreation. Literary rights are retained by the creators of the
records and their
heirs. For permission to reproduce or to publish, please contact the
Department of Parks and Recreation, Monterey State Historic
Suggested citation of these records is:
[Identification of item],
California First Theatre Collection, Monterey State Historic Park,
contains only those materials suitable for treatment as archives.
monographs (books), and decorative objects housed in the California
First Theatre are not included in this collection. For information on
these additional materials, contact the Monterey District Museum
All books, with
of part- and songbooks, in the collection are collected and stored on
adjacent shelving with books from other Park archives collections. They
are not included in this collection and have been inventoried
History of the California First Theatre
The building in which the first paid public dramatic
entertainment in California was staged is located in Old Monterey. John
(Jack) Swan, a sailor of Scottish descent, arrived in Monterey in 1843
crew member on the
Soledad, a Mexican brig
engaged in the coast trade between Mexico and Alta California. Upon
arriving in Monterey, Swan likes the small city and decides to stay. A
lack of immediate employment forces him to sea again, this time as a
on the Mexican schooner
captained by John B.R. Cooper, another American destined to historical
importance in Monterey. After a pair of successful trade voyages
Monterey and the Mexican port of Mazatlan, Swan's culinary skills lose
their luster with Captain Cooper and he loses his post. Whether he was
fired or jumped ship is unknown, but he arrives in Monterey at the end
1844, once again with no work. This time, enterprising Swan decides to
make a name for himself as a baker and manages to set up a small shop.
The American influx to California has begun in earnest by this time and
Swan's Yankee patrons soon make Swan's pies a favored concoction. By
1846, with money acquired from the business, he purchases some land on
the old Calle Estrada, now the southwest corner of Pacific and Scott
Streets. In the summer of the following year he begins construction on
adobe structure, a small house already having been built, with the idea
of turning it into a boarding house for itinerant sailors such as he
was just a few years prior.
In March 1847 the first of three American transport ships arrives
in San Francisco, carrying detachments of the First New York Volunteer
Regiment, under the command of Colonel Jonathan Drake Stevenson. By
April 1848, Companies D, E, F, G, and I were assigned to Monterey,
the soldiers remained for some months until they were either
transferred to other coast cities or mustered out of the service. A
number of New
Yorkers from Companies D and I, used to the myriad of entertainment
choices afforded their leave time in the large cities of the East
devised their own entertainments in Monterey to help relieve the
monotony of camp life. The war with Mexico by this time virtually over,
of the sailors knew their muster was soon to come and, concluding that
their entertainments might fetch them money and a possible living after
the government's paychecks stopped, approached Swan with the idea of
leasing part of his adobe as a theatre. Swan, ever mindful of new and
enterprising ways to make money, was favorable to the idea.
Pressed into service quickly, the building was fitted with
whatever could be used to make the building suitable for dramatic
performance: scraps of lumber, shipping crates, and barrels for the
seats, blankets for the curtains. As money came in from admissions,
materials were used, scenery and costumes of higher quality. With no
programs or handbills in existence, it is not definitely known what
was the first play performed in Swan's theatre. According to Bancroft,
one of the plays given in the Spring of 1848 was
Putnam, or, the Lion Son of '76, which was quite profitable.
In fact, the theatre was by all accounts a remarkable success, having
taken in $500 in admissions on the first night's performance alone.
Melodramas popular at the time were the prevailing works performed in
theatre, complete with a small orchestra adept at accenting every
heroine's anguished wail and every villain's mustache twitch.
By 1849, Gold Rush fever was sweeping California, and Monterey
was not immune to the loss of population to the gold mines of the
Sierras. Performers from Los Angeles came north to attempt to fill the
but by the end of 1849, the lure of gold and riches had taken its
of men to the mountains, including Swan, and the company disbanded.
Over the ensuing years, Swan leased his building to a number of
business people and it served a variety of functions: whaling station,
drug dispensary and store, and eventually a tea room and shop. Swan
traveled both in and out of Monterey over the next 35 years, retiring
1885 to the old adobe, having won and lost a number of fortunes in
different ventures. In 1896 Jack Swan died with no heirs, and the old
and house began to deteriorate, sitting abandoned until 1906.
1906 brings the crumbling adobe some good fortune when a group of
local Monterey citizens, assisted with funds from W.R. Hearst's
California Historic Landmarks League, purchase the building and deed it
State. By 1920 the adobe and house undergo a complete restoration and
open to the public as a museum. In 1937, the State leased the
to Denny-Watrous Management, a performing arts organization dedicated
to reviving the performance of melodrama in the old First Theatre. A
company, Troupers of the Gold Coast, comprised of mostly local
revive the performances of late 19th-century melodrama followed by an
Olio, an audience sing-along. These performances continued without
interruption through a couple of management changes until the buildings
closed again for further restoration in 1999.
||John A. (Jack) Swan acquires land on Calle Estrada, now sw
corner of Pacific and Scott Streets in Monterey. House is built. Part
of it later becomes a saloon.
||Long adobe complete by the end of the year and serves as a
boarding house for sailors, along with the saloon. Swan a successful
||Begins conversion of building into a theatre. First play
produced in spring. Performances continue with a resident group of
and mustered sailors through February 1850. Ten plays are produced over
the twenty one months.
||Swan rents his adobe and begins a life seeking gold in the
Sierra. The house and adobe function over the next 46 years as a
lodging house, whaling station (addition of a look out tower occurred
1850s), a drug store in the 1870s and finally a tea room and
||After a Gold Rush boom-and-bust life, Swan retires
penniless to his house.
||Swan dies. The adobe and house sit empty and begin to
||Building purchased by a group of Monterey citizens and
deeded to the State of California.
||Restoration complete and buildings reopened as a
||Denny-Watrous Management of Carmel lease the building for
theatrical performances. The Troupers of the Gold Coast begin
||Building closed for renovation.
Scope and Content
The California First Theatre Collection consists of records,
artifacts, and memorabilia connected with the oldest theatrical
house in California, the site of the first minstrelsy production on the
West Coast in 1847, and in 1848, the first play. While the collection
contains only one real document and some reproductions of the original
documents recording the building's existence, such as the land title and
and virtually no evidence of its storied first activity period as a
theater,1848-1850, the collection is rich in documentation of the plays
music performed in the theatre during its last major period of
activity, the years 1937 to 1999. In addition, the collection contains
significant documentation for both activity periods of contemporary
performance in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City. This is
revealed in the collection's large holding of American sheet music and
books, with copyright dates spanning a century, as well as scrapbook
collections of playbills, theatrical advertisements, and reviews.
Additional materials of note are the autograph manuscript essay
by Jack Swan, "My Old Spectacles," the collection of cartes de
visite featuring popular San Francisco and international theatrical
personalities of the late 19th century, as well as a large number of
stereopticon cards. The stereopticon cards include, among many views, images of
pre-1906 earthquake San Francisco and prominent mansions and hotels of
the city, along with Yosemite Valley images photographed and published
by the Carlton E. Watkins studio.
Additional information about the California First Theatre may be
found in the following publications:
Bancroft, Hubert Howe, 1832-1918.
San Francisco, CA:
MacMinn, George Rupert.
The Theatre of the Golden Era in
The Caxton Printers,
First Theater in California.
Works Progress Administration.
Monterey Peninsula, Project #4080.
Works Progress Administration,
Arrangement of Materials
Materials in this collection are mainly arranged alphabetically
by document type and then chronologically if necessary.
The following terms have been used to index the description of
in a library's online public access catalog:
Library of Congress Subject Headings