By Caitlin Donohue; Photos courtesy Bayview Opera House
The Bayview Opera House is having a moment. In 2014, the community center turns an impressive 125 years old, making it the oldest theater in San Francisco. A few things to clarify before we go further: no opera is performed at the Opera House, and it is much more than a performance venue. Located in the very middle of Third Street’s emerging commercial stretch, the Opera House is more a community center. Within its walls one can find youth art instruction, film screenings, cultural activities, a place to hang with neighbors. By virtue of its surroundings, its community is largely people of color. Over the years, the building’s programs have made an impact on countless lives including those of Bayview natives Danny Glover and En Vogue singer Cindy Herron, to drop a few names on ya.
The anniversary is rightfully being regarded as a big deal by the center’s staff, and they’re pulling together some amazing public programming in its honor. Last week, it screened James Baldwin’s 1963 documentary Take This Hammer on the lives of black people in San Francisco, weekly by-donation yoga classes are on offer and every month its a vital part of the 3rd on Third street fair, a really cute time to visit the neighborhood if you don’t make it out there too much. (Pro tip: the February 20th fair will feature a Mardi Gras parade.)
125 years is not too old to be a heartthrob, we concluded. The Opera House’s executive director Barbara Ockel, who has been with the organization since 2008, was kind enough to pretend to be the building itself for the interview below. She’s a sweetie.
AHDM4U: Hi Bayview Opera House, how are you doing today? I hear you have a birthday coming up.
Bayview Opera House: Indeed! We actually have two birthdays coming up — 25 years for Bayview Opera House, Inc., our organization, and 125 years for our historic building Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theatre (yes, I know this is a mouthful, but we are honoring the woman who helped get our building landmarked in 1968 and with that saved it from destruction.) Our building was built in 1888, and officially dedicated in May 1889. Our organization was founded in December of 1989.
AHDM4U: How will you be celebrating?
Bayview Opera House: May will be an entire month of celebrations, and then we start back up in December. The bad part is, we’ll be homeless, as our building is being brought up to 21st century expectations starting March 1. When it’s all done we will be 100% ADA accessible inside and out. A modern walkway will lead around the building, made from steel and glass, so that will be like the Louvre pyramid adorning the old building. We will get a new outdoor stage and expand our yard to accommodate a lot more people — our outdoor performance audience capacity will increase from maybe 200 to over 1,000. Back to the celebrations, we will have Spring Open Studios on May 3rd and 4th at the Hunters Point Shipyard. We want everyone to come out and see the artists in the largest artist colony in the country in action in their studios and participate in all kinds of fun activities we’ll have out there for the day.
AHDM4U: Describe a day in the life of the Opera House.
Bayview Opera House: Often crazy. A more normal day goes like this: Preschoolers show up at 10am for classes in ceramics, cooking, yoga, art and dance. A person wanting to rent the Opera House comes by to look around and plan their event. A cohort of elementary kids show up around 2PM for arts classes. There’s a meeting in the afternoon to plan a major event with our partners and collaborators. A movie screening at night. It’s always busy, the phone rings, people come to the door with a question or suggestion. Staff is trying to clean up and get all the paperwork done, write grant applications, deal with the accountant, get permits in place for that next event.
AHDM4U: What’s one thing about yourself that you’re proud of?
Bayview Opera House: We are very proud of the fact that we restored our 125 year old Douglas fir floor, after it had been hidden under layers of linoleum, asbestos, plywood and tar for over half a century. We are also proud that we have partnerships with all Bayview elementary schools and provide arts education to their kids.
AHDM4U: If you could change one thing about your appearance, what would it be?
Bayview Opera House: Remove the brick wall that surrounds us, make us more visible. Add signage that tells the world we are the Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theatre.
AHDM4U: Who is your best friend?
Bayview Opera House: The City of San Francisco. They bought our building to provide arts and culture inside the Bayview community. The SF Arts Commission supports us with an annual grant that pays for basic expenses. Our District Supervisor Malia Cohen just dedicated funds to keep 3rd on Third events going for two years, and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development supports arts activities that will spur commerce. The Department on Disabilities is paying for much-needed upgrades to provide an ADA-accessible environment. I could go on and on — other departments come out and support our events, SFPD provides safety and DPW helps with infrastructure needs. This city is awesome!
AHDM4U: What kind of music are you listening to these days?
Bayview Opera House: You name and we listen to it. Everything from jazz and classical to hip-hop and rap (clean only), pan pipe music from the Andes, square dance music, African music. No heavy metal, no opera, but with a name like ours, that’s likely to change one day.
AHDM4U: What’s one thing that no one but your closest friends knows about you?
Bayview Opera House: Not sure if I should tell you, but okay, here we go. There’s a huge rock under the building. I mean gigantic — it’s fire! The rock is why we’re still around after two earthquakes, with no cracks in the building visible. People find our crawlspace scary, it’s so dark and cavernous it would make one hell of a haunted house (way too scary for kids though.)
Photo by Rebecca Gallegos