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HORTON HALL ~ SAN DIEGO’S FIRST THEATRE BUILDING

Opened in 1869; located on SE corner of Sixth & F; “Comfortable seating for 400, with 200 more chairs possible”; later known as Bijou Hall; closed in 1886; burned down in 1897.

Alonzo Horton offered free lots to anybody who would build a building in his New San Diego, and he set an example with Horton Hall. A brick, two-story building on the southeast corner of Sixth and F streets, the place had shops downstairs and a meeting hall above when it opened around Christmas 1869.

Right away, P.P. Martin started a dancing school in the hall. (He and his fiddle were fixtures of anything musical for years.) By the next April, there was a small stage (16 x 18 feet) with proscenium arch — both removable — and 400 chairs. A colorful drop curtain had been painted by A. Whittle of San Francisco. An additional 200 could be crammed inside. A narrow, added room along Sixth Street held dressing rooms and storage space.

The city had its theater. But the shows didn’t show. San Diego was accessible only by steamer or stagecoach in 1870. Until Horton finished his wharf, both ship and coach were trying journeys that few touring showfolk chose to make. So San Diegans went to work on their own.

On May 3, there was a benefit for the fire department. “San Diego in 1870 and San Diego in 1880” sounds like quite an extravaganza, with an elaborate variety show to open and the two-act topical drama (written, according to a letter to the Union years later, by Mrs. John H. Todman, “better known professionally as Viola A. Pomeroy”). Music was furnished by P.P. Martin’s Brass and String Band, “kindly volunteered for the occasion.”

Two weeks later, the San Diego Literary and Dramatic Union produced another fire-department benefit, the melodrama “Warlock of the Glen,” with “a full cast of characters in Scotch costume” followed by “an officer recently from the Apache country (who) has kindly volunteered to personate a War Chief in song and dance.”

This was soon followed by the performance of “the affecting afterpiece” titled, The Result of Intemperance; Professor C.B. Plummer, Elocutionary Recitations; Millie Christine, the two-headed marvel, and two midgets, Count Rosebud and Baron Littlefinger. Sandwiched in between these sterling productions were revival meetings, temperance meetings, political rallies, and church meetings.

In February 1871, the touring California Minstrels became the first professional troupe to play Horton Hall.

Classical music surfaced in 1872 with the formation of the Philharmonic Society of San Diego, directed by R.D. Case, which met regularly for “practice and improvement in vocal and instrumental music.” Members had to read music unless they were male, in which case something could be worked out. And regular concerts, assisted of course by P.P. Martin’s band, began before the year was out.

The first San Diego visit by “The Black Crook,” usually considered America’s earliest musical comedy but dismissed (and cherished) then as scandalous froth, came in 1873.

Transportation had improved, new hotels offered acceptable accommodations and the railroad was expected any day now. Show business had discovered a growing audience, and troupes of entertainers began showing up regularly, even as the city (and the state) rotated through another economic depression.

Cast of H.M.S. Pinafore Oct 6, 1879

By 1880, San Diego had added only 337 people to its 1870 population of 2,300 when a 27-year-old extrovert named John Mason Dodge — but called Jack by all — stepped off the steamer, and beheld his new home.

On the boards of Horton’s makeshift stage, Dodge first appeared as Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience”.

Jack Dodge began presenting minstrel shows and other entertainments around town. A visiting pro from San Francisco, Robert Kirk, became his first partner, and the two not only did banjo comedy but they also recruited others. Rich or poor, folks wanted entertainment. And with no radio, television or movies, the stage was it.

Dodge and partners took over Horton Hall, forlornly renamed it Bijou Hall and continued with amateur shows as the city clamored for a real opera house.

At first, Jack Dodge’s amateur dramas, farces, operettas and minstrel shows were enough, but the growing audience soon demanded more and better than anything old Horton Hall could provide upstairs.

Horton Hall burned in 1897 and was torn down shortly thereafter.

[history adapted from an article by Welton Jones in the San Diego Union-Tribune]

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