Arts Listings

Arts: 1906 Earthquake Events Hit the Pacific Film Archive, By: Steven Finacom

Friday March 17, 2006

“The California earthquake stands between eight and ten at points of greatest disturbance; from which we may trust our senses to the extent of believing that it was no small affair,” wrote Stanford scientist John C. Branner about April 18, 1906. 

No small affair, indeed. A century later, the events of that earthquake will be commemorated in a multitude of ways in the Bay Area.  

The experiences of 1906 can be revisited over the next few weeks in two considerably different ways at the UC Berkeley campus. 

On the one hand you can take in a earthquake-themed film series, fun and educational, kinetic and sometimes literally bone jarring, at the Pacific Film Archive. 

On the other, a contemplative library exhibit offers a look back at the great San Francisco catastrophe through a rich store of written and visual archival materials. 

Take in one or both to gain a better understanding of the epochal event—to date—in urban Bay Area history. 

Pacific Film Archive Video Curator Steven Seid has put together a weird, intriguing, and entertaining array of cinematic features screening over four evenings, from Thursday, April 6, to Sunday, April 9. 

Extensive archival footage of the 1906 era—both before the earthquake, and in the aftermath—is featured on Saturday, Apri l 8, at 7:00 PM in a program titled “Disaster at Dawn,” and narrated by lively and provocative Berkeley-based historian Grey Brechin.  

The footage will most likely begin with a tram ride down a bustling pre-disaster Market Street—and continue up through the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition when San Franciscans celebrated successful municipal rebirth. 

Next that same night, how about John Wayne as a cowboy come to the big city who gets all tangled up in romance, waterfront intrigue, and literally earthshak ing events in Flame of Barbary Coast? 

“Love’s a disaster,” is Seid’s succinct summary of this 1945 romance, which he purposefully chose over the more familiar—and more frequently screened—San Francisco, with Jeannette McDonald. 

The night before, April 7, the metal-walled PFA Theatre will reverberate with the deep tones of Sensurround when the PFA screens the 1974 Charlton Heston disaster—or disastrous—epic, Earthquake. 

A technical gimmick with a short heyday in the 1970s, Sensurround employed special e quipment to boom away at the lower end of the audio spectrum.  

Meyer Sound of Berkeley has assembled three “enormous subwoofers” and a “true Sensurround decoder,” Seid says, to rattle the PFA theatre for this one show. “It’s going to be a physical experi ence,” he observes.  

In Earthquake, Los Angeles is torn apart by adultery, “wholesale lunacy” and “soap-like suffering”. . . oh, and an earthquake, of course.  

“On a Richter scale of bad decisions, that one was a 7.4,” Seid says in his program notes. He personally recalls the surreal experience of seeing Earthquake for the first time in Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, which is fictionally shaken up in the film. 

The PFA series opens on Thursday, April 6, with a free screening of several shorts th at provide provocative visual takes on disaster imagery, from lightning to mammoth Midwestern storms to 1920s floods. Included is the one working Mission District fire hydrant that helped halt the 1906 Fire. 

Christina McPhee’s SilkyVRML 422 contrasts foo tage of the fault-slashed Carrizo Plain with the actual sounds of the groaning earth, recorded by seismic equipment buried far below the surface. And All the Time in the World “makes the verdant English coast jerk and wrench.” 

After three days of localized disaster, everything ends on Sunday, April 9, with a screening of The Night the World Exploded.  

“This late-fifties disaster epic sets out to destroy the entire earth with barely a budget to back it up,” Seid writes in his program notes.  

No sooner have seismologists perfected a device to predict earthquakes than a huge one strikes Los Angeles (poor Los Angeles, ravaged again), and the earth tilts on its axis. 

An intrepid expedition of seismologists descends into Carlsbad Caverns to set things right. Or wrong, as the case may be. The wrong will be illuminated by UC seismologist Dr. Peggy Hellweg, whom Seid has enlisted to attend the screening and comment on the “scientific veracity” of the film.  

