405. California's First Theater

Stop #405 California’s First Theater California’s First Theater came by its name since most historians believe that this was the first building in California where plays were performed and admission was charged. However, it didn’t start out as a theater at all. In 1843, while Monterey was still part of Mexico, an English sailor named Jack Swan settled here, building the small, wood-framed cabin which became a barroom and bowling alley. Eventually, he would build the adjoining one-story adobe that became his lodging house. In 1848, Col. Stevenson’s New York Volunteers, part of the American military assigned to Monterey, convinced Swan to use the building as a theater to entertain the locals. Boards and barrels were used for seating and whale oil lamps lit the stage. The first performance sold out with patrons paying five dollars each, an expensive ticket at the time. Originally, men were the only players, using scarves to portray female characters. In that era, women were rarely seen in theaters, and the fact that there were five women in the audience on opening night caused quite a scandal. During the Gold Rush, Jack Swan closed the theater to seek his fortune. Soon after, John Davenport from the Monterey Whaling Company, used the building for his headquarters. You might have already spotted the two whale ribs over the entrance that advertised the business that once operated here. In 1876, Swan returned from the gold fields almost penniless. In his last years, he loved to tell stories of old Monterey if you put a coin in his cup. By 1906, the Hearst foundation purchased the building and donated it to the State of California. In 1937, the theater was re-opened and theatrical performances continued until its recent closure due to structural problems. Many visitors and locals alike hope that, one day, California’s First Theater will open again.