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Guide to the California First Theater Collection
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Legal Status
  • Administrative Information
  • Separated Materials
  • History of the California First Theatre
  • Chronology
  • Scope and Content
  • Bibliography
  • Arrangement of Materials
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    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 Park

    Monterey, CA 93940
    Extent: 12.49 cubic ft. (19 boxes)
    Repository: 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. The 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 Museum Curator at 831-649-7118.
    Language: English.

    Legal Status


    Administrative Information


    The collections are open for research by appointment only. Appointments may be made by calling 831-649-7110.

    Publication Rights

    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 California Department of Parks and Recreation, Monterey State Historic Park.

    Preferred Citation

    Suggested citation of these records is: [Identification of item], California First Theatre Collection, Monterey State Historic Park, Monterey, CA.

    Additional Materials

    This collection contains only those materials suitable for treatment as archives. Artifacts, 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 Curator at 831-649-7118.

    Separated Materials

    All books, with the exception 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 separately.

    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 Alfred (Jack) Swan, a sailor of Scottish descent, arrived in Monterey in 1843 as a 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 cook on the Mexican schooner California, captained by John B.R. Cooper, another American destined to historical importance in Monterey. After a pair of successful trade voyages between 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 of 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 an 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, where 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 Coast, devised their own entertainments in Monterey to help relieve the monotony of camp life. The war with Mexico by this time virtually over, a few 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 stage and seats, blankets for the curtains. As money came in from admissions, better materials were used, scenery and costumes of higher quality. With no programs or handbills in existence, it is not definitely known what play 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 the 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 gap, but by the end of 1849, the lure of gold and riches had taken its number 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 by 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 adobe 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 to the 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 buildings 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 residents, 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.


    1846 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.
    1847 Long adobe complete by the end of the year and serves as a boarding house for sailors, along with the saloon. Swan a successful businessman.
    1848-50 Begins conversion of building into a theatre. First play produced in spring. Performances continue with a resident group of locals and mustered sailors through February 1850. Ten plays are produced over the twenty one months.
    1850-96 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 in the 1850s), a drug store in the 1870s and finally a tea room and shop.
    1885 After a Gold Rush boom-and-bust life, Swan retires penniless to his house.
    1896 Swan dies. The adobe and house sit empty and begin to deteriorate.
    1906 Building purchased by a group of Monterey citizens and deeded to the State of California.
    1920 Restoration complete and buildings reopened as a museum.
    1937 Denny-Watrous Management of Carmel lease the building for theatrical performances. The Troupers of the Gold Coast begin residence.
    1999 Building closed for renovation.

    Scope and Content

    The California First Theatre Collection consists of records, artifacts, and memorabilia connected with the oldest theatrical performance 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 promissory notes, and virtually no evidence of its storied first activity period as a theater,1848-1850, the collection is rich in documentation of the plays and 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 theatrical performance in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City. This is revealed in the collection's large holding of American sheet music and song 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. History of California. San Francisco, CA: The History Company, 1884-1890.
    MacMinn, George Rupert. The Theatre of the Golden Era in California. Caldwell, ID: The Caxton Printers, 1941.
    Tays, George. First Theater in California. Berkeley, CA: Works Progress Administration, 1936.
    Works Progress Administration. Historical Survey of the Monterey Peninsula, Project #4080. San Francisco, CA: Works Progress Administration, 1937.

    Arrangement of Materials

    Materials in this collection are mainly arranged alphabetically by document type and then chronologically if necessary.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in a library's online public access catalog:
    Library of Congress Subject Headings

    Personal Names:

    Booth, Edwin, 1833-1893.
    Montez, Lola, 1818-1861.
    Swan, John Alfred, 1817-1896.


    California--Monterey--Historic structures.
    Monterey (Calif.)--History.