Despite Quake’s Toll, Berkeley’s Daily Life Continued

By Richard Schwartz Special to the Planet
Tuesday April 18, 2006

The following is an excerpt from Richard Schwartz’s Earthquake Exodus, 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees. This is the last in a series of four installments from the book. 


In spite of all normal life in Berkeley being suspended by the damage and the flood of earthquake refugees that had covered the town, it was odd how “normal life” kept poking through like blades of grass that had been covered but still found their way to the light in spite of it all. 

Students, though living lives as cadets, guards, food servers, cooks, nurses assistants, etc., still needed to finish their school somehow, someway, sometime.  

Regular life kept reasserting itself, mixed in with this most extraordinary time.  


Graduation Day, 1906  

On April 28, UC Berkeley President Benjamin Ide Wheeler announced that because students and faculty had been helping with the relief effort, exams would be canceled, and students’ final grades would be based on their work during the spring term. 

The seniors may have not mourned the cancellation of exams, but they missed some of the pleasures routinely enjoyed by graduating classes. One of them was a yearbook. The 1906 Blue and Gold was about to be printed at Sunset Press in San Francisco when the earthquake struck. The yearbook burned along with the press’s other publications in the fire. 

Graduation ceremonies for more than four hundred seniors took place at the Greek Theatre on May 16.  

President Wheeler delivered a stirring address that acknowledged recent events: “Class of 1906, I give you my blessing and send you forth. You will never forget these days of vehemence through which you issue into life. It may be you have learned more in them concerning the things that are real than in all your college courses. You have learned the exceeding blessedness of helping others, you women who toiled devotedly in relief and care, and men who faithfully through hours of horror guarded the doors of the unprotected. You saw the things that men counted the real stay and foundation of life vanish to the winds; even the crust of mother earth was no longer firm beneath her feet; but out of the ruin and dismay you saw emerge a surer foundation shapen in the mind of the Eternal Real, and there composed is not land or gold or steel, but the blessed loyalties of human brotherhood and the tender mercies of human love.” 


Sarah Bernhardt Performs Benefit 

People needed a break—an escape from survival and the urgent tasks they were performing on a daily basis, many for very long hours. They needed to forget all that had happened for a bit. 

A month after the earthquake, many Berkeley residents and San Francisco refugees came to the Greek Theatre to be entertained in the grandest style by the grandest lady of the stage.  

On April 26 Sarah Bernhardt performed a concert in a huge tent in Chicago to benefit the San Francisco relief effort. It was a huge success. The next month she came to Oakland and appeared at Ye Liberty Playhouse in Oakland.  

Then, on May 17, she starred in the play Phedre at UC Berkeley’s Greek Theater. Admission was $1 or $2 for reserved seats, and 10 percent of the proceeds went to benefit the refugees. By the time the curtain rose at 3 p.m., an audience of 5,000 had packed the theater. They were ready for a respite from the events of the previous month.  

Bernhardt had expressed an interest in performing at the Greek Theater after reading about it. 

“It has always been a dream of mine to play Phedre sometime in the open air,” she told the Oakland Enquirer. 

According to one review, “Her Phedre, though a tragic figure in a tragedy-haunted community, supplied the first big breathing spell that the fire-sufferers had enjoyed.” Bernhardt’s voice “cooed and soothed and sobbed through the lines ... and as she left the amphitheater in an open carriage without a veil, she was cheered enthusiastically by thousands of people who had lingered on the heights among the trees, or along the campus to wave and shout her an enthusiastic farewell.”  

Bernhardt later said, “There in the Greek Theatre of the University of California at Berkeley I played Phedre, as it has never been played before, under blue skies and in a classic theatre of the Greek type. There sat before me 8,000 folk, of whom more than half had been made homeless by the terrible fire of San Francisco, and they forgot—yes, I believe they forgot all.” 


Earthquake Exodus, 1906 is available at local bookstores. See www.richardschwartz.info for speaking dates. 


Today (Tuesday, April 18) at City Council Chambers, the public is invited to a 3:30 p.m. ceremony at which Richard Schwartz will present Mayor Bates with a Certificate of Honor to the citizens of Berkeley from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Also, following the ceremony, BAHA will sponsor a lecture on the 1906 Berkeley Earthquake Relief effort and the book at the Berkeley City Club at 7:30 that night. Contact BAHA for tickets, at 841-2242.