Frédéric Patto, Director of TLF-San Francisco once again proves that French theater has a long tradition in San Francisco!

Andre Ferrier and Jeanne Gustin Ferrier: the pioneers of French theater in San Francisco 1911-1951

If you thought that the TLF, a theater that stages Francophone plays at the Lycée Français of San Francisco, was unique to our times, you would be mistaken! Indeed, from the time of the Gold Rush, enthusiasts have sought ways to entertain their contemporaries. This article is the second in a series retracing the great adventure of French theater in San Francisco, from its creation to today.

In 1921, Frenchman Andre Mancel, better known as Andre Ferrier, a stage name he himself chose, and Frenchwoman Jeanne Gustin started the Francophone theater company of La Gaite in the basement of their house located at 1470 Washington Street in San Francisco. Andre, ever the hyperactive, sang, acted, directed plays, operas, and other huge productions, and also taught drama. For nearly thirty years, he and his wife Jeanne would run their San Francisco theater. Eventually, however, this mecca of French culture that had flourished during the first half of the twentieth century was demolished in 1983. Today, a commemorative plaque is now displayed a few meters away from Washington Hyde Park playground where the theater once stood. This article recounts the extraordinary adventure of Andre and Jeanne, a Caen native and a Nancy native respectively, in what was then a very young city in the American West.

Andre Ferrier and Jeanne Gustin: A Successful Couple

andre ferrierAndre Ferrier and Jeanne Gustin were renowned artists back in Europe. “Mr. Ferrier has an amazing tenor voice, ample and flexible, that can climb the highest of ranges with unparalleled facility, a voice whose timbre, at times delicate and sweet, resonates like the sound of a gong (1).” In addition to being an incredible singer, Ferrier was also a stage actor trained at the theater owned by Sarah Bernhardt, a friend of his mother’s. He played in the most prestigious theaters in Paris such as Antoine, La Porte Saint-Martin, L’Odéon, and also L’Opera Comique where he met Jeanne Gustin. Later, both he and she had the leading roles in Madame Butterfly. Jeanne Gustin had studied at the Paris Conservatory where she received first prize. She debuted at Opera San Carlos in Lisbon under the direction of the great composer Jules Massenet himself.

A bold gamble

French theater first appeared in San Francisco as early as 1850 with the Gold Rush. Even though its presence eventually waned around 1870, it rose from its ashes in the early 20th century. In October 1911, Pierre Grazzi, a producer, hired over 100 French artists and arrives in San Francisco after a long journey from France. Pierre Grazzi’s wild gamble was to offer a three-month-long opera season at the Valencia Theater, a 1700 seat venue located at 213 Valencia Street. Quickly, the company made the front page of many newspapers, which was unprecedented at the time. As early as November, the newly formed troupe, “The San Francisco Grand Opera”, featured a different grand opera every night. In its first week, the theater featured Les Huguenots by Giacomo Meyerbeer, Faust by Charles Gounod, and The Jewess by Fromental Halevy. It was an incredible feat that required over 4000 costumes and amazing sets, with over fifty American musicians hired. Unfortunately, poor organization and too few rehearsals among other things led to scathing reviews. Overall attendance was low, causing Pierre Grazzi to eventually go bankrupt and to abandon the artists he had hired without the courtesy of a return ticket.

Jeanne Ferrier

Jeanne Ferrier

Most of them managed to return to France courtesy of the French consulate, but some, like Andre Mancel Ferrier, tenor, 38 years old, and Jeanne Gustin, mezzo-soprano, 29 years old, decided to settle in San Francisco.

Despite the unfortunate legacy of the Grazzi company, Andre and Jeanne basked in the critiques’ favor and were often mentioned in newspaper articles. The couple quickly gained notoriety and the captivation of the public. In fact, their wedding at Notre Dame des Victoires on Bush Street in San Francisco on April 22nd, 1912 was covered in a newspaper article with a detailed account of ceremony and reception, a description of the bride’s and groom’s attire, a guest list, and much more.

