Opened Jan 11, 1892; capacity 1,400 (450 seats in parquet and dress circle, 420 seats in the first balcony, 460 in gallery, 70 seats in 12 boxes); later Isis Theatre (1902), Colonial Theater; demolished in 1928.
- Fisher Opera House early
- Isis Theatre 1902
- Isis Theatre closeup of above, entrance
- Performance at Colonial c. 1925
- Colonial Theater closeup c. 1926
- Colonial Theater 1926
The Fisher Opera House was one of the finest ever constructed in San Diego — probably the best theater on the West Coast in its time. This opulent but practical house extended through the entire block between Fourth and Fifth Streets for 200 feet. The entrance was on Fourth, the stage door on Fifth. The front was in Romanesque surmounted by a turret that “towered” 120 feet above the sidewalk. The first two stories were of granite, the top three of pressed brick. The building was built with what then was the impressive number of 2,000,000 bricks.
As impressive as this was, it could not outshine the auditorium and stage. The Romanesque style of the front facade continued into the auditorium. The frescoe walls, the bold relief, and the heavy drapes were all in old ivory and gold. Ornamental brass rails surrounded three tiers of boxes. The chairs were large and heavily upholstered. The auditorium had a seating capacity of just over 1,400.
The stage was one of the largest on the coast, 43 feet wide and 43 feet deep. The grid and rigging were 74 feet above the stage floor. Above this rigging were 12 more feet of working room. The stage floor was well equipped with the most modern stage machinery, vanishing and spring traps, and scenery. It was a stage that could, with but a modernization of its basic machinery, do justice to many modern theatres.
One of the most impressive and important elements in the building of this theatre was the use of electricity. The Fisher was one of the first theatres in the country to use a complete electrical system. It is interesting to note that they also left room for the use of gas light on the stage. If the addition of this second system was not practical it was, at least, a wise precaution. The electrical system consisted of 1,000 sixteen-candle power Edison incandescent lamps. This gave both the auditorium and the stage a brightness never before seen in any theatre on the West Coast.
John C. Fisher, a rotund Kentuckian who came to town in 1887 as manager of a furniture store, moved fast. He was soon president of the Chamber of Commerce, owner of the Florence Hotel and active in the cable-car company. He headed the syndicate that raised the money for the new theater, but so precarious was the financing that the house almost immediately went into receivership.
Fisher ran the house for the rest of the decade, but the wider world of show business called. He managed the Singer Midgets and Madame Modjeska, among others, and he cleaned up as a partner in importing to America the smash musical hit from England, “Floradora.”
Among the big names playing the Fisher as the century wound down was dance pioneer Loie Fuller, who toured through town on her way from Mexico to China, and prominent actor William Gillette, who checked into the Hotel del Coronado for a couple of months to write his most famous play “Sherlock Holmes.”
In 1902, the theater was sold to Katherine Tingley’s Theosophical Society and she renamed it the Isis Theatre. Madame Tingley hired Jack Dodge to operate the Isis, which she used for numerous theosophical lectures and services while continuing to bring in the best theatrical entertainment to San Diego. She gave artist Maurice Braun studio space in the building, where he founded the San Diego Academy of Art in 1912.
The great Ellen Terry played the Isis in 1910. The next year there, 67-year-old Sarah Bernhardt charmed interviewers and audiences with a “Camille” that, the careful Tribune review noted solemnly, “… could not have been portrayed by any one but Bernhardt in such a manner….” E.H. Southern and Julia Marlowe brought Shakespeare to the Isis and Minnie Maddern Fiske played there before the Spreckels opened.
In 1921, the Isis was renamed the Colonial and began showing movies as well as theatrical productions until the building was demolished in 1928.
[from a Thesis Presented to the Faculty of San Diego State College by Morgan Jackson Lane, June 1969, entitled “Commercial Theatre in San Diego with Special Emphasis 1892-1917”; and commentary by Welton Jones, critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune.]
“Color Line Case” ~ a discrimination test in San Diego, 1897
Black businessman Edward Anderson and his wife Mary had purchased orchestra circle tickets for the Fisher Opera House in 1897, but were not allowed to take their seats when they arrived. They were told to stand in the balcony or leave. John C. Fisher, Manager of the Opera House, told the Andersons that colored people were not allowed in the orchestra circle and he refunded their money. The Andersons sued and won a judgement of $150. They lost the case on appeal but it represented an historic first of its kind in Southern California. Edward Anderson owned the IXL Laundry between 1897 and 1909, a hog farm in Coronado, a garbage collection service, and a mortuary.
[from Black Pioneers in San Diego: 1880-1920 – Journal of San Diego History]
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