1908 photo, courtesy Tim Sanchez

The Bell Theatre opened in 1903 and featured "high-class" Vaudeville. The building at 1436 San Pablo (originally 30-32 San Pablo) was designed by Walter J. Mathews and completed in 1904. 9

The theatre was owned by the Cohn brothers, Abe, Julius, and Gus, who owned a number of theaters around the Bay Area. 4,5

For a few months in 1904 it underwent renovations, and performances were held at Peck's Theatre (sometimes written Pex) at 103-105 San Pablo. 2,3 (Other articles suggest this may have been finishing the work in the above building.)

Following the 1906 earthquake, it closed for a time, but re-opened with assurances from then chief building inspector Walter Mathews that it was "as solid as the day it was built." Twenty percent of the proceeds were given to the earthquake relief fund. 11

The Bell didn't last long as a theater, only operating until 1912, when it was converted to office and retail space. The Cohn brothers had plans to build an even larger structure nearby. 14 They supposedly had plans to start their own Vaudeville circuit on the West coast. 15

In 1985 the building was demolished to make way for the expansion of the First National Bank Building into the Lionel J. Wilson Building.

1912, about to close 14


detail of 1908 photo

The remarkable 1908 photo provided by Tim Sanchez shows lots of details not normally visible in copies of this photo. The signs in the windows advertise various acts, including "Hugh Lloyd, King of the Aerial Rope Entertainers". The signs at street level are for The 3 Rohrs, who were "looping the loop in the revolving globe." The gentleman to the right of one of signs is reading a Variety magazine. Smaller signs under the eaves advertise "Murphy, Whitman & Co." (the Prodigal Girl), "Cecil Blossom", "The Clarence Sisters" (the Australian Nuggets) and "Mitchell and Caine" (the Frenchman and that other fellow).

Will Rogers performed there in 1908. 1,14

In 1911, Charlie Chaplin performed at the Bell as part of Fred Karno's "A Night in an English Music Hall" and the follow up, "A Night in a London Club". Chaplin's character in both was the drunk, and he honed his comedic pantomime skills before beginning his movie career. 12,13

Other than an occasional Asian American, Vaudeville tended to have a strong color line. White actors in blackface appeared sometimes;Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson) worked at the Bell for a while. There he met Henrietta Keller, daughter of sea captain Conrad Keller. They were married from 1907 to 1919 and lived in Oakland for a time. Keller said Jolson was a "good actor but a poor husband." 7,8

191119081908190819081905"Noodles" Fagan, 19121911 movies1909191219111910191019101911191019061909191019121911191119071905191019101909190919121911191119091909


In addition to the numerous acts, and Abe, Gus, and Julius Cohn, the Bell employed a number of people over the years.

A 1910 article 16 mentions the names of the new orchestra:

  • C. Miltner, violin and leader
  • W.J. Dugan, piano
  • J. Valerga, clarinet
  • Tom Valerga, cornet
  • O.H. Schemmer, trombone
  • G. Johnson, drums

The 1911 directory 6 lists a number of people involved with the Bell:

  • Frank Ahern, stage electrician
  • John Avey, usher
  • Julius Cohn, manager
  • William Cellarious, musician
  • Nicholas Croda, usher
  • William Daul, property man
  • C. F. Kelley, musician
  • Frank Klotz, musician
  • William Mahood, musician
  • Elmer Nichols, electrician
  • George Smerdon, janitor
  • Joseph Sweeney, doorkeeper
  • John Wheeler, usher

Links and References

1904 ad

  1. The Papers of Will Rogers University of Oklahoma Press, 2000
  2. ad Oakland Tribune July 6, 1904
  3. Husted's Oakland 1904
  4. Bell Theatre Employees Banquet Oakland Tribune October 15, 1910
  5. How They Do It At the Pioneer Vaudeville House Oakland Tribune August 2, 1908
  6. Polk-Husted Oakland 1911
  7. Good Neighbors: Al Jolson affected by Oakland Oakland Tribune May 2, 2009
  8. Jolson Wins His Wife Back, Say Friends Oakland Tribune March 6, 1919
  9. The Bell Oakland Tribune August 20, 1904
  10. 'Noodles' Fagan, King of Newsboys, Speaks to School Children Tomorrow Oakland Tribune April 5, 1910
  11. ad Oakland Tribune April 29, 1906
  12. 'Night in English Music Hall' Feature at Bell Oakland Tribune June 19, 1911
  13. 'Night in London Club' One Laughing Scream at Bell Oakland Tribune November 20, 1911
  14. Largest Structure Of Its Kind Planned By Oakland Corporation Oakland Tribune July 25, 1912
  15. Cohns Plan Vaudeville Circuit on This Coast Oakland Tribune August 23, 1912
  16. The Music Is a Big Feature Oakland Tribune June 12, 1910