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East Bay Then and Now: Maurice Curtis Brought Brief Splendor to Berkeley

By Daniella Thompson
Friday June 09, 2006

In 1881, Irish-born playwright George H. Jessop wrote a minor comedy-drama titled Sam’l of Posen, the Commercial Drummer whose lead character, a shrewd Jewish peddler with a heart of gold, attains bourgeois respectability by means of little wiles interleaved with honesty. 

The play might have gone nowhere but for a fortuitous pairing with the perfect actor, and both became roaring successes. The actor was Maurice B. Curtis (c. 1850–1920), born Mauritz Strelinger in Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. 

When Mauritz was a child, the Strelingers immigrated to Detroit, where his two younger brothers, Charles and George, were born. Mauritz’s father, Julian, owned a brewery that in 1893 would become Mutual Brewing Co. Mutual’s beer kegs carried the tagline “Pure & without drugs or poison.” 

Mauritz may have picked up some of his father’s theatricality, for in 1870 he was already an actor. His level-headed brother Charles, on the other hand, entered the hardware business and went on to become president of Charles A. Strelinger Co., tools, supplies, and machinery. 

Mauritz spent the years between 1870 and 1881 as a bit player, having acquired the stage name M.B. Curtis, which he would use in his personal life as well. The spectacular nationwide success of Sam’l of Posen made an entrepreneur of Curtis. He purchased the rights to the play and toured with it for years, often updating the plot and changing characters to keep it from going stale. 

His touring eventually brought Curtis to San Francisco, where he developed a wide circle of acquaintance. It didn’t take long for him to appear in Berkeley, and not in a theatrical production. In 1887, he bought, then sold at a profit, land on the waterfront and on Dwight Way. 

Caspar Thomas Hopkins was eager to unload 60 acres in Peralta Park that his California Insurance Company had acquired as collateral for a delinquent loan. Curtis snapped them up. At the same time, he purchased an undivided half interest in the adjoining John Schmidt farm and acquired additional lots from John F. Rooney. 

The movers and shakers of Berkeley knew a good thing when they saw it and recruited Curtis to volunteer as President of the nascent Berkeley Electric Light Company. His fame helped raise funds. Mixing philanthropy with a sound marketing sense, Curtis gave Berkeley an elegant firehouse at Sixth Street and Bancroft Way, dedicated on Oct. 2, 1887 as Posen Chemical Station No. 1, after the evergreen play. 

The actor’s promotional flair was also evident in Peralta Park. The subdivision map dated March 1, 1888, shows only three streets within the tract. Curtis and Posen avenues intersect in the north central portion (now part of Albany). 

At the southwestern end, the short block of Albina Avenue runs from Hopkins Street to Codornices Creek. Albina De Mer was the stage name of Marie Alphonsine Strelinger, Curtis’s Canadian-born wife. A subsequent map, dated 1890, shows the new Fleurange Avenue (now Acton Street) to the west, and a year later Carlotta and Joseph avenues had been cut—all three streets named after actors or characters in Curtis’s productions. 

Curtis planned an elegant subdivision anchored by a luxurious resort hotel. He organized the Peralta Park Hotel Company and began construction in 1888. In addition to its fantastic turreted exterior, the hotel boasted sixty bedrooms and twenty bathrooms—an unheard-of luxury. By 1889, construction was far along, and Curtis had his own house built at 1505 Hopkins Street (current site of the Immanuel Southern Baptist Church). It was erected by Lord & Boynton, builders, at a cost of $4,500. 

The house, in Stick style with neo-Gothic elements, featured a prominent square tower with a tall, pointed roof. Behind the house was a barn with a water tank and mill on top of it. There was a chicken yard and a conservatory. Palms and umbrella trees alternated on the sidewalk, and four young eucalyptus trees festooned with ivy served as a green front gate. A grove of eucalyptus grew in the rear. 

While construction was proceeding, Curtis talked the Claremont, University and Ferries Railway into running a branch horsecar line out Sacramento Street to Hopkins. He also organized a West Berkeley bank. To promote his play at the Bush Street Theatre, Curtis raffled lots in the paper town of Sam’l of Posen, western Tehama County, among the ticket buyers, then charged the winners a $2 recording fee. 

The town was never built, and delinquent property tax bills for the nearly 10,000 lots mounted for almost half a century before the land was purchased at a discount and sold to a used car dealer who came up with the very same promo idea. 

Curtis was riding high when on the night Sept. 10, 1891, he was caught in a bizarre incident in front of the Mission Street police station and accused of shooting Officer Alexander Grant to death. The scandal wreaked havoc with Curtis’s theatrical career and toppled his highly leveraged house of cards. Almost immediately, he sold his house with its contents to John H. Bolton. 

Bolton’s son Arthur, who as an adolescent slept in the tower room, would in 1899 build his own house—a brown shingle—at 1700 La Loma Avenue on the Northside. An early member of the Hillside Club, Arthur Bolton would serve on the committee that designed the Hillside Club Street Improvements in the Daley’s Scenic Park tract, paying for the land surveying from his own pocket. He also planted a copse of redwoods on the corner of La Loma and Le Conte avenues. 

In 1893, following a protracted murder trial, Maurice Curtis was found not guilty. By then he had lost most of his investments, including the Peralta Park Hotel, which was renamed Peralta Hall and became Colonel Homer B. Sprague’s School for Girls and later Dunn’s School for Boys. 

In 1903, the Christian Brothers purchased the property and started what is now St. Mary’s College High School. A fire ravaged the turrets and superstructure in 1946, but the main floors continued to be used until 1959, when the building was demolished and replaced with a modern structure. 

As for M.B. Curtis, the peripatetic actor continued touring with “Sam’l of Posen” and making deals. In 1893, he traded his Fresno ranch and vineyard for the Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas. The hotel was sold at auction the following year. 

In the late 1890s Curtis became a theatrical manager, founded the All Star Afro-American Minstrels, and for several years took companies on tour to New Zealand and Australia. Some of the artists he managed accused him of cheating and absconding.  

In 1899, Curtis starred in a film about himself. The 1900 census found him and his wife in Berkeley again, but not for long. In 1910 Curtis portrayed his stock character in the movie “Samuel of Posen.” He ended his days a pauper in Los Angeles. 


This is the second part in a series of articles on Peralta Park. 



Photograph Courtesy of Beautiful Berkeley  

The Peralta Park Hotel near completion in 1889.