Richard Schwartz is a well-known local historian who has written numerous books about Berkeley’s characters. Now he may have discovered one of the most colorful people to have ever lived in Berkeley: the world-famous actor M.B. Curtis. After 20 years of research, Schwartz has published The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty: The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M.B. Curtis, and he will be doing a number of speaking events in the next few weeks. Sign up fast if you want to go on his walking tour of the North Berkeley tract that Curtis commandeered and transformed. Berkeleyside recently caught up with Schwartz to ask about his book:
Wow. M.B. Curtis is quite a character. I had never heard of him, nor did I realize what a significant role he played in building up Berkeley in the 1890s. Can you give readers a brief description of who he was and what he did?
M. B. Curtis was a Jewish Hungarian immigrant who arrived in the United States at six years old in 1856. His birth name was Moritz Bertrand Strelinger. His family moved to Detroit. He ran away from home in his early teens during the Civil War and tried to enlist in the army as a drummer boy but was rejected due to his extreme youth. He soon became an actor, receiving great reviews in supporting roles. But being a supporting actor meant he was living in flophouses and could barely support himself.
One day he was given a comedic role of an awkward immigrant Jewish drummer (a traveling salesman of the day) and he so mesmerized audiences with his comedic characterization that the play ran much longer than scheduled, all due to his portrayal. The play, Sam’l of Posen, shows how an immigrant can be awkwardly dressed and not know the customs to fit in but he can have more to offer the country than some “established” Americans.
Curtis (he had changed his name to a stage name which was more “American”) was the first Jewish male to be able to portray a Jewish male character on stage. He broke a barrier in place that was imported from Europe and paved the way for the next generations of ethnic actors and comics. Now the audience laughed with him, not at him. The change was a seismic shift.
Seeing his one chance had arrived, Curtis seized the moment and bought the play. No New York producer would touch the play so Curtis contacted his brother so that they could take the play on the road themselves. By the time they arrived back in New York at the end of their tour, M. B. Curtis had been catapulted to the most popular actor in the country and to wealth and fame.
The title of the book is “The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty.” Can you explain what that means?
M. B. Curtis arrived in New York City to perform a new play three days after the Statue of Liberty was dedicated by Frederic Bartholdi, the French designer of the statue, in front of an international audience of hundreds of thousands. But Congress had refused to allocate the funds to continue to light the statue and it went dark on Nov. 7, 1886. Curtis immediately offered to light the statue with his own funds. As an immigrant (and a genius of a publicist) he could not stand to see Lady Liberty in the dark. He became the only citizen in the history of the United States to personally pay for the lighting of the Statue of Liberty — and he was an immigrant. This is so poignant today with our refocus on immigration.
How did you come upon Curtis? How did you do your research, which is impressive. How long did it take you to do the book? Were there any particular challenges?
I had to write about M. B. Curtis because as I was drawn into his life, it miraculously kept getting bigger and bigger. At first, I only knew of him in Berkeley, where he literally changed the town like no one has before or since. He followed his dreams with passion and because he was catapulted into fame and fortune overnight by his portrayal of an awkward Jewish immigrant in the theatre he had the funds to follow those dreams. The result was a town and nation mesmerized by his every move. The more I studied the man, the broader my view of his life became. I realized his cultural reach went right to the President of the United States and Mark Twain. Even petty criminals took on the alias of “Sam’l of Posen” to join the fun. Everyone wanted to jump aboard the charm of his theatrical character. Though Curtis’ reach went beyond the theatre, it was always theatrical. The path of his life covered so many experiences- a pioneer in the silent movie industry, a developer, a producer and a suspect in a murder. I had never known of anyone like M. B. Curtis. And no matter how hard things got for him- and they got mighty hard- he always got back up and started following his dreams again. I just had to know what made M. B. Curtis tick.
