Imagine the greatest natural disaster in California history. Then imagine its aftermath without a cell phone, few emergency services, and no government reserve funds for rebuilding. Three quarters of the city’s population is rendered homeless in a little over a minute. Five square miles are in ruins, fires all around, and you cannot find your daughter, or your father, or anybody you love.
That was the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.
And that’s where the history of San Francisco’s Theater District became heroic.
The landmark Lotta’s Fountain, donated to San Francisco in 1875 by one of San Francisco theatre’s greatest stars, Lotta Crabtree, became the beacon gathering place for the city’s nearly quarter of a million homeless searching for missing family and friends following the earthquake and fires. It’s said that “I’m-alive-where-are-you letters” written on any materials salvaged near the fountain – scraps of fabric, half-burned boards – were delivered by the San Francisco Post Office.
By 1910, fifteen San Francisco theaters had been rebuilt and new ones added, making nineteen in all. The performing-arts scene was doing its share to rebuild the city’s economy as well as its theaters. Singers, musicians, actors and glitteratti came from around the globe to help lift the spirits of San Franciscans.
Considered the greatest opera singer of her day, Italian diva Luisa Tetrazzini performed for free at Lotta’s Fountain to tens of thousands of San Franciscans on Christmas Eve of 1910. Mind you, there were no microphones then, so that was probably the only time in the city’s history that so many San Franciscans have been quiet. James Keller, San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator, beautifully recounts the story:
The soprano Luisa Tetrazzini, “The Florentine Nightingale,” turned the spotlight on the city when, in 1910, she got into a contract dispute with New York impresario Oscar Hammerstein.
“When they told me I could not sing in America unless it was for Hammerstein,” she proclaimed, “I said I would sing in the streets of San Francisco, for I knew the streets of San Francisco were free.”
She announced a free concert that Christmas Eve as a gift to the city that had so warmly embraced her—and she arranged for it to take place around Lotta’s Fountain.
“I never thought I would be a street singer,” she said, “but I want to do this for San Francisco … because I like San Francisco better than any other city in the world. San Francisco is my country.”
Two years later, she volunteered as soloist for a benefit concert at the Cort Theater, the funds enabling the fledgling San Francisco Symphony to acquire a valuable collection of scores and orchestral parts being sold by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which was temporarily disbanding.
Fast forward to 2012 when Italian restaurant menus in San Francisco’s Theater District still feature Chicken Tetrazzini, which is an American dish, not an Italian one. But Luisa was Italian, and San Franciscans loved her. The famous dish is said to have been created to honor diva Luisa Tetrazzini around 1910 by Chef Ernest Arbogast of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel (left standing after the SF Earthquake but later damaged by fire) in the literal shadow of Lotta’s Fountain.
Mind you, San Franciscans have also heard the rumors started by other cities wanting ownership of the first Chicken Tetrazzini recipe, but we discount those shrill claims.