The Start of Something Big: Theater Music in Los Angeles, 1880-1900

Article excerpt


Just as there is no business like show business, there is no musical metropolis like Los Angeles. The city has become the epicenter for entertainment in America. Almost every type of musical tradition has flourished within its environs--from symphony, opera, ballet and chamber music, to jazz, rock, country, rap, and Latin music. Los Angeles has also become a prominent site for the production and broadcasting of music through a variety of media, including film, radio, recordings, and television.

The city's dynamic music culture of today has a historical background stretching for more than one hundred years. During the 1880s and 1890s, when Los Angeles experienced a real-estate boom and a huge increase in its population, professional musicians from Europe, the East Coast, the Midwest, and Mexico came to southern California in growing numbers. Ease of transport dramatically increased access to the region, thanks to a branch of the Southern Pacific arriving in Los Angeles in 1876 and a transcontinental route built by the Santa Fe Railroad arriving in 1885. (1) Musicians came for the professional opportunities that were increasingly available in Los Angeles, and among other achievements, they formed the core of professional orchestras that were the predecessors of the now world-class Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Much of the city's entertainment took place in its theaters. By the late 1880s, several major venues could vie with those in San Francisco and San Diego--as well as in Eastern cities such as New York and Boston--both in terms of quality of the theaters and the quality of performances. Eager to fill these venues, managers booked a wide variety of shows, from vaudeville to opera. Profit was one incentive, but so was the idea of boosting the city's cultural offerings and hence its image; the arts, such as music and drama, proved to a growing public that the region was now "civilized." A sure enticement to bring people out West was not merely good hotels, restaurants, running water and bathrooms, but also different kinds of entertainment. A comment by one patron at the time was apt: with the opening of a new theater the city had become "quite metropolitan to be sure." (2)

A discussion of theater music during the boom years in Los Angeles leads us to pose a few questions. Who were some of the most popular performers? What did they perform? And who made up the audiences that came to the theaters? During a time when migrants from the Midwest and East Coast were filling the ranks of the city's population, we would expect them to demand entertainment similar to that which they had enjoyed "back home." But how did that entertainment take shape? From an analysis of theater programs and a comparison with newspaper reviews, we can seek to recreate the vibrant musical life that Angelenos enjoyed by the late nineteenth century.


Several theaters existed in Los Angeles even before the boom years. These venues catered directly to the city's Hispanic inhabitants--far more than was the case in San Francisco. One of the first theaters, Sanchez Hall, was built in the early 1840s near Los Angeles Plaza. According to one visitor, it was "painted out in the most comical style with priests, bishops, saints, horses and other animals--the effect is really astonishing." (3) Another early venue was Stearns's Hall, which the real estate developer and cattle baron Don Abel Steams built on Los Angeles Street in 1858, and which originally formed part of his adobe residence, "El Palacio." Among the groups appearing there were the six-member California Minstrels, who performed comedy with violin accompaniment, and the Isidoro Maiquez Company from Mexico, which used music in its plays. (4)

The founding of three more theaters marked a growing interest in the arts. Not long after the opening of Stearns's Hail, a local merchant, John Temple, built his own theater, which formed part of a multipurpose edifice that mainly consisted of the city hail, courthouse, and city market. …