The Emperor's Bridge Campaign

to honor the life + advance the legacy of Emperor Norton

David Belasco: An Early "Emperor Norton" of the San Francisco Stage

The legendary theatrical producer, impresario, director and playwright David Belasco (1853–1931) made his name in New York City. But he cut his teeth on the San Francisco stage — initially as an actor. And, in the 1873 San Francisco performance that brought him his first critical notice, Belasco's character was a thinly veiled Emperor Norton. The Emperor, now in the 14th year of his reign, was very much alive and well in San Francisco.  

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"I Would Like to Send That Scalp of Yours to Them."

Over the course of several months in 1873, Emperor Norton issued a series of Proclamations calling out the exploitation of Native American people; urging a peaceable resolution to the Modoc War that was taking place at the time; and warning that the execution of Captain Jack and other Modoc leaders — a punishment mandated by an Army court-martial and eventually carried out — would only make matters worse.

The Emperor's Bridge Campaign has discovered a May 1873 diary entry — by a 13-year-old boy living in Oakland — that further illuminates the Emperor's take on the Modoc War and on Native Americans in general. 

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New Life for an 1879 Drawing of Emperor Norton

On 9 November 1879 — just two months before Emperor Norton's death — the San Francisco Chronicle published a Sunday front-page profile of the Emperor that was based on rare interview with the Emperor himself.

The profile was accompanied by a lovely drawing of the Emperor that was reproduced 60 years later for Allen Stanley Lane's 1939 biography, Emperor Norton: The Mad Monarch of America — but that has languished since then.

The Emperor's Bridge Campaign has had a new photographic print made of the drawing and has added a hi-res scan of it to ARENA, our digital ARchive of Emperor Norton in Art.

Learn more and see the drawing, after the flip.  

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OPEN QUESTION No. 1: How and When Did Joshua Norton Get to San Francisco?

The familiar version of Joshua Norton's San Francisco immigration story — a narrative developed primarily between 1879 and 1939 by that period's leading writers about Emperor Norton — holds that the future Emperor made his way from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro, where he booked passage on the Hamburg ship Franzeska and arrived in San Francisco on 23 November 1849.

The "story of the story" — of how this narrative came together and was canonized — is interesting on its own. What has yet to surface, however, is any primary-source documentation verifying Joshua's passage on any particular ship or his arrival in San Francisco in November 1849.

Absent such evidence, what we really have in the "received version" of this story — as with a number of details about the Emperor's pre-imperial life, in particular — is more a work of "collaborative intuition," a theory in search of documentation.

This is the first in an occasional series of articles on aspects of the Emperor Norton biography that should be regarded as "open questions" — and opportunities for research.

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LIGHTS! CAMERA! NORTON! A Campaign Fundraiser

On Thursday 23 March, The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign presents Lights! Camera! Norton! —  an evening of three films about Emperor Norton at the legendary Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

The event includes a screening of our own 35mm print of a 1936 short that we believe features the earliest dramatic portrayal of the Emperor on film.

This special evening takes place in the 254-seat Big Roxie theater and is a fundraiser for the Campaign: After the first 50 tickets sold, 50 percent of all proceeds from this screening will benefit The Campaign.

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Mark Twain Ate Here. Did Emperor Norton?

At least three times — in a 1906 autobiographical reminiscence; in an 1893 short story; and in his 1872 book, Roughing It — Mark Twain mentions a low-fare eatery, the Miners' Restaurant, that was on the same street as — and only a block away from — the Emperor Norton's residence.

Twain himself is reported to have adopted this restaurant as his "headquarters" in the winter of 1866 and 1867.

Might the Emperor have frequented this place, too?

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"Happy New Year, Emperor!"

The songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb are best known for their smash musicals Cabaret and Chicago. But Kander and Ebb's first musical theater collaboration was on the 1962 score for an unproduced musical inspired, in part, by the story of Emperor Norton. The score includes a Happy New Year song. Step inside for a listen, as rendered by Kander and Ebb themselves!

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Naming of Meadow in Golden Gate Park Would Set a Helpful Precedent for Emperor Norton Bridge Effort

There is a proposal afoot to name the Sharon Meadow, in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, for the late comedian and actor Robin Williams. The rationale being used strengthens the case for naming the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton. 

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What Ever Happened to the Plaque of '59?

In 1959, "the Society of California Pioneers in cooperation with the San Francisco Chronicle" proposed an Emperor Norton memorial plaque at the intersection of California Street and Grant Avenue — where the Emperor collapsed and died on 8 January 1880. A design for the plaque was created by Hubert Buel, the Chronicle's art director. Indeed, the design and text for the plaque were approved by resolution of the San Francisco Arts Commission on 1 June 1959.

And yet, today, there is no Emperor Norton plaque at California and Grant. In fact, it appears that the project never made it before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — which typically would have to have given final approval for a project like this in order for it to move forward.

How did an Emperor Norton plaque with the collaborative backing of two storied institutions like the Society of California Pioneers and the San Francisco Chronicle get pushed off the tracks — and who did the job? 

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Admiral Santa Norton Claus

In 1926, San Francisco-born artist Charles William Saalburg penned an article for The New York Times, in which he recalled many of the storied figures that peopled the San Francisco of his younger years. The piece featured Saalburg's own illustrations of these characters, including an undated rendering of Emperor Norton, which he depicted — perhaps from childhood memory — as a Santa Claus figure with an admiral's hat.

Saalburg's illustration of the Emperor is included in the Paintings gallery of ARENA, the Campaign's digital Archive of Emperor Norton in Art, Music & Film. 

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