Martinez: Home of California’s First Opera Company
By Harriett Burt
It is 1889 in Martinez, county seat of Contra Costa County since 1850 and incorporated as a city since 1876. With a population of 1500, the town is the governmental, economic and transportation center of the sprawling county with bountiful agriculture and a growing fishing industry. It is home to the soon-to-be famous John Muir whose father-in-law, Dr. John Strentzel, is a widely respected horticulturalist. John Swett, founder of public education in California is retiring here to pursue wine-making in the lovely, fertile Alhambra Valley And while it will not have its own public high school for another 12 years, the town enjoys a vibrant community cultural life. Musical evenings at Mr. and Mrs. Simon Blum’s mansion which boasts the town’s only grand piano are popular gatherings where citizens who like to sing entertain each other with recitals. In fact, just 3 years ago, the town’s musicians founded the Martinez Chorale Society in order to perform concerts for the entire community. Among the charter members are Mr and Mrs. Thomas A. McMahon and their five children, Albin, Andrew, George, J. J. and Margaret; Mrs. E. B. Smith, Miss Ellie Wolford, Miss Sadie Davenport, H. M. Bush, Miss Lulu Fraser, Will Webster, Miss Marie Smith, Miss Marcie Smith, W. A. Hale, Miss Jennie Bunker, A. J. Soto, Rev. C. S. Vaile, Mrs. E. Morgan, Miss Ella Swain, Miss Lizzie Russell and Jack Hurley.
When Professor W. B. Bartlett arrived in Martinez in 1888 while visiting his sister in the Bay Area, the ground was already prepared for a successful opera company. All that was needed was a gifted musician and teacher with great confidence in his ability to put together a skilled performing company. Because he was not afraid neither was the Society to take on and credibly perform opera whether grand or light profitably enough to support costs such as $200 per production for costumes from San Francisco and often enough to hold a record thought not be equaled to this day of producing the most operas in one year in California –all this 34 years before San Francisco Opera made its debut.
Who was this “music man’ who had lived in Europe performing at La Scala in Milan and in all the major cities of the eastern coast of the U. S. before deciding to settle in a small town along Carquinez Strait on the western edge of the world?
Known throughout his life here as Professor Bartlett, Walter Bowen Bartlett was born in New England in 1851. His father, Captain William H. Bartlett, died heroically during the Civil War. Young Walter began his musical career at age 9 as soloist in a church choir in Providence. Educated in a private school, he traveled to Milan, Italy to study under one of the most famous operatic instructors of the era, Lamperti. He appeared in many performances at La Scala before returning to the United States to sing professionally in Boston and other major eastern cities.
Bartlett was 37 years old in 1888 when he decided to visit his sister, Mrs. Amor Hebard, a leader in East Bay musical circles. He liked the West so much that he never returned to the east coast. And he liked Martinez so much that he married one of its popular young women, Margaret McMahon, and lived here off and on for a number of years before dying at Martinez Community Hospital on December 11, 1943 at the age of 92.
According to some sources, it was Margaret, a school teacher in Crow Canyon, and a member of the very musical McMahon family, who introduced the professor to the Martinez Chorale Society whose potential he saw immediately. Professor Bartlett taught members the “Bel Canto” theory of singing. Meaning “beautiful singing” in Italian, it is an operatic style emphasizing rich tonal lyricism and brilliant display of vocal technique according to the American Heritage Dictionary. He gave voice and piano lessons and also coached them in acting. Performing mainly operetta with a new production every three months, the Society eventually became a touring company throughout the region eventually performing 18 Gilbert and Sullivan hits as well as Franz Suppe’s comic operas “The Lovely Galatea” and “Fatinitza” and other popular light opera of the time.
In the earliest days, rehearsals and performances were held in the Grange Hall on Granger’s Wharf across the railroad tracks at the end of Berellessa Street. In 1942, Professor Bartlett described Martinez five decades earlier as “the muddiest place in the world. And yet people came -- and lost their galoshes in the mud by the dozens in the slush in front of the hall. The players brought their own wood to keep warm at the rehearsals.”
Dr. Strentzel, who had built the Grangers Hall, loaned the company the very nice family piano his daughter Louie had played for John Muir when he came courting. Music for the performances often was provided by Miss Alice Buckley playing the piano with Max Blum accompanying her on the violin. Occasionally programs would note that Miss Jennifer Buckley was the pianist and that Robert Blum played his cornet. The company’s production of “La Mascotte” in 1891 featured a ‘full orchestra from San Francisco’ according to the program. Tickets cost 50 cents. Soon performances were held in the Martinez Opera House at the corner of Estudillo and Escobar Streets. That building burned in 1906 as a result of the San Francisco earthquake.
After a courtship of three years Professor Bartlett and Miss McMahon married. She recalled 50 years later that it was a quiet wedding in the McMahon home with only her brothers in attendance. “I taught school Friday and was married Saturday morning, and not even the other teachers knew about it.”
The Bartletts lived in Martinez until 1894 when they moved to San Francisco where Professor Bartlett established a vocal music studio on the 400 block of Sutter Street and settled into a life as a teacher and peripatetic producer and director of operas throughout the Bay Area including San Francisco, Stanford and UC Berkeley and communities all around the bay including Martinez. “It was sort of a gypsy life and always fun,’ Margaret remembered on the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary in 1942.
Occasionally, Margaret remained at home. The Professor was a frequent commuter on the Vallejo ferry to San Francisco. On one of those trips, he saw clouds of smoke rising from the city which appeared to be entirely on fire. It was April, 1906 and Margaret had been alone during the earthquake. She walked out of her house down to the Embarcadero looking for Bartlett’s ferryboat. By chance, she ran into a familiar face. Contra Costa County Sheriff R. R. Veale had been in the city attending a sheriff’s meeting. He agreed to take word back to Martinez that Margaret was safe although it took some hours to find the ferry boat. The couple was soon reunited but their house burned leaving them with only what they could carry. They were refugees in Martinez for a few weeks but then returned to San Francisco to rebuild their home and their lives.
Professor Bartlett continued his career as traveling opera producer until the mid 1920s. In 1927, the Bartletts returned to Martinez where the Professor continued to give vocal lessons. One of his star pupils was Mrs. Bartlett’s nephew, Albin, son of her brother Andrew. Professor Bartlett joined the newly formed Martinez Kiwanis Club where he served as the club’s song leader until just a few weeks before his death. That came 8 years after Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” newspaper cartoon feature on the unusual and amazing, featured him as the world’s oldest service club songleader at age 85.
Margaret Bartlett did some tutoring after returning to Martinez according to her nephew A. J. McMahon. In fact, A. J. and his sister, Asilee (Telfer) both were tutuored in handwriting in the Spencerian style popular in the 1880s. According to A. J., the tutoring didn’t take but they liked their “Auntie Bartlett”. She was given that name to distinguish her in a family that featured a large number of Margarets among the mothers, aunts, nieces, daughters and granddaughters.
The glory days of Martinez Opera were largely forgotten for many decades after Professor Bartlett’s death. In fact, it isn’t even mentioned in the comprehensive Martinez: A California Town written by Charlene Perry and others in 1986.
But the memories were revived when Martinez resident Maria Billingsley was encouraged in 2000 by many to form Martinez Opera (MTZO) to present professional opera once again in Martinez. MTZO has performed several professionally impressive productions and conducts a popular opera education series for Martinez pre-schoolers.
This and other articles by Harriett Burt can be found at The Martinez Patch and the Martinez Historical Society Month Newsletter