Overall, Seid says, “the beauty of these films”—at least the fictional ones—is “they have to drag the earthquake out,” since all the characters in each cast have to be variously jarred off their feet, tossed, and trampled by the Big One(s).  

For another view of epic local disaster, head over to the Brow n Gallery of the University’s Doe Library any day through Thursday, March 30.  

Changing exhibits in the Brown Gallery present the depth and treasures of the enormous University Library and affiliated repositories.  

Bancroft Library curator Theresa Salaz ar, working with a committee of campus library staff and historical experts, has put together an excellent display on 1906. 

“1906: The Great Quake—The History of A Disaster” features the events of April 18, 1906, of course, but also includes accounts and images of early earthquakes in California back to an 18th century shake in the Los Angeles basin described by Spanish explorer Juan Crespi as a “horrifying earthquake, which was repeated four times during the day.”  

There’s also the “The Great Earthquak e” of 1868 along the Hayward Fault which rattled the still-sparsely-populated greater Bay Area. 

Displayed images and written accounts of San Francisco life before the 1906 disaster include numerous photographs of city life in a metropolis of nearly 350,0 00.  

The exhibit explores the graft prosecution that was unpeeling layers of political corruption up to San Francisco’s Mayor, orchestra conductor Eugene Schmitz, and down to political boss Abe Ruef, whose status as perhaps the first Cal alumnus to becom e a great scoundrel goes unmentioned. 

There’s a printed program for Carmen at the Grand Opera House, featuring Enrico Caruso, the night before the earthquake rang down the curtain. 

The tumult of the following days—first earthquake, then fire raging acro ss the City—is conveyed through photographs, eyewitness accounts, even pieces of charred wreckage and a period pocket watch stopped at the time of the quake. 

“I buried my head in my pillow” as the earthquake struck just after 5:00 a.m., San Franciscan Ha rold Lionel Zellerbach, then 12-years-old, recalled in an oral history shown in the exhibit. “It felt like this was the end of the world,” he recalls of the moment the side of his family home fell off. 

Documentary photos show damage that spread far beyon d San Francisco, including Stanford’s wrecked Memorial Church, a shattered Russian church at Fort Ross, Santa Rosa ruined, a woman sitting in a field along the edge of a raw fault rupture.  

The exhibit acknowledges the exacting analysis and efforts of sc ientists, many from Berkeley, to advance the understanding and study of earthquakes after 1906. 

It also touches on the work of East Bay communities to shelter and feed tens of thousands of refugees who began to arrive while the fires still burned, as wel l as efforts to re-organize after the disaster. 

“Notice—Citizens Committee,” one placard directed at San Franciscans reads. “All citizens will observe the following: Don’t be afraid of a famine. There will be abundant food supply. Don’t use house toilet s under any circumstances, but dig earth closets in yards or vacant lots. “Pestilence can only be avoided by complying with these regulations.” 

In the aftermath nearly 100,000 insurance claims were processed and the business community quickly shifted pub lic focus to “The Great Fire.”  

“An earthquake was something that was unpredictable and uncontrollable, whereas a fire was a phenomenon that could be controlled and prevented,” the exhibit text notes. 

Official and commercial San Francisco rushed to rebuild, ignoring the grand, locally-commissioned plans of Chicagoan Daniel Burnham, who had spent months before the earthquake, cogitating on a city splendidly redone in Renaissance style. 

“On April 17, 1906, the plan, fresh from the printer, was deposited in City Hall for distribution.” Next morning, the building lay in ruins. 

Visionary thinking was set aside—as it often is in the rush to recover—and “within three-and-a-half years, downtown San Francisco was rebuilt along pre-earthquake lines,” the exhibi t notes.  

There’s an amazing panoramic photograph by George R. Lawrence, taken about four years after the earthquake and fire, showing the core of the city substantially reconstructed, although quite a few vacant lots are still visible. 

Not all was wel l done. “The desire for quick resumption of business meant cheap building construction and lax codes . . .” 

The exhibit organizers have woven together printed material and images, period items and later accounts, into a powerful tapestry of the event and its repercussions. "