The revival of French Theater in San Francisco

Shortly after their marriage, the couple started a drama and singing school known as the French Theater.  Initially, they set up their studio in a room at the Boyd Hotel at 41 Jones Street where the couple resided at the time (they later moved to an apartment at 1050 Clay Street).  At first, they organized recitals and readings from French plays in the “Red Room” of the St Francis Hotel, but Andre’s interest lay in staging. The French Theater’s first shows, Night Asylum, Rosalie and Colombine’s Wedding, three one-act plays, debuted on August 1st, 1912 at the Scottish Rite Auditorium at 1320 Van Ness Avenue.  Next came farces, musicals, dramas, vaudevilles, and popular French comedic plays such as Mr. Perrichon’s Journey by Eugene Labiche. It should be noted that Andre and Jeanne appeared in all of their plays together with other French artists that had survived the Grazzi theater company.

theatre San FranciscoBack in France, Andre had been under the tutelage of Sarah Bernhardt. The famous stage actress, a friend of his mother’s, came to San Francisco in February 1913, to attend one of the Theatre Francais plays, Ruy Blas by Victor Hugo. Later that year, on April 16th, Jeanne gave birth to their son, Francis Mansel Ferrier.

Eager to try his hand at writing, Andre published his first musical entitled La Marseillaise. To celebrate Bastille Day, the first showing was scheduled on July 14th, 1914 at the Scottish Rite Auditorium. The play was a success with an audience of 800 people.

When WWI erupted, Andre Ferrier was forced to leave San Francisco to serve his country as a pharmacist and nurse since he had been a science major at La Sorbonne and had gone to pharmacy school.

Participation in the War Effort

In 1915, while he was stationed in Le Havre, André used his artistic background and experience to produce thanks to the full support of the French army 10 performances of La Marseillaise at the Grand Theatre for the benefit of his wounded comrades.  The play was later performed in Paris with the support of an American committee. After all, a patriotic play in French written in the United States could not go unnoticed! Later in the war, Andre wrote and directed his second play, Un Noel en Guerre (A Christmas During the War) which was performed over one hundred times for French soldiers.

Back in the United States, Jeanne was busy running the school, organizing recitals, and raising their son who was born one year before Andre was drafted to fight in the Great War. In 1918, in Berkeley, Jeanne even managed to have a role alongside the great dramaturge Sarah Bernhardt in Eugene Morand’s play Les Cathedrales. It would be the last time Mrs. Bernhardt would come to the United States. 

After the war, Andre Ferrier returned to the United States his head teeming with new projects. As soon as February 1919, the French Theater performances resumed at Notre Dame des Victoires, the Columbia Theater on Powell, and the majestic Scottish Rite Auditorium. Both Andre and Jeanne, however, aspired to perform in a more intimate and warm venue with better acoustics.

The Birth of the “Theatre de la Gaite Française”

theatre francais SFIn 1921, after buying the house at 1470 Washington Street, the Ferriers opened the “Theatre de la Gaite Française” in the basement of their new home with a maximum occupancy of 175 people a far cry from the occupancy of American theaters.

Building a theater isn’t for the faint of heart as Andre Ferrier would learn.  He himself acknowledged that initially, things were moving at a glacial pace. Later, he would write “ The challenges were indeed great. Teaching during the day to make a living, working on stage whenever possible, setting up a pulley system and other rigging equipment, rehearsing, learning new roles, writing press releases and playbills, the list of things to do seemed endless and close to insurmountable (2).”

Thankfully, their tirelessness and ability to multitask eventually bore fruit and allowed them to quickly resume performing. Soon, Corneille, Moliere, Racine, and many other great French playwrights graced the stage of this hotspot of French culture in San Francisco.

A Resounding Success

The first year, 3000 theatergoers attended the performances, and five years later more than 9000 came to see the 50 plays that were performed. Twenty-three percent of the audience was French and seventy-seven percent American. Even though each performance was in French, the careful selection of plays and Andre’s keen eye for staging made the language barrier virtually nonexistent. So great was this small theater’s success that even in France, people started hearing about it. Numerous Parisian celebrities such as Georgette Leblanc, a stage actress, and friend of Colette’s, the famous French author, or Maurice Chevalier, to name but a few,  came to Andre and Jeanne’s theater to perform or simply attend performances.

San Francisco Theatre français

André Ferrier en Scapin

The Ferrier couple became highly sought after celebrities in the rapidly growing city of San Francisco. In January 1922, to celebrate what would have been Moliere’s three hundredth birthday, Andre Ferrier organized an evening gala that over 1200 University of San Francisco students attended. Thanks to the theater’s cultural contributions and community involvement, the American government gave it “educational theater” status, thus granting it an entertainment tax exemption as well as an exemption of the 10%  war tax.