How I started researching his story: It started by reading all the out-of-print history books about Berkeley and learning of Curtis’ generosity in paying for Berkeley’s new train station, fire house, paving roads, installing street lights and helping many other causes. It expanded to the trajectory of his acting career, his fame, his wife’s illness, Curtis’ building of the biggest hotel in the West in Berkeley by reading every local newspaper of his day searching for any articles on his activities. That expanded to using newspaper search engines where I found and read thousands of articles on the man and his career. I went to the Statue of Liberty National Monument, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and contacted many other institutions trying to corral every tidbit so I could know all there was to know about the man.That expanded to finding his descendants and motion picture repositories, libraries and museums all over the country. The effort took me twenty years and spawned a 1,200-page manuscript and thousands of images, memorabilia and newspaper articles and ads.
Challenges: The more I researched Curtis, the bigger the story became. The story grew bigger and bigger and more significant as the years went on and he was virtually lost to history. We know of Charlie Chaplin intimately because we can watch his craft in the movies he made. But Curtis was a couple of generations earlier and his work in silent movies was lost. He actually performed in one the earliest movies in 1899. He made a silent movie version of his famous play in 1910 and it was released with another new film of a famous story- The Wizard of Oz- and a poster was made with the two movies in one poster. Curtis then performed with Fatty Arbuckle in one of Fatty’s movies- but all this information was lost to the public. It took writing this book to bring Curtis’ life into focus.
Why do you think Americans became so enamored of Sam’l of Posen?
He was an artist of incredible talent and was said to keep audiences in stitches from the time the curtain rose until the final bows. He portrayed the “modern Jew” where a Jewish male was allowed to be a full human being with a range of emotions, a love interest, friends, etc. instead of simply a string of negative stereotypical traits. The nation was experiencing its biggest wave of immigration at the time and the play became a way for the country to examine its feelings towards immigrants. Curtis, through comedy, gave them that chance to put themselves in the shoes of a seemingly awkward outsider and see that there was a good human being with something to offer behind the greenhorn’s appearance and awkward speech.
Can you tell readers about the murder charges and the ensuing trial?
Curtis took his wife to a performance of Camille by the great Sarah Bernhardt in San Francisco with some friends. Curtis, used to being on the other side of the footlights, grew bored and went out for a drink, intending to be back before the play was over. He was mugged on a dark street while trying to return to the theatre. A policeman came along and was shot point blank. Witnesses saw either one man or two fleeing the scene. Curtis was apprehended but the mugger was not. M. B. Curtis, who loved people and socializing, was put in jail and endured three trials that went on for years for the murder of the policeman. His defense used up his fortune and his well-being.
What attracted M.B. and his wife to Berkeley? What were their lofty plans for the city?
Though there are scores of newspaper articles quoting Curtis as wanting to settle in a city, he and his wife, Albina (Albina Avenue is named after her), were smitten by Berkeley, not only due to its beauty and its convenient location to the theatres, but for its community. The tumbleweed actors wanted to settle down and Berkeley provided that sense of community they so longed for while traveling on the road year after year. Albina had become ill and needed to be near her doctor in San Francisco, and Curtis retired from the stage (which always required traveling) to be with his wife. The Curtises found a community in Berkeley in which to feel they were a part of something and they loved it here.
What remains of Peralta Park? Posen station? Are there other physical reminders of Curtis in existence?
The Peralta Park Hotel never opened as a hotel. The expenses and cost overruns of building this extraordinary and dramatic hotel caused Curtis to look for someone to lease it. It became a girls’ school, and later was purchased by St. Joseph’s and became part of St. Mary’s College High School. The hotel building was lovingly referred to as “The Palace.” A fire devastated the upper floor in 1946 but the lower floors were still utilized as a dormitory until the building was deemed a seismic hazard and demolished in 1959. The exact location of the hotel is known but none of the structure remains save for some bricks of its foundation held by St. Mary’s.
Posen Station was an incredible story as well. To quote from the book, “But Curtis wasn’t only interested in building a place where he could be with his ailing wife and lay his head down in the same place every night. Curtis threw himself into the role of promoter and civic benefactor with all the energy he had brought to his performances on stage. The San Francisco Chronicle noted that Curtis also “helps in the work of introducing people of refinement and wealth from the East to come and settle in Berkeley” and that he “attends the meetings of the West Berkeley Development Association [and] heads subscription lists for local needs.”
