December 23, 1852 – 1st Chinese theatre in US, the Celestial John, opens in San Francisco

Chinese Theatre in San Francisco, c. 1860

Chinese Theatre in San Francisco, c. 1860

On December 23, 1852, the first playhouse in the United States catering specifically to a Chinese audience opened in San Francisco.

Located on Telegraph Hill, fronting onto Dupont Street (Grant Avenue today), it sat approximately 1400 people in one large pit, with no boxes, galleries or scenery.

It was known as “The Theatre of Celestial John.”

While the exterior was described by one visitor as “a curious pagoda-looking edifice,” the interior was “most magnificently decorated and varnished” and included “ornamental paintings, Chinese lanterns and transparencies.”

With a raked auditorium, cushioned seats, and an orchestra pit that could hold up to forty musicians, the facility was among the most modern and luxurious in the city.

It was also among the most popular venues in San Francisco with two shows every day at 11am and 7pm, including Sundays.

But concern from city officials that any large gathering of Chinese was a potential threat to public safety led to the theatre’s eventual closure in March of 1853 when the building was sold to David Jobson and converted into a reception hall for newly arrived immigrants.

The structure remained standing until the 1906 earthquake, when it burned to the ground, never to be rebuilt.


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Categories: History

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