The City’s Keyboard

It’s never been easy being the city of San Diego’s Civic Organist. There’s the technical challenge of playing one of the largest pipe organs in the world. Then there’s the matter of selecting the repertoire for the weekly concert programs, taking into account everything from the tastes of a diverse audience to weather conditions.

Below is a photo, courtesy of the digital archives of the San Diego City Clerk’s office, showing Royal A. Brown at the Spreckels keyboard in 1935.

Brown served as the civic organist from 1932 to 1954. He was an accomplished musician and also a composer in his own right. Among his compositions were a number of masses as well as a suite entitled “Balboa Park,” which he described to a San Diego Union reporter in 1942 as a portrayal of “things, scenes, events and impressions of beautiful Balboa Park in San Diego.”

His Balboa Park Suite and some other original compositions can be seen on programs in local newspapers for organ concerts at the pavilion during his tenure, interspersed with selections of other classical and popular works, from Mozart and Bach to Victor Herbert and Richard Rogers.

An extensive article San Diego Union article in June of 1942 talked about the challenges Brown faced.

Constance Herreshoff, the reporter regularly covering the music and theater scene for the Union at that time, wrote, “In the course of giving four weekly concerts on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2:30 [the concert schedule at that time], Brown figures that he plays about 3,000 different pieces a year. Sometimes he changes a set program after sizing up his audience.”

“On cold foggy days….Brown finds that marches go well, and that Souza, especially, warms people up.”

By June of 1942, with San Diego mobilizing for the war effort, an increasing number of Brown’s audiences included servicemembers. He told the Union reporter that “sailors want majesty,” and Herreshoff noted that “if he sees more sailors than usual in the crowd, he pulls out lots of stops and plays important things with plenty of form and backbone.”

Brown noted that he got a lot of requests for Bach, but “he plays Bach on only 50 percent of his programs, out of deference for those who don’t like Bach.”

“You have to watch your bridges after playing Bach,” he told Herreshoff. “You can’t play Souza right after Bach.”

He also gave an insight into the relationship between the organist and the maintenance crew. While pointing out the need for a good mechanic “In case a key sticks or something goes wrong,” Brown added that sometimes he had to tell the repair crew to hold off.

“But when I play a piece called ‘March of the Magi Kings’ by Dubois,” Brown said, “I put up a notice for the mechanic saying, ‘Don’t Shut Off.” Brown explained that in that particular piece “a high note is held for a long time to represent a star, while the hands play about the Magi in the lower part of the organ. I stick in a peg to hold the high note down. The mechanics worry when they hear this high note and will start in ‘killing’ the cipher’ if I don’t flag them.”

Royal Brown was at the keyboard until October of 1954. He passed away unexpectedly of a heart ailment at his home just three days after playing his regular concert date. His musical heritage lives on in the work of his successors both at and behind the keyboard.

From Working Ranch to Marine Base

The photo above was taken in 1887 and appears in the book, Picturesque San Diego, which was published that year. The caption on the photo reads, “Santa Margarita Ranch House,-from the Vineyard.”

 Formally called Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, the tract was the largest of the Mexican land grants and would continue to function as a working ranch for another 55 years until the entry of the United States into World War II would give it the name we know it by today: Camp Pendleton.

When I give lectures about Picturesque San Diego, my slide show includes that image of old Rancho Santa Margarita. Among all the photos and passages from the book that I present, that photo is one of the few on which audiences often make the connection between the rural photo and the name of the present-day location. That may be at least partly a tribute to the Camp Pendleton Historical Society. Their most recent newsletter offered up a surprising fact about the man for whom the base is named, Major General Joseph H. Pendleton, USMC: “Surprisingly, except for hundreds of signs featuring his name, there is no public display of him as a person.”

The society has inaugurated a project to erect a permanent monument to General Pendleton on base grounds. Click on the link below to learn more about the project and the life of the man who helped to secure a permanent presence for the U.S. Marines in San Diego:

San Diego’s First Memorial Day

San Diego Union May 27, 1882

Memorial Day was marked for the first time in San Diego in 1882.  As was true elsewhere across the country, the commemoration  originated in the last decades of the 19th century with people decorating the graves of Civil War soldiers. A national organization of Civil War veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic, or GAR, played a strong role in honoring its fallen comrades, as shown in the notice above. As preparations for the San Diego commemoration were made, the GAR also invited veterans of an earlier conflict, the Mexican War, to participate.

On May 30th, veterans of both wars decorated the graves of their fallen compatriots, then marched to Armory Hall for a commemorative ceremony that included prayers, a concert by the City Guard Band and poetry readings before ending with the singing of “America the Beautiful.”

A Day That Re-Shaped Our Home

On this day 175 years ago, May 13, 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico. I thank Judy Russell, author of the blog, The Legal Genealogist, for reminding us all of this anniversary, marking the beginning of a war that profoundly re-shaped the two nations who fought it. That included of course, a literal physical reshaping of the territories of these two nations, especially the then-Mexican province of Alta California, and its southern-most region, containing the then-small village of San Diego. In December of 1846, the San Diego region would be the setting for the Battle of San Pasqual, the bloodiest battle of the war. The war would last until 1848 and end with Alta California becoming a territory of the United States and, in 1850, the 31st  state in the USA. And one of that state’s first counties would be called San Diego.

Here’s a link to Russell’s post, which offers info about the records which researchers can plumb for more information about the war and the people who fought it. That’s history for you!

Talkies Come to Chula Vista

The ad below appeared in the Chula Vista Star newspaper on Friday, February 7, 1930, on page 6. The same edition also carried a front-page article announcing an upcoming “Gala Opening” at the theater on Sunday, February 9th.

The Seville Theatre, at 388 Third Avenue, had been open and showing movies in the town since 1927. But those movies had been silent. While sound films had been introduced in 1927, the technology was still new and still spreading slowly to movie houses across the country, and across San Diego County. So the premier of a “100% All Talking Program” at a local venue was a special occasion.

“Last Sunday night marked the opening of one of the finest talkie theatres in Southern California with the introduction of sound at the Seville Theatre,” proclaimed an article on the weekly Star’s front page on the following Friday, February 14.

“Third Avenue was appropriately decked out in its finest flags and banners for the occasion,” reported the article. A line of searchlights scanning the skies Hollywood-style included a truck-mounted “six million candle-power light…loaned by Airtech at Lindbergh Field.”

The box office opened at 5:45 p.m. as a 20- piece orchestra “composed of local music students” entertained the crowd. When the lobby doors opened at 6:15 moviegoers were greeted by the recently elected “Miss Chula Vista,” Louise Turner.

The filmed program consisted of a Metrotone newsreel, an “animated talking cartoon…Harry Langdon’s first all-talking comedy,” and ended with “the big feature of the program,” Joan Crawford starring in “Untamed.”

“The entire house was sold out for the first show,” reported the Star. “By 9 o’clock the lobby was again packed and the line extended around the corner of the theatre and down Third Avenue, waiting for the second show.”

The Seville continued to operate until 1955. It was demolished in the early 1960s.

Sources for this post included historic San Diego County newspapers and the website, Cinema Treasures.