David Belasco: An Early "Emperor Norton" of the San Francisco Stage
Those who know the history of modern American theater know David Belasco (1853–1931) as "the Bishop of Broadway," the legendary producer, impresario, director and playwright who gave his name to two New York City theaters — the current Belasco Theater, built in 1907, and the original Belasco, built in 1900 and renamed the New Victory in 1995 — and who is best remembered for his influential and often pioneering work in that city.
But Belasco didn't arrive in New York until 1882. He was born in San Francisco — and it was on the San Francisco stage that he cut his theatrical teeth, initially as an actor.
The first performance that brought Belasco critical attention took place at the Metropolitan Theater, on Jackson Street (at Montgomery). The date was 18 May 1873. Belasco was only 19. Here's how he looked at the time.
After 12 years as the theater critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian in the 1980s and early '90s, Misha Berson moved to Seattle, where, for 25 years, she was the theater critic for the Seattle Times. She stepped down in 2016.
In The San Francisco Stage: From Golden Spike to Great Earthquake, 1869–1906 (San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum, 1992) — the second volume of her two-volume study of the theater in early San Francisco — Berson tells us whom young Belasco played that night in May 1873:
Like all San Francisco celebrities of note, [Emperor] Norton was often spoofed at the theater, beginning with the satirical 1861 operetta Norton the First at Tucker's Academy of Music. Belasco's turn to mimic him came in The Gold Demon, one of the final offerings at the Metropolitan Theater before its demolition. The 1873 burlesque starred Ella and Blanche Chapman....Belasco took the role of Prince Saucelita, but everyone knew who he was impersonating in his whiskers and mock-military outfit. The Figaro [a San Francisco theatrical news sheet of the time]...praised him by noting that "D. Belasco took the house by storm with his make-up for 'Emperor' Norton, which was quite a feature of the piece."
Did the Metropolitan reserve Emperor Norton a seat for this performance, as theaters so often did during this period?
If so, it seems unlikely that the Emperor would have accepted the offer, given that — no doubt — the whole point of the Saucelita character was to make a cartoon of the Emperor and to have a laugh at his expense.
Still, the portrayal of Emperor Norton on the San Francisco stage in 1873 reinforces the fact that the Emperor was a legend in his own time.
And it situates the Emperor within the biography of one of the titans of American theater.
Now you know.
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