One of those local needs was a railway station in West Berkeley. The Southern Pacific Railroad had initially refused to make a stop in that section of town. Some said it was not worth the stop; others said the “footpads” in West Berkeley made it too dangerous.
People in West Berkeley then submitted plans in hopes the Southern Pacific would accept them if the residents offered to pay for the building of the station. By July 1887, the railroad decided to consider a stop at Bancroft Way, along its Third Street tracks. Subscription lists were passed around at the Neihaus Planing Mill and George Schmidt’s real estate office to raise funds for the planned station. After raising $950, the boosters were still $250 short of their goal, and Curtis stepped up to the plate, donating the needed balance for construction to begin. In exchange for his help, Curtis got to name the station and, not surprisingly, he named it Posen Station.
Curtis spoke to the crowd at the station’s opening on October 8, 1887, extolling the beauty and modernity of the new building. Photographers then took over to commemorate the event and people were invited into the station for refreshments. Everyone spent the afternoon riding the train from one station to another, getting on and off at Posen Station “just to see how it felt.”
Curtis also agreed to volunteer as president of the Berkeley Light Company, offering to personally pay for the erection and wiring of light poles on Hopkins Street (which bordered his development) and donate them to the electric company. And Curtis helped purchase a bell for the volunteer fire company stationed in the new firehouse in West Berkeley. Through his generosity and civic involvement, Curtis was becoming one of the leading lights of the city incorporated in 1878, which was now beginning to enjoy boom times, thanks in no small part to the man who basked in the reflected glow of Sam’l of Posen.
Curtis’s plan was to establish a colony of theatrical artists in Peralta Park near the home he planned to build on Hopkins Street. Forced to end his touring by his desire to be by Marie’s side during her illness, Curtis evidently wanted the theatrical world to travel to him. And to that end, he planned to build a hotel around the corner at what is now the north end of Albina Street (Curtis was still enjoying the pleasure of naming streets after his family, friends, and associates), bringing in a chef from New Orleans and celebrating his new venture by spending $1,000 on a party for his friends—no doubt a dress rehearsal for when he would become a celebrated hotel owner and host. Newspapers as far away as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on Curtis’s development plans in Berkeley in the fall of 1887 as New York theater people began investing in their fellow actor’s dreams.” ( pages 114, 115).
Curtis would always want things named after his famous theatrical character, Sam’l of Posen, not himself, so the train station, fire station, sports teams, etc. were all named “Posen.”
What was Curtis’ life like when he died? Was he still famous? Why do you think he has been forgotten?
Curtis suffered mightily from the effects of two and a half years of the murder charge, trials and imprisonment. He was never the same after the ordeal. He began to drink heavily and his life and marriage suffered. Times had also changed and the aging couple had to reinvent themselves into managers and producers. It was a long fade for the once-famous actor, save for those who saw him perform and would never forget him.
We remember Chaplin and Keaton as we can watch them on film. Though I have found some stills of Curtis’ movies, there is no way at this time to actually witness him work, his gossamer magic. Curtis’ two iconic and major contributions to American culture- the lighting of the Statue of Liberty and having Mark Twain approach him to perform in and produce a stage version of Twain’s book Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, (in which Curtis told Twain he would be happy to produce the play and invest the necessary $20,000 to stage it if Twain would allow Curtis to portray Hank, the main character, as his Jewish immigrant Sam’l of Posen. Twain happily agreed) were forgotten for different reasons.
“On February 9, 1941, a note in the Oakland Tribune told of the recent death of Posen A. Johnson. He was the baby who won the $100 prize M. B. Curtis had offered to the first child born in Berkeley named Posen. His father, Rasmus Johnson, and his family had an apartment in the back of Posen Station. The passing of Mr. Johnson marked the end of an era, but nothing will close the book on M. B. Curtis and his Sam’l of Posen. Not now.” (page 281).