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Storied: San Francisco


Jun 13, 2023

Part 2 catalogs Smiley's journey out of high school and into the world of jobs and being a young adult.

Then we get to her time at BVOH, which began about four years ago. It started with an entry-level job, which she didn't mind doing because it got her foot in the door. Built in 1888 by the Masons, the then-designated "South San Francisco Opera House" was a spot for them to meet and host performances. Acoustically, that intention shows to this day. The opera house also has dressing rooms with direct access to the stage (which Smiley told me is not a common feature in buildings of this kind).

With the Great Migration and its influx of Black shipyard workers here in San Francisco, the building became more of a community center. It also changed demographically, from white folks to members of that Black community. But, in Smiley's words, over the years, the building "wasn't loved on," and fell into some dilapidation. In the 1950s, The City wanted to tear the opera house down and build apartment buildings ... until Ruth Williams said "no."

Black Panther free breakfasts happened there. People met each other there. Performances like plays and dance classes happened on the regular. Voters cast ballots there.

In 1966, SFPD officers shot and killed a young Black boy named Matthew "Peanut" Johnson, sparking a riot. The opera house was hit with several hundred bullets in the ensuing melee. Things were so bad for Black folks in SF, James Baldwin filmed Take This Hammer just outside the opera house in 1964. As Smiley puts it, Bayview Opera House "has always been a place for history-making and Black culture."

In 1989, an organization was formed through the SF Arts Commission to manage programs at the building. The opera house was established as San Francisco Historical Landmark No. 8. Over the years, it changed hands several times, and in 2015, a multimillion dollar grant was secured to do much-needed renovations, including a new outdoor amphitheater that came in handy during the pandemic.

2023 has been all about re-inviting people inside. There are world premieres of operas and films. The calendar is full. See for yourself.

We end the podcast hearing from two folks who've been through BVOH's Tools of the Trade program: Joe Kool and Miss White, the First Lady of Frisco.

Photography by Jeff Hunt