A Hidden Artifact Offers Clues about the Cocoanut Grove's Illustrious Past
Over the last 112 years, many entertainers have graced the Boardwalk's Cocoanut Grove Ballroom stage. One original group left its mark - literally!
Behind the ballroom's main stage and high above the Grove's main "Entrance A" staircase, innocuously rests some cryptic writing on a redwood-planked wall. Partially obscured by some mechanical apparatus and secreted in low light, it is easily missed. Kevin Grewohl, our technical audio specialist, was puzzled by the script. When he led me to it, I was surprised I had never noticed the writing before. As I got closer, illuminating the wall with my iPhone light, I recognized the words "Orchestra," "The Californians," and "8-30-07". That's 1907! I knew the artifact had historical significance!
Our archives revealed no hints as to its meaning. That launched me on a historical newspaper investigation to uncover the story behind that text. My research into the name and date recorded on that century-old wall yielded this fascinating story about a performance during the first summer of Fred Swanton's 1907 Casino ballroom, or Casino Theater, as it was commonly known then. It wasn't until 1932 that the ballroom was named the Cocoanut Grove.
Swanton's first Casino opened in 1904 and burned to the ground two years later. After marshalling the resources to build an even grander replacement, his second Casino opened in June 1907. At that time, its ballroom stage was centered on the west end of the oval room, a different spot than it is now. Guests entered the hall from the ground floor below on a set of stairwells on the room's north border. That area is now storage space. Today's "Entrance A" lobby was actually a backstage repository for stage props and equipment that supported theatrical productions.
In just over a month after the Casino's opening, local newspapers disclosed the coming of "The Californians," an accomplished West Coast light opera group. At last, I'd found a link to the script!
I learned Swanton had signed a four-week contract with the troupe to perform beginning the end of July 1907. The performers ended a stint at the Venice California Auditorium before heading north to Santa Cruz. Their contract stipulated that each week of their month-long Casino run would feature a distinct comic opera, popular entertainment in that day.
"Robin Hood" was the original featured production. It was a three-act comic opera which, I discovered, was first produced at the Chicago Opera House on June 9, 1890, and performed by the Boston Ideal Opera Company, also known as "The Bostonians."
More 1907 newspaper stories revealed the Santa Cruz Beach Company's production of "The Californians" opened on Sunday, July 28, 1907, just six weeks after the grand opening of the new facility. Management scheduled performances for Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights so as not to conflict with other weekly dance events occurring in the ballroom. Thanks to Fred Swanton's promotional acumen, the Casino ballroom and theater quickly became a happening place!
According to local newspaper accounts, the 50-person "Robin Hood" ensemble delighted Santa Cruz audiences. Individual performers had previously gained personal fame in the Los Angeles area. Our local press praised the grand scenery and attractive costumes, all of which the group brought with them. Tom Karl, the director, enjoyed national renown having added his tenor voice to "The Bostonians." "The Californians" were known as the most excellent troupe of its kind on the West Coast. The main floor and balcony reserved seating tickets were priced at 25¢ and 50¢. $1.00 would take you into one of the twelve box seats, of which only three survive today.
Josephine McCrackin, a frequent correspondent regarding beach activities in local newspapers during that time, wrote of opening night in the July 30, 1907 Santa Cruz Sentinel. She reported the crowd gave vociferous applause and called for persistent encores of almost every performer. "The incredible acting and dancing," she declared, "infused rollicking and rousing fun amongst the ballroom crowd."
She was especially enchanted with the second act of "Robin Hood" with its well-crafted stage scenery depicting Sherwood forest and its picturesque, melodious outlaws. Her report meticulously described each principal player's character. The orchestra was harmonious, she recounted. The audience itself beguiled McCrackin as she described ladies in fashionable gowns and gentlemen in formal evening attire enjoying the opera. As that initial week wore on, seats sold out.
A larger audience attended the second week-long performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore." McCrackin again credited the group with producing a polished look to its first-night opening show and throughout its several days run.
Week three featured the light opera "The Serenade," and public accolades kept coming in. The actors seemed to revel in their performances as much as the spectators were enjoying them. To quote McCrackin, "Let's go hear 'The Californians' while we may, and say 'thank you' to Fred Swanton for having induced them to come here."
By popular demand, week four featured a repeat presentation of "Robin Hood." Obviously captivated by it all, Josephine McCrackin heaped lavish praise in her news reports. She proclaimed the Casino theater was becoming too small to satisfy public demand. Besides a coterie of local patrons, the production now attracted many out-of-town theater-goers to the beach. She marveled at the elite and cultured people enjoying the production. McCrackin again heaped praised on the performances, writing, "We can speak with pride as Santa Cruz grows that Fred Swanton brought 'The Californians' to Santa Cruz and the Casino theater is setting new records from its start."
Thanks to McCrackin, we know the audience met the final presentation of "Robin Hood" with enthusiastic demands for encores. By hearty applause, individual soloists in exquisitely designed costumes were recalled reprising favorite numbers. Flower bouquets from the spectators feted performers.
Throughout the month-long engagement, Swanton's right-hand man, Robert Worthington, splendidly supervised seating management. Apparently, little to no ticketing mix-ups marred the affair.
After the final performance, McCrackin once again offered her most complimentary words. She stated, "May they receive as hearty a welcome wherever they go as they found at the Casino theater in Santa Cruz.... The performances would have been a credit to New York or Boston stages. The Beach Company has provided a place of entertainment for the cultivated classes of Santa Cruz." Once again, she mused that the Casino theater is growing small for this kind of group.
Fred Swanton delighted that his Casino and its ballroom were off to such a fabulous beginning. In an innocuous entry within the Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel of August 24, 1907, the journal commented that he had just acquired a grander new automobile from a San Francisco dealer. He drove his new auto to Santa Cruz in three and a half hours. It was a better time than in his old Franklin car. Locals now saw a satisfied Swanton driving his new 40-HP "merry" Oldsmobile, with which he proposed to travel the state to go on promoting his beloved beachfront entertainment mecca.
Many grand beachfront ballrooms once dotted the West Coast from San Diego to Seattle. The Boardwalk's Cocoanut Grove is one of only several that are left. Our ballroom's history can elude us today as we get enveloped by the atmosphere of one event or another in that special place. Yet, high on a wall in the back area of the current stage lies a tribute to the history and longevity of the ballroom's allure. A silent reminder of the 112-year long legacy of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.