San Francisco’s downtown neighborhood is firmly rooted in the marriage between public discourse and entertainment. A public square was deeded to the City by its first mayor, Colonel John Geary. in 1850, but it wasn’t until the fiery pro-Union speeches given there during the Civil War that Union Square got its name. It’s ironic that Maiden Lane (a side street off Union Square) was known for its bawdy-house entertainment during the gold-rush era but Union Square became famous for its churches with ministers known for their oratory.
It’s said that surrounding businesses and schools shut down when a particularly good speaker was on a Union Square soap box.
Now that’s theater!
By the turn of the 20th century, the Union Square neighborhood had given birth to San Francisco’s Theater District, home to more lucrative theaters than any American city other than New York. You can still find gigantic old safes in the basement of a Theater District apartment building, safes that stored furs during San Francisco summers for all the theater-goers.
The famous tenor Enrico Caruso’s singing engagement in San Francisco ended abruptly with the earthquake and fire of 1906. Eight downtown theaters were destroyed. In 1910, the rebuilding of the Columbia Theatre was completed. That building on Geary Street now houses the American Conservatory Theater.
Read more about Union Square from Gregory Nuno’s article.
Read more about the history of the Geary Street Theater and ACT.