In an official letter, James Rolph, San Francisco’s influential mayor, stated that the Theatre de la Gaite was a “Permanent institution in San Francisco, one that contributed honorably to the artistic development of the city.”

Andre Ferrier, however, deplored the lack of acknowledgment both from the French Consulate in San Francisco and the French government. “The French consulate (…) was not confident we would succeed.  (…). Sadly, the French government still has not acknowledged the utility of what we are accomplishing here and has given us no moral or financial support (4).”

Finally, in 1925, the Ferriers received the long-awaited acknowledgment they sought. Indeed, on a visit to France, Andre and Jeanne were received at the Elysee Palace by French President Gaston Doumergue.

Nearly ten years later, Andre Ferrier was made Knight of the Legion of Honor.

Major Productions

The future of his theater looking bright, Andre Ferrier decided to embark on a new challenge with major productions at the Scottish Rite Auditorium such as, in 1929, The Annunciation of Marie by Paul Claudel, “Unprecedented in San Francisco”, and Joan of Arc, a play written by Andre Ferrier himself to celebrate the 500th birthday of “The Maid of Orleans”.

The logistics for the latter play were impressive with over forty actors, the construction of a replica of the 18-meter-high door of the cathedral of Rouen, the use of complex stage lighting, and the participation of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and the City Choir. It was a veritable triumph.

In 1934, Andre staged a production of the comedy-ballet Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman) at the prestigious San Francisco Opera with the support of 65 stage actors and musicians and dancers from the San Francisco Ballet School.  Altogether, over 7000 theatergoers attended.

A Brief Hollywood Career

In 1931, the Theatre de la Gaite season was suspended as Andre Ferrier headed for Hollywood after Fox Studios and MGM hired him to play in multi-lingual movies (5).

At the dawn of talking pictures, film production companies started hiring actors of various nationalities living in the United States to shoot multiple-language version films for international markets.  At the time, virtually all Hollywood pictures were produced a second time (sometimes in only 15 days)  in many different languages such as Italian, French, or Spanish to name a few.

In 1931, Andre Ferrier was given the main role in A Connecticut Yankee and in Dance, Fools, Dance. That same year, he had a minor role in The Big Trail, and in 1934 another minor role in Caravane. Soon, however, prohibitive filming costs and the advent of dubbing were the death knell of multiple-language version films.

Andre headed back to San Francisco to reopen his theater. He also started working at Mills College and the University of San Francisco as a drama professor. Meanwhile, theatergoers continued to flock to the Theatre de la Gaite until its closure in 1951.

The Closing of the Curtain

After 37 years, the curtain fell on Andre and Jeanne’s extraordinary adventure. In 1951, they decided to retire at 77 and 69 respectively. In the absence of potential French buyers, the theater became a folk music center and was renamed The Crossroads.

In 1959, Andre and Jeanne moved to Sepulveda Convalescent Hospital, a nursing home in Los Angeles where their son Francis lived and worked as an aeronautical engineer. Andre died of pneumonia on August 15th, 1962 at the age of 87, and Jeanne died shortly after on March 20th, 1964 at the age of 82. Their grandson Stefan Mancel Ferrier still lives in Los Angeles. Even though he was young, he has many fond memories of his French grandparents. “Andre was funny. He would always crack jokes at dinnertime. My grandmother was a self-effacing and discreet person perhaps because her command of English was poor.” Stefan said. The latter still has many photos and lyric concert recordings that he inherited from his grandparents. More importantly, he has his grandfather’s long-awaited recognition, the Knight’s Cross of the Legion of Honor.

1 – Society of Sciences, Arts et Belles Lettres de Bayeux-1907
2 – Excerpt from La Nouvelle revue – A French theater in the United States la Gaieté française ”from San Francisco by André Ferrier (Link: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b52000606x/f4.item)
3 – The Candide newspaper of 07/30/1925
4 – Extract from La Nouvelle revue – A French theater in the United States, French Gaiety” from San Francisco by André Ferrier
5 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiple-language_version

Translated from French by Yann Grall
Merci Frédéric Patto, Artistic Director of Theatre du Lycée Français de San Francisco

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