Chapter 433 Bella Union Theatre Broadside, Or, Miss Lottie Elliott In Her Great Skipping Rope Specialty

According to the Encyclopedia of Ephemera, a broadside “is a single-sided printed sheet of virtually any size . . . Subject matter is also widely disparate. The broadside may be a theatre bill, a royal proclamation, or a public apology. It must be said that the term is so generalized as to be almost meaningless. Its imprecision must be ascribed to the wide range of situations that called for the printed word in the era before the popular newspaper. The broadside appeared as a formal pronouncement in matters of law and order; as a purveyor of warning in emergency; as an instrument of protest, political controversy, and in the form of ballad, verse, and satire; and as commercial advertising. It was in fact the universal medium of expression at every level, augmented only — for the more literate — by the pamphlet.”

Here’s an example of a broadside that falls in the theatre bill category:

Measuring 4 3/4″ x 8 1/2″ and advertising a performance that was to take place June 2, 1879, the broadside mentions the theater’s address — Kearny Street between Washington and Jackson — as well as many interesting performances: “Somnambulism” [sleepwalking], The Great Zittella [awful name] “In her Specialties” [we can only speculate as to what those might be], Mr. John Gilbert “in his Grotesque and Humorous Specialties”, and Miss Lottie Elliott “In her great SKIPPING ROPE SPECIALTY!”

Must have been quite a show. 😉

I purchased this broadside for a variety of reasons:
* It is a piece of pre-1906 earthquake San Francisco ephemera.

* It’s from the notorious Barbary Coast days in San Francisco.

* The list of performers and their “specialties” is interesting and chuckleworthy.

* There’s also a story to tell about the proprietors of the theater at that time, Samuel Tetlow and W. Skeantlebury.

According to Herbert Asbury’s book, The Barbary Coast,

“The Bella Union, at Washington and Kearny streets, was probably the most popular resort ever operated on the Barbary Coast. It was the favorite haunt of the young bloods of the town whenever they wanted to see a bit of life in the raw, or at least what they regarded as raw, and no sailor considered his shore liberty in San Francisco complete unless it included a visit to the Bella Union . . . An occasional theatrical performance was staged in the Bella Union during gold-rush days, but gambling remained the principal business of the resort until 1856. It was closed after the vigilante uprising of that year, but was soon re-opened as a melodeon by Samuel Tetlow, who operated the house successfully until 1880, when he shot and killed his partner, Billy Skeantlebury. Tetlow was acquitted on a plea of self-defense. A few months later he sold the Bella Union and retired to private life, but his wife died, and he became enamored of a chorus girl, who soon reduced him to poverty. He died a pauper.”

Not only that, but the advertising for the theater concealed some of what actually what on there:

“Under Tetlow’s management the Bella Union was advertised mainly by dodgers [broadsides like this one] thrown about the streets. The beauty and shapeliness of the female performers were not mentioned, nor was the fact that the performance might be highly objectionable to the sensitive indicated in any way.”

While the advertisements may have only hinted at the activities at the Bella Union, “the shows were sufficiently bawdy to cause considerable journalistic comment.”

In 1869, a reporter for the San Francisco Call wrote of the Bella Union,

“Songs and dances of licentious and profane character while away the hours of the evening, and all that can pander to that morbid desire of the rabble for obscenity is served in superior style.”

Though it burnt and was rebuilt several times from its original appearance in the Gold Rush days, the Bella Union was a San Francisco fixture until it was brought down by the Great 1906 Earthquake and Fire.

I just love little scraps of history like this one.

See you in the stacks!


Filed under Ephemera

6 responses to “Chapter 433 Bella Union Theatre Broadside, Or, Miss Lottie Elliott In Her Great Skipping Rope Specialty

  1. Bill

    I think you will love ephemera collecting as an adjunct to your books. I have many ephemeral items in my collections, and they are great. Among my favorites are an invitation to one of the first annual cattle association meeting in Chicago in 1888. Or a letter from Lady Bird Johnson to Mrs Dobie after Frank had passed away. I love your broadside, and hope you find many more interesting items. Happy hunting!

  2. Philip Harrigan Sheedy

    I was searching for “The Bella Union” and was about to quit because the hits were about a hair salon by that name then I found your blog.

    My grandfather Edward Green Harrigan(1844-1911) owes his success to his break at the Bella Union. He auditioned (1868) and the conductor “Dutchy” was annoyed by his bumbling, but he was befriended by Edward Buckley a stage hand. He mentions that he learned how to do comedy from Lotta Crabtree.

    This is from a memoir by my great aunt Adelaide(1883-1960) Ned’s daughter. I am in the process of verifying what she has written and any help would be appreciated.

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