By Ken Kramer.
The stuffed shirts of San Francisco sniffed their brandies and scoffed. Looking down their noses and down the coast in 1915, they viewed San Diego as a backwater border town of low society and little cultural promise. How dare we presume to host The Panama California Exposition, when they were already planning to stage an International Exposition of their own!
In San Diego, there were precisely 7 more saloons than churches and religious organizations, and the saloons were required to close on Sunday. There were society galas at The Hotel Del Coronado and the U.S. Grant, but they never made the pages of The San Francisco Chronicle. San Diego’s Hotel St. James was not The St. Francis, but it boasted some of the fastest elevators in the world. The Blue Moon Restaurant was, in its own way, quite trendy and advertised itself as “A Somewhat Different Place To Eat”. Simply put, when it came to sophistication, we were not San Francisco’s equal. No thinking person could have equated San Diego’s entertainment venues or arts offerings to those to be found in the Bay Area, but we were determined to turn around public perception.
In the months leading up to opening day, we renamed our city Streets from First through Twelfth, changing them to Avenues. D street was renamed Broadway, and instantly developed a cachet. The Spreckels Theater opened downtown with precisely 1,915 seats to honor the big year, and delighted this art-starved city with performances by Enrico Caruso, Russian Prima Ballerina Anna Pavlova and an opening night presentation, direct from New York, of the play Bought and Paid For.
1915 was San Diego’s year to shake off its adolescence, and prove we were every bit as good as the City By The Bay. We were giddy in heady company as the Exposition drew visits by Thomas Edison and Henry Ford; speeches by Former Presidents Taft and Roosevelt, a sermon by preacher Billy Sunday, choral works by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and arias by opera diva Ernestine Schumann-Heink. As if it were some kind of barometer of standing in sophisticated society, newspaper accounts excitedly relayed word that a trainload of residents from Pasadena had come to see the show. Even The Liberty Bell was brought to San Diego especially for two days of adoration. The entire event, over 24-months, drew nearly 4-million people to a Park that had been ambitiously transformed by revered New York Architect Bertram Goodhue, into a stunning world-class stage, studded with wondrous buildings in a Spanish Colonial Style.
From the very beginning, our event did not have the same kind of Federal financial support that San Francisco’s enjoyed. But here local citizens, businesses and philanthropists willed San Diego’s 1915 Panama California Exposition into being. That, I submit, is the kind of thing a sophisticated city does. At the end of its event, San Francisco’s Expo structures were leveled, while many of our city’s treasured Balboa Park buildings still stand a century later. Looking back, it was all very breath-taking, and for the 40,000 residents of San Diego, a huge step into the cultural big time. It was also something else. It was elegant. Equal in elegance to anything our disapproving northern neighbor could have dreamed.