Signora Pisanelli’s ghost is once again being poked and prodded by goings on in North Beach. La Signora was the undisputed queen of San Francisco Italian theatre impresarios during the heyday of Italian live entertainment in the city.
From just before the 1906 quake and into the 1920s, she established several theatres around Washington Square Park and on Broadway. Their offerings reflected the variety of tastes and sophistication in the Italian Community of the day. Folk plays, operetta, opera, and serious drama, all in Italian, found their way onto the stages of Pisanelli’s theatre empire – sometimes all in one sitting! Her trademark was the variety show, with its mix of song, dance, farce, and tragicomic heroes and villains.
In the last several months, two of Pisanelli’s signature theatre locations have become the site of major public works excavations. The San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority (SFMTA) is building an extension of the Central Subway into neighboring Chinatown, and digging holes in North Beach in connection with the project. In August, the SFMTA demolished the building that was the former Washington Square Theatre. When Pisanelli first built it in 1909, this was the crown jewel of San Francisco’s Italian theatre spaces.
As times changed, the building did too, changing hands and housing a succession of uses reflective of new technologies, social norms, and neighborhood demographics. The material structure of the building was modified too, over the years, and its original Italian Renaissance style refurbished to Deco, and eventually to neglect. The last incarnation of the Washington Square was as the Pagoda theatre, which showed Chinese films. Thus, in addition to Pisanelli’s ghost, the 40-foot wide hole now being dug on the site might also be disturbing the ghosts of silent film stars, drag queens, and kung fu actors. Not to mention the memories of many now-older Italian residents who perfected their English, learned American customs, and perhaps experienced their first kiss at Sunday matinees of the ‘40s, ’50s, and ‘60s.
Just a few weeks ago, in early November, the SFMTA announced it would need to dig another hole in the heart of North Beach, at 625 Green Street next door to the historic Bank of America (originally the Bank of Italy), Columbus Branch. The dig is smaller than at the Washington Square – 20 feet in diameter, by 27 feet deep. This time no demolition is required, since the excavation site is an empty parking lot. Not so long ago, however, there was a theatre here too. In 1924, the enterprising Signora Pisanelli, now remarried and using the name Alessandro, established the Alessandro Eden Theatre inside a Protestant church building located at this address.
The Città di Firenze company played here nightly, presenting operetta, melodrama, variety, comedy, and Stenterello. It was a real “teatro italiano di varietà”. By the 30s, as with the Washington Square Theatre, changing times and tastes were bringing the Italian theatre to an end, and Signora Alessandro had left the theatre business. The Alessandro Eden became simply the Green Street Theatre. Here, in 1937, the Theatre Union of San Francisco produced the first staged version of Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice & Men. In the ‘40s, the theatre presented a five-year run of The Drunkard. By the 1950s, apparently with little fanfare, the building was demolished.
Just a few yards from the parking lot stands one intact remnant of the glory days of the Italian theatre in North Beach. Casa Coloniale Fugazi, at 678 Green Street, was erected in 1913 as a social and cultural center for the entire Italian community. This lovely 3 story Italian Renaisssance style edifice boasts a theatre space with a balcony, a basement, and meeting rooms and offices upstairs. It was a popular spot for concerts and gatherings, and was home to the Italian Welfare Agency, now known as Italian American Community Services. Club Fugazi, as it is popularly called, has not been immune to changing with the times. In the Beat era, coffee house style gatherings and poetry readings were held here.
Thelonius Monk recorded a jazz album, “Thelonius Alone in San Francisco”. The Grateful Dead performed in the theatre in the ‘60s. The Italian community enjoyed family dinners in the basement on Sundays, and dances upstairs, with mothers keeping a watchful eye on their daughters from the balcony.
Unlike its less fortunate counterparts however, Club Fugazi remains standing, and in splendid form, too. John Fugazi established a trust to ensure that the building would be maintained, and continue to be used by future generations of Italian-Americans. Since 1978, Fugazi’s most famous and visible tenant is Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon, a variety show full of fun, wit, and artistry that has the distinction of being America’s longest running musical revue.
It may be no coincidence that Beach Blanket has found such an agreeable home here, in the heart of a now vanished theatre district. No doubt Signora Pisanelli Alessandro would feel perfectly at home on this stage, whose spirit is in keeping with her beloved “teatro italiano di varietà.” May she rest